Tag Archives: Maryland

Politics Ahead of Budgets

By Barry Rascovar

July 7, 2014 — The $77 million in budget cuts approved last week by the Maryland Board of Public Works mark the first recognition there’s a price to be paid for placing election-year politics ahead of fiscal realities. It won’t be the last spending pullback, either. Budget balancing Maryland has a serious, ongoing imbalance between its high spending habits and its lower than expected revenue receipts. Everyone knew this was coming.

Winter’s Frigid Blow

Much of it is a result of the severe cold weather over the past winter, which devastated sectors of the economy, drove up heating and electric costs and put a severe crimp in job creation.

Yet early this year Gov. Martin O’Malley, with the support of Democratic legislators, introduced a budget for the current fiscal year that was wildly out of sync with prevailing economic conditions.

Gov. Martin O'Malley

Gov. Martin O’Malley

The larger problem, which O’Malley chose not to confront head-on, is that Maryland’s spending isn’t affordable without more rounds of tax increases — or sizable reductions in agency budgets.

The $77 million in cuts approved last week amounts to a small down payment on what is likely to come later.

Maryland’s economy remains stalled, as Comptroller Peter Franchot underlined at last week’s Board of Public Works meeting in the Annapolis State House.

Comptroller Peter Franchot

Comptroller Peter Franchot

Wage growth is near-zero. Sales tax growth is about one-fifth of what it should be in a recovery. Withholding taxes are about two-fifths of the norm for a recovery.

Making matters worse was O’Malley’s failure to use the Great Recession to assess government services and identify cost efficiencies on a grand scale.

Instead, O’Malley simply slowed state government’s rate of growth during hard times. He papered over the need to downsize, shift or reinvent the way non-essential services are delivered.

Troubling Imbalance

At the end of the 2014 General Assembly session in early April, legislative analysts predicted Maryland’s spending would exceed incoming revenue by $236 million for the fiscal year that started July 1.

Ominously, those analysts noted O’Malley’s budget anticipated a whopping 5.2 percent economic growth in this fiscal year and general fund revenue growth of 4.6 percent.

While recent national economic reports for June indicate a stronger recovery in the months ahead, it is doubtful Maryland can reach its rosy revenue projections for this fiscal year.

Expect more spending reductions this winter.

The key question is whether O’Malley confronts that issue or passes the buck to his likely successor, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown

Even before Maryland’s revenue projections turned south, legislative analysts had warned Maryland faces a growing cash shortage that could reach $404 million in the next fiscal year.

It would take an imposing 7.1 percent surge in state tax revenue to wipe out that structural imbalance — or a major retrenchment in state spending, which is highly unlikely.

Growing Cash Shortage?

Given the discouraging outlook that prompted last week’s budget cuts, next fiscal year’s  projected cash shortage of $404 million could grow by leaps and bounds.

O’Malley, though, will continue to “spin” this story in a politically positive way.

Other states — New York New Jersey, Pennsylvania and North Carolina — he notes, are in far worse shape (though we don’t have a handle on how bad the situation really is in Maryland — and won’t till September at the earliest).

O’Malley’s Concerns

The governor wants to put a shine on his Maryland legacy as he moves toward a presidential campaign.

He also wants to keep Maryland’s budget woes on the back burner until Brown is safely elected governor in November.

Republican Larry Hogan Jr. will try to convince voters “the sky is falling.” But the worst news from last winter’s deep freeze is over and the national economy is showing encouraging signs of finally springing back to life.

Larry Hogan Jr.

Larry Hogan Jr.

That is good news for Brown in the short term.

But come December and January, Governor-elect Brown could be faced with an ugly reality — a far deeper state deficit, painful and immediate spending cuts and a budget for the following fiscal year that can’t deliver on his expensive campaign promises.

Read more from Barry Rascovar at www.politicalmaryland.com

Rushing Toward MD’s Primary

By Barry Rascovar for MarylandReporter.com WITH TWO WEEKS to go till Maryland’s June 24 primary for governor, here’s where we stand on the all-important Democratic side.

Televised debates, all three of them, are over, as is the one and only radio debate among Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Attorney General Doug Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur.

Brown (left), Gansler, Mizeur

Anthony Brown (left), Doug Gansler, Heather Mizeur

The good news for Brown: he didn’t make any blunders – though he took a deserved  pounding for ducking the second debate. Brown came across best on the 90-minute WOLB-AM radio confrontation, heard mainly by an early-morning, African-American audience in both the Baltimore and Washington areas.

‘Cool’ vs. ‘Hot’

As Marshall McLuhan pointed out after the first presidential debates (Nixon vs. Kennedy in 1960), radio is a “cool” medium, while television is a “hot” medium.

On radio, people listen more closely and judge candidates on what they say; TV presents viewers with both a visual and an audio image that can be difficult for candidates to reconcile.

Brown clearly isn’t comfortable under harsh TV lights. He’s more at ease before a radio microphone.

WOLB Radio Debate

WOLB Radio Debate

In both the third TV debate and the lone radio debate, Brown harped on achievements of the past eight years and the need to continue progressive reforms. He repeated time and time again, “more work to do” and “we can do better.”

Gansler is separating himself as the lone critic of the O’Malley-Brown years: 40 new or expanded taxes, a machine-like party establishment of special interests seeking a Brown coronation and the need for change in Annapolis.

He won the third debate. He was much more fluent, more relaxed and less hesitant. He made contact directly with his studio audience. His theme: jobs, jobs, jobs.

Turning Negative

Gansler also was combative in trying to bring Brown, the apparent leader in this campaign, down a notch. On TV, he said Brown “has an uncomfortable relationship with the truth.”

On radio, he told listeners Brown and Gov. Martin O’Malley “failed you and failed Baltimore” while Brown “ran away” from Maryland’s embarrassing health exchange debacle.

Attorney General Doug Gansler

Attorney General Doug Gansler

Brown and his camp have not hesitated to make far nastier charges against Gansler in their statements and in their ads.

The third candidate, Mizeur, continues to promote a far-left agenda that appeals to segments of Maryland’s liberal Democratic Party. Her polite, demure attitude, a well-delivered summary of her goals and her refusal to join Brown and Gansler in tit-for-tat criticisms helped her immensely in these debates.

Mizeur: Pro and Con

Of the three, she is the most hostile to businesses and the wealthy. She has excoriated shale-oil fracking, millionaires, chicken farmers, a natural gas export plant in Southern Maryland and any thought of a tax cut for corporations or a reduced estate tax.

Del. Heather Mizeur

Del. Heather Mizeur

She’s in favor of legalized marijuana, universal pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds and three-year-olds, state subsidized child care, a living wage of $16.70 an hour, tax cuts for the middle class, tax breaks for small businesses, an end to income inequality and campaign finance reform.

How she pays for her proposals is an exercise in hype and gross exaggeration.

 

TV Advertising

Because the vast majority of voters don’t watch debates, much will depend on the impact of TV ads.

Brown has the most money to throw into a TV blitz, but Gansler isn’t far behind. Mizeur’s bankroll is dwarfed by the others and thus you won’t see many ads from her.

So far the best commercials belong to Gansler. His silent ad slamming Brown for his debate no-show was unusual and effective in getting viewer attention. His ad in which he casually reads from critical Brown editorial comments in the Washington Post about Brown’s failings in the health exchange disaster is another winner.

Brown’s numerous commercials, meanwhile, are slick and well conceived but lack potency. The ads avoid specifics and stick to feel-good generalities.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown

While Gansler may be winning the ad war and gaining in later debates, he’s got an uphill road ahead of him.

Among Democrats, the governor remains fairly popular, which rubs off on his lieutenant governor. Gansler is bucking nearly the entire Democratic Party establishment at a time when the call for change is coming mainly from Republicans.

His hopes are further diminished by Mizeur’s presence. The anti-Brown, anti-O’Malley, “it’s time for a change” vote will be split between Gansler and Mizeur.

This is reflected in the latest poll (Baltimore Sun, June 8), with Brown’s two competitors making a close two-person race a runaway (Brown: 41 percent, Gansler: 20 percent, Mizeur: 15 percent.)

Attorney General’s Race

Meanwhile, in the other contested statewide Democratic race, state Sen. Brian Frosh is gaining momentum as state Del. Jon Cardin keeps slipping.

Attorney General candidates Jon Cardin (Left) and Brian Frosh

Del. Jon Cardin (left) and Sen. Brian Frosh

What Cardin has going for him is his last name. He’s counting on voter confusion and the popularity of his Uncle Ben, Maryland’s United States senator. But Jon Cardin is proving his own worst enemy. He missed 75 percent of committee votes in the legislature this year — an inexcusable act. Frosh is using this misstep to show that Jon C. is not ready for prime time.

More Criticism

An extraordinary coalition of former state senators and a councilwoman from Cardin’s own Jewish community in northwest Baltimore County and city condemned Jon C.’s failure to take his legislative duties seriously. They slammed his “lackluster career.”

Then Jon Cardin promoted an endorsement from a Baltimore-based rap artist — only to discover Ski Money is facing multiple charges of human trafficking. The candidate’s later denunciation and rejection of that endorsement just drew attention to Jon Cardin’s stumble.

Even worse, the No.1 Democrat in Maryland, Martin O’Malley, attended a Frosh event in Greenbelt and warmly endorsed the Montgomery County senator. The party’s big guns are lining up solidly behind Frosh.O'Malley endorses Frosh The state senator also has a growing advantage in fund-raising. He received strong endorsements from the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun.

While early polls showed Cardin with a large lead, his odds of winning are rapidly diminishing.

Jon C. may yet gain the Democratic nomination, but only if people go to the polls believing they’re voting for the other Cardin.

Barry Rascovar’s writings can also be found at his blogsite, www.politicalmaryland.com.

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Racing: Green MD Industry

 

By Barry Rascovar

June 2, 2014 — Not far from my home, down a steep patch of Greenspring Avenue on the way to Glyndon, lies a glorious environmental sight — and a stark contrast between the past and present for Maryland’s horse industry.

Descending into the Worthington Valley, a broad, green panorama of horse farms reveals itself.  This is prime Maryland horse country.

As the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes approaches, with the best chance in decades to witness racing’s elusive Triple Crown for three-year-old thoroughbreds, it’s appropriate to review the state of Maryland racing.

Sagamore’s Renaissance

The vast 530-acre thoroughbred spread known as Sagamore Farm, restored to its earlier glory by UnderArmour founder Kevin Plank, dominates Worthington Valley, highlighted by Sagamore’s white painted fences and corporate training center mansion atop a distant ridge.

Sagamore Farm, training track

Sagamore Farm, training track

Far to the right lies Hunt Valley and the blueblood horse farms that have hosted the grueling, four-mile Maryland Hunt Cup timber race for 92 of its 118 years.

In the foreground, though, lies beautiful but empty barns on 100 acres of land. Their sad fate underlines the fragility of Maryland’s horse industry, just as Sagamore Farm and the Maryland Hunt Cup illustrate the strength of the industry’s future.

The empty barns used to have a sign on its gates that read “Maryland Stallion Station.” Prominent horse breeders joined together in 2003 to make the Worthington Valley once again famous for its thoroughbred champions.

Maryland Stallion Station

Maryland Stallion Station

What the owners didn’t count on was Maryland’s resistance to doing what neighboring states had done to resuscitate their horse industries: legalize slot machines and dedicate a small portion of the proceeds to rebuilding race  tracks and dramatically boosting purses — the lifeblood of the industry.

Horse owners quickly recognized there was money to be made in Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania as purses soared at tracks in those states. They took their horses and left Maryland.

Meanwhile, politicians in Annapolis ignored the obvious trend and resisted legalizing slots.

Declining Racing Industry 

As a result, Maryland’s horse industry spiraled deeper and deeper into decline.

At its worst point, the state lost 80 percent of its stallions, mares and foals because of the poor business climate here.

Finally, the industry’s distress became so obvious Gov. Martin O’Malley asked his Labor Secretary, Tom Perez (now U.S. Secretary of Labor) to study the state of racing in 2007.

Tom Perez

Tom Perez

His impartial and persuasive report laid out the facts.

Citing a University of Maryland study, he wrote, “The horse racing and breeding industry in Maryland accounts for over 9,000 jobs, and has an economic impact of more than $600 million.”

“A decade ago Maryland led its neighbors in handles and purses — the amount bet on races and the prize money awarded to winners — and the number of horses being bred. These statistics are the lifeblood of the racing industry. But the introduction of slot machines in Delaware and West Virginia has resuscitated and revitalized the previously moribund horse racing and breeding industries in those states. As a result, Maryland’s horse racing and horse breeding industries have been placed at a distinct competitive disadvantage.”

Perez continued, “The economic impact of slots on the horse racing industries in surrounding states is undeniable. Slots have generated thousands of jobs in these areas, and are subsidizing other priorities, such as education and transportation. In fact, Marylanders playing slots in Delaware and West Virginia are subsidizing education and other priorities in these states to the tune of approximately $150 million per year.”

Out of State Competition

The fate of Maryland Stallion Station confirmed Perez’s findings. It couldn’t compete against breeding farms in neighboring states offering generous racing subsidies.

Who would want to breed valuable race horses in Maryland when the purses, coupled with large bonuses for locally bred thoroughbreds, were growing huge in nearby states, thanks to slots revenue?

Maryland Stallion Station barn, 2005

Maryland Stallion Station barn, 2005

The owners of Maryland Stallion Station made a valiant effort, but they couldn’t overcome the state’s lack of favorable business conditions.

They relocated their stud animals in 2008 and went out of business.

Revived By Slots

Eventually, with the booming success of Maryland Live! Casino at Arundel Mills, the state’s racing slowly started to rebound, just as Perez suggested.

Sagamore’s fortunes are proof that this formula — tying a percentage of slots revenue to the racing industry — works. Both Sagamore’s breeding and training businesses are on an upward track.

The optimism of horse owners, trainers and breeders on Preakness Day illustrated the turnaround that is taking place.

Most encouraging has been the breeding uptick at Sagamore Farm in Baltimore County, Bonita Farm and Country Life Farm in Harford County, the Rooney family’s Shamrock Farms in Carroll County and the impressive Northview Stallion Station in Cecil County.

Northview Stallion Station

Northview Stallion Station

But danger still lurks in Annapolis.

Politicians already are talking about reneging on their agreement with the racing industry and stripping away some of the slots money reviving the industry. They want the money for other, more politically appealing programs.

What these politicians ignore is the giant environmental benefits flowing from a strong racing industry. They should review Tom Perez’s findings:

Green Racing

“Horse farms occupy over 685,000 acres of land, roughly 10 percent of Maryland’s open space. Horse racing and horse breeding go hand in hand. Preserving a viable horse racing industry helps maintain horse farms and protect open space. . . .

“The importance of reviving horse racing and breeding in Maryland extends beyond merely supporting the industry. Every breeder that can’t sustain his or her business because of a declining industry means one more farm that might succumb to development pressures. Growth in Maryland will continue, and without a vibrant horse breeding sector those open spaces could become prime real estate for developers.”

Perez noted that Maryland’s agricultural land is disappearing. Between 1970 and 2005, the state lost one million acres of farms to development — one-third of the state’s farmland.

“Retaining Maryland’s agricultural land is critical to the environment, and particularly the health of the Chesapeake Bay,” he wrote.

Sprawl Buffer

“The key to keeping farmers on their land is ensuring their operations remain economically viable. . . . As Maryland’s population grows and development pressures force farmers out, protecting the state’s horse industry becomes more and more critical to sustaining the legacy of rural Maryland and maintaining a healthy environment.”

Perez concluded that the racing industry “is an important economic engine for Maryland, and provides an important buffer against sprawl development.”

The governor’s office reports that Maryland’s horse industry today is valued at $5.6 billion. The horses are worth $714 million. The farms employ 28,000 people.

It also notes this surprising fact: Maryland contains twice as many horses per square mile as Virginia, Texas, California or Kentucky.

This state’s racing traditions run deep as symbolized by the large crowds drawn annually to the Preakness and the Maryland Hunt Cup.

Maryland Hunt Cup timber race

Maryland Hunt Cup timber race

After Baltimore’s Horseshoe Casino opens late this summer, more slots dollars will flow into thoroughbred and standardbred racing purses. When the MGM Grand Casino opens in about two years at National Harbor, still more revenue will come racing’s way.

What lies ahead could turn into a grand revival for horse racing in Maryland.

Necessary Upgrades

Of course, that will depend on the ability of track owners to use slots revenue for major modernization upgrades that appeal to 21st century sports lovers.

The industry also must find a way to underwrite year-round racing. (There will be no Maryland racing at all this summer.)

Maryland’s political leaders have a responsibility to foster the growth of horse farms and high-quality racing in places like the Worthington Valley.

It’s great for the environmentl, strengthens an important agricultural business and is a sport worth saving.

Worthington Valley

Bucolic Worthington Valley

A prosperous racing industry is a decided plus for citizens of the Free State, one that politicians need to encourage, not discourage, in Annapolis.

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MD’s ‘Empty Lectern’ Debate

By Barry Rascovar

May 28, 2014 –THE MOST IMPORTANT person in the second Maryland governor’s debate didn’t bother to show up.

The empty lectern (center)

The empty lectern (center), WBFF governors debate

An empty lectern replaced Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown as the focal point of last evening’s dialogue between two other Democratic contenders, Attorney General Doug Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur.

Brown was a no-show, as expected.

It robbed the event of its potential to highlight the differences among the three.

Brown’s Strategy

Brown, the frontrunner, played it safe. How many people will remember that he ducked this confrontation when they vote June 24?

Yet it was a huge disservice to Marylanders and an indication of the arrogance and hubris likely to accompany Brown if he makes it into the governor’s office.

Both Gansler and Mizeur profited from Brown’s absence. Anyone who tuned in will pick between the two and ignore the man who ran away from this debate.

Given that the debate was on WBFF-TV, which slants its news reporting to reflect the owner’s conservative views, the audience likely contained a lot of center-right Democrats who could play a key role on Election Day.

Plus for Gansler?

That should be good news for Gansler, who is clearly the centrist candidate in this primary contest.

While he didn’t wow anyone with his halting debating skills and less than scintillating campaign pitch, Gansler came across as experienced, thoughtful and a take-charge official.

Attorney General Doug Gansler

Attorney General Doug Gansler

He criticized the O’Malley-Brown administration’s 40 tax increases and Brown’s refusal to apologize for the state’s health exchange debacle that Gansler termed “a national embarrassment.”

Mizeur’s Winning Ways

Mizeur won the night’s politeness and demeanor award while sticking to her far-left positions on issues.

She came across as a classic tax-and-spend liberal with few realistic financing plans. She is the candidate least likely to succeed in wooing businesses (and jobs) to Maryland.

Mizeur is a different kind of gubernatorial candidate with lots of imaginative ideas. People like the thought of a different approach.

Del. Heather Mizeur

Del. Heather Mizeur

But is she ready to manage a $39 billion budget and a work force of 80,000? Her resume is sorely lacking in executive experience.

Lessons Learned

What did we learn from the ‘Empty Lectern’ Debate? Not much that wasn’t known before. Gansler says he’d be The Jobs Governor:

  • He’s courageously supporting a lower corporate tax to make Maryland competitive with Virginia in the hunt for new businesses.
  • He says he’s identified $1.5 billion he can cut from the state budget.
  • He favors merit pay for teachers.
  • He favors the Cove Point natural gas export terminal as a jobs generator.
  • He favors natural gas hydraulic fracturing as long as studies show it is safe.
  • He opposes legalizing marijuana.

WBFF governor debate Mizeur says she’s The Champion For The Middle Class.

  • She wants across-the-board pay hikes for teachers.
  • And a living wage for low-income workers.
  • And a fully funded pension program for state workers and teachers.
  • And universal pre-kindergarten programs.
  • And a business tax cut for small businesses.
  • And a tax cut for middle-class families.
  • And affordable child care, after-school programs and summer programs for kids.
  • She views natural gas hydraulic fracturing as a cardinal environmental sin.
  • She places the Cove Point export terminal in that same class.
  • She wants to legalize and tax marijuana.

There’s nothing surprising in any of that.

Upcoming Events

Now it’s on to the final TV debate on June 2 that Brown says he’ll attend, plus a morning radio debate the next day few will hear.

It’s been a disappointing campaign season, capped now by Brown’s in-your-face no-show.

This doesn’t help voters make up their minds.

++++++++++

AS IF THE incomplete governor’s debate wasn’t enough, the day’s activities also included a three-way televised discussion by the lieutenant governor running mates.

It demonstrated the irrelevancy of that office.

Not only was the event aired Tuesday morning following the Memorial Day weekend — when nearly everyone was tending to other chores — it was broadcast on a Washington-area news cable station whose viewers live mainly in Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Going Out of State

To compound the insult, the Maryland candidates debated one another in NewsChannel 8’s Northern Virginia studio.

Thus a Maryland election debate took place at the out-of-state studio of an obscure cable station at a time when few were watching. Moreover, those who did tune in likely can’t vote in Maryland.

Isn’t time to recognize  Maryland made a mistake when it resurrected the office of lieutenant governor in 1970 after a 102-year hiatus?

The office has no constitutional powers.

It is a huge waste of tax dollars. (Brown earns $125,000 a year and has a staff of nine. Virginia’s lieutenant governor earns $36,321. Quite a contrast.)

Death Watch

Maryland lieutenant governors serve as surrogate campaigners and regurgitate the governor’s position on issues.

The occupant of this office is around simply in case the governor dies or becomes incapacitated.

Why not abolish the office, designate a line of succession and streamline state government?

It’s foolish to continue this charade in which we pretend that selecting a lieutenant governor really matters.

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MD Higher Ed: Kurt’s In, Brit’s Out

By Barry Rascovar

May 19, 2014 — In 24 hours last week, Maryland higher education underwent a rapid shakeup.

First came the long-expected but deeply regretted retirement announcement of William E. “Brit” Kirwan as top dog at the University System of Maryland.

University System of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan

USM Chancellor Brit Kirwan

Then came the surprise announcement former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is returning to his birth city as president of the University of Baltimore.

Kurt’s in; Brit’s out.

50-Year Academic Career

There’s no way to put a happy face on Kirwan’s retirement.

He’s been Mr. Higher Education in Maryland. Except for five years running a little ol’ rustbelt university called Ohio State, Kirwan dedicated his 50-year academic career to UM.

This former math professor staged a triumphal return from Ohio State as the popular choice to turn the UM system into a first-rate collegiate conglomerate. He largely succeeded, leaving USM with an international reputation.

The Chronicle of Higher Education rightly called the congenial Kirwan “a longtime national figure in public higher education.”

From Mayor to Dean

Schmoke, meanwhile, didn’t leave Baltimore in 1999 on an upbeat note.

His three terms as mayor of a troubled, aging urban city received middling marks. Progress largely stalled.

His place in the city’s history fades compared to his do-it-now predecessor (William Donald Schaefer) and his charismatic successor (Martin O’Malley).

The quiet, thoughtful Schmoke was better suited to academia.

New University of Baltimore President Kurt Schmoke

New UB President Kurt Schmoke

He found his niche as dean of the law school at Howard University (2003-2012), where he restored the school’s diminished reputation. During a time of flux at Howard, he then provided stability in the dual roles of general counsel and interim provost.

Now he’s been handed academia’s brass ring — a college presidency.

Bogomolny’s Contribution

Schmoke is fortunate he’s following the transformative Robert Bogomolny, who showed that a good manager with vision can put a struggling university on an upward trajectory. New, standout mid-town buildings. A full four-year undergraduate curriculum. A higher profile among Baltimore schools.

Continuing that momentum should be easy for Schmoke, given his wide name recognition among city elites, his genial demeanor and his understanding of what makes Baltimore tick.

The new UB president may have more difficulty adapting to the sharp elbows and intense in-fighting among leaders at the 11-campus, 154,000-student University System of Maryland.

Schmoke fared well at Howard, a private college with 10,000 students. UB has only 6,500 students and is part of a huge public university closely scrutinized by Annapolis politicians and overseen by a chancellor.

Kirwan’s Achievements

That’s where Kirwan could have provided strong support and guidance.

He kept simmering intra-campus disputes under control and steered feuding parties toward collegial middle ground. He balanced competing interests at those institutions while demanding improved academic performance.University System of Maryland

Kirwan embarked on an efficiency and innovation campaign, under pressure from the Republican Ehrlich administration, leading to over $400 million in savings. This made tuition hold-downs possible under the Democratic O’Malley administration without harming classroom quality.

The USM Chancellor championed broader use of less expensive internet courses, integrating computers into traditional lecture courses, eliminating non-essential offerings and revamping math, science and engineering programs.

Kirwan knew how to communicate with powerful regents, governors, legislators, competing college presidents, students and the public.

Who Comes Next? 

Finding a replacement with that same demeanor and collaborative mindset won’t be easy, but at least two USM presidents ought to receive strong consideration — Dr. Jay Perman at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and Freeman Hrabowski at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Without Kirwan around, Schmoke will have to learn through experience that being a second-tier college president in a massive university system like USM isn’t all upbeat.

Exiting Chancellor Kirwan and UB President Robert Bogomolny

Exiting this summer: Chancellor Brit Kirwan (L) and UB President Robert Bogomolny (R)

The system’s largest and most important campuses, UMB and the flagship College Park institution, get most of the money and attention — deservedly so.

Meanwhile, a surging Towson University, with three times more students and massive campus improvements, is upstaging UB and attracting many of the best prospective UB undergraduates.

At the same time, a federal lawsuit by historically black institutions over program duplication could put a crimp in UB’s plans to offer popular areas of study.

Whither Higher Education?

Public higher education in Maryland is littered with question marks at the moment.

It’s becoming too expensive. Yet demand grows for more and better career-path studies. Fund-raising is difficult because of the system’s heavy state subsidy.

Competition among area institutions, both public and private (UMBC, Towson, UB, UMB, Coppin, Morgan State, Loyola, Notre Dame, Hopkins, Goucher, Stevenson), is intense.

Schmoke will have his hands full at the University of Baltimore.

So will Brit Kirwan’s successor as chancellor of the state’s university system.

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Defending Joe Vallario

By Barry Rascovar

May 6, 2014 — THERE’S NO DENYING Del. Joseph F. Vallario, Jr. of Prince George’s County is a stingy gatekeeper when it comes to loosening Maryland’s civil and criminal laws.

But is the gruff chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis really the scourge of the legislature, the anti-Christ intent on malevolently doing in all liberal causes?

Judiciary Committee Chair Del. Joe Vallario

Judiciary Committee Chair Del. Joe Vallario

A recent op-ed in The Baltimore Sun by Sidney Rocke, an attorney with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, accuses the conservative Vallario of being a one-man, “dictatorial” wrecking crew — especially on bills Rocke favors.

It’s true Vallario is inordinately protective of criminal defense attorneys. He’s one himself and he takes a hard line on bills that might narrow their legal practices — and their income — or make it more difficult for defense attorneys to win their cases. “Let ’em go Joe” is what Rocke says staffers call Vallario.

But to blame the defeat of liberalizing legislation solely on Vallario is a misreading of the inner workings of the Maryland General Assembly.

Serving Legislative Leaders

Vallario has performed a useful role for legislative leaders over the past 21 years.

He disposes of bills that are too sweeping, too revolutionary, too inflammatory, too impractical, too poorly thought out, too poorly drafted or ahead of their time.

Yet he does so with a majority vote from others on his Judiciary Committee. The panel is intentionally configured to act as the General Assembly’s execution squad.

Every legislature needs such a panel, where the presiding officer sends well-meaning but unrealistic crime and punishment bills for burial.

Intervention Yields Results

Sometimes important bills get the same treatment. Then the House speaker or the governor steps in to urge Vallario and other committee members to yield on bills such as marijuana decriminalization or handgun control. The pressure usually works.

It’s an old story in Annapolis, something Rocke neglected to include in his angry op-ed. Killer committees have been around a long time.

Remember Joe Owens, the highly conservative Judiciary Committee chairman from liberal Montgomery County?

Abominable ‘No’ Man

He dominated that committee for 14 years, earning the sobriquets “Killer Joe” and “the Abominable ‘No’ Man.”

Owens helped defeat or delay all sorts of liberal reforms on gun control, drunk driving, child support and victim rights. One year, 61 percent of the bills sent to his committee bit the dust.

Joe Owens was a colorful and controversial figure: direct, open and honest.

“Let’s face it,” he once said, “the majority of bills we get should not be passed. . . [T]his is not a little contest. . . When we pass a bill, four million people have to live by it.”

Crusty But Lovable

Over in the Senate, irascible Walter M. Baker of Cecil County served the same role for 17 years chairing the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Crusty, curmudgeonly and a determined conservative thinker, Baker had a drawer filled with idealistic reform bills he side-tracked. “The only good bill is a dead bill,” he used to quip to the entertainment of his colleagues.

Former Sen. Walter M. Baker

Former Sen. Walter M. Baker

Still, Baker conducted fair and deliberate hearings. He yielded when pressed to do so by the Senate president or governor while always defending his belief in limited government.

Political Counterweights

Often over the past 50 years conservatives chairing Maryland’s judicial panels have served as counterweights.

Vallario’s proclivity for killing bills balanced the liberal attitude of Sen. Brian Frosh’s Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair Brian Frosh

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair Brian Frosh

Owens’ “killer committee” balanced the liberal mindset of Sen. Joe Curran, who chaired Judicial Proceedings for 16 years.

Earlier in Curran’s tenure running Judicial Proceedings he was paired against another conservative legal thinker chairing the House Judiciary Committee, Thomas Hunter Lowe of Talbot County — who later kept a firm hand on that panel as Speaker of the House.

House Speaker Thomas Hunter Lowe

House Speaker Thomas Hunter Lowe

To blame the demise of reform legislation on Joe Vallario is to miss the bigger picture.

Legislating in the State House is a delicate balancing act.

Senators and delegates come together in Annapolis with 188 points of view. They represent different parts of the state whose citizens hold diverse perspectives on the same issue.

Agreement Isn’t Easy

No wonder so many bills fail to win majority approval. Passing legislation is an art. Getting a green light from the Judiciary Committee takes lots of patience, negotiation, coalition-building and tactical smarts. It won’t happen just because a bill is well-intentioned.

Vallario faces a difficult challenge running for reelection this year in a new, unfamiliar northern Prince George’s County district. He may not return. Frosh definitely won’t be back: He’s running for attorney general.

We could end up with two new chairmen of these important committees. One of them might become the next stingy gatekeeper.

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Garrett County’s Isolation — Responses

By Barry Rascovar

May 4, 2014 — Who woulda thunk it? A column on Garrett County’s isolation in mountainous, far Western Maryland produced a tsunami of responses — both pro and con — including one from an offended gubernatorial wannabe’s staffer and another from an offended O’Malley administration.

And here I thought I was saying something nice for a change!

Garrett County

A few local residents felt I was too kind in my admiration; others appreciated that someone from the big city three hours away noticed there’s more out to Garrett than state forests, ski lifts and a man-made lake.

The governor’s folks didn’t like being accused of “benign neglect” when it comes to promoting and aiding the state’s most decidedly Republican county. The administration’s opus, though, inadvertently proved my point.

The letter noted that O’Malley has poured $70 million into Garrett’s roads since 2007. There’s another $10 million coming this year, too — nearly all of it to improve state highways in the county.

The Rest of the Story

Here are some facts left out of the O’Malley administration’s letter: Garrett received 20 percent less in local transportation aid, 15 percent less in recreation and natural resources aid, 4 percent less in library aid and 2 percent less in education aid from Annapolis this year — even as the overall state budget grew by 4.3 percent.

So much for the O’Malley-Brown administration’s claim of putting Garrett County on its priority list.

Indeed, there’s scant evidence either O’Malley or Brown have thought much about helping Garrett boost its economic potential as a recreation wonderland.

Ever hear about the governor or lieutenant governor making news by vacationing at Deep Creek Lake or at the Wisp ski resort?

Deep Creek Lake

Deep Creek Lake

Ever catch O’Malley or Brown cutting commercials that promote Garrett as a retreat for families who like outdoor activities?

To them, it’s a forgotten, Republican part of Maryland not worth their time.

Wisp ski resort

Meanwhile, a spokesman for businessman Larry Hogan Jr. wrote to protest the column’s assertion that no candidate for governor cares about Garrett County.

“Western MD is absolutely a priority for Hogan,” says Adam Dubitsky of the Republican candidate’s campaign staff, “which is why he visited shortly after announcing and will be back again. . . .  Larry has repeatedly criticized Annapolis elites for ignoring Marylanders who live west of Frederick City and especially those who reside west of Sideling Hill.”

Fracking Can Be Fractious

Other readers took issue with the column’s concern that overly strict state regulations could doom hopes for an economic boost tied to drilling for natural gas in Garrett County using hydraulic fracturing techniques, better known as “fracking.”

One resident wrote, “I live in Garrett county and do not want fracking here. Don’t be too quick to judge.”

Here’s another: “Thank you so much for your article about Garrett County. . .  in most areas you ‘hit the nail on the head’.  However, many in the county do not want fracking, many are concerned about the impact on our tourist industries including the lake and the many local state parks. . . .  noise and water pollution are the major concerns.  Fracking is a big, noisy business with big trucks and constant disruption.  I know that simplifies a problem. . .  but it is a concern, as well as a drop in the property values.  After living near a natural gas storage pumping site for 25 years. . .  the traffic and noise are an impact on daily living and enjoyment of property, or small acreage.  Just sayin’. . . Thank you for ‘listening!’ ”

A resident of Lonaconing wrote: “Very interesting article, although a couple minor errors, plus, I wanted to give you a little additional insight. . .

“First, Garrett Co is not the only county that will benefit from fracking. . . . Allegany County will also. . . western Allegany County (the George’s Creek valley) also sits over the Marcellus Shale reserve.

“Secondly, as far as gubernatorial candidates. . . when [Doug] Gansler did his Western Maryland tour, he only went as far as Cumberland (Allegany Co.). . . He never touched Garrett. . . Hogan is the only candidate I know of that’s gone to Garrett for a political visit. . .

“Other than that, nice article. . . nice to get a little focus up this way.”

Community College Guarantee

Here’s another response concerning Garrett County’s guarantee of a community college education for its high school graduates:

“As a Western Marylander, I appreciated this column. I thought you would be interested to know that, inspired in part by the Garrett County Commissioners’ decision to pay for community college for Garrett students, the Allegany County Commissioners have dedicated most of the revenue they receive from the new Rocky Gap Casino to paying for local students to attend Allegany College of Maryland and Frostburg State University. In discussions I heard, they talked about both the economic development benefit of having a better-educated populace, as well as the ability to keep our young people from having to leave the county for opportunity.”

From the president of Garrett College, Rick MacLennan, came this comment:

“Thank you for your recognition of the County/College partnership.  Existence of the County scholarship program was a significant variable in my decision to accept the presidency (and yank my family across the country from the state of Washington) in 2010.

“It was very nice meeting you—come back and see us again.”

 

Garrett Co. MD

Garrett County (in pink)

 

Others didn’t see it that way. Here’s a correspondence from Grantsville:

“I liked reading it, but I think you drank the Cool-Aid a bit too heavily! I have only lived out here for 6 years, so I hardly qualify as a resident let alone a local. I am a retired software engineer and teach at Garrett College (one course in computer science).  Some observations that I have gleaned:

  1. The average Garrett Scholarship student is ill-prepared for much of anything out of high school.  90% going to Garrett College have to take remedial math and English! . . . It may be that those going to other institutions are better-prepared, but I suspect it is self-selection rather than ability.
  2. Of my students, I have lost about 20% after the first week, 60% by the mid-terms, and 20% will pass. . . I am extremely lenient with no dings for late homework, open book and unlimited time for tests, etc. and still see only a couple of students get through the semester with good grades!
  3. The primary school system does not seem to adequately provide for vocational training. . . I suspect a lot of students should be pushed toward building trades, communications, wind turbine maintenance, etc.
  4. A lot of Garrett’s problems are self-inflicted.  There is a lot of NIMBYism that is often misplaced.  For instance, the objections to zoning prevent any useful regulation of land use including fracking, wind turbines, suburban sprawl, etc. . . .

“On the positive side:

  1. The roads are incredibly well-maintained, especially in the winter.
  2. The temperatures are about 10F lower than certainly Baltimore and even Cumberland (more like 8F there).
  3. Services are adequate and Pittsburgh, Johnstown, Morgantown, or Altoona (or even Frederick, D.C., or Baltimore) are a reasonable distance.
  4. Arts are OK — I . . . travel back to Frederick weekly to play in the Frederick Symphony because there is nothing close even at Frostburg University. We do have some arts at Frostburg, Cumberland, GLAF [Garrett Lake Arts Festival], and Music at Penn Alps. . . .
  5. The fall is fantastic!  Winter is a real winter (if you like that — if not, don’t come out here!)”

Missing Key Points

Here’s a different perspective from a Garrett resident:

“The article totally misses several key facts . . .

“Garrett County (GC) residents are partially responsible for their political isolation. They lean so far right that ordinary (above and below middle class citizens) hardly ever speak out regarding their concerns about important issues. . . . .

“The lack of public outcry has caused a severe excommunication of area residents. Since they don’t raise their voice, it leaves only wealthy business owners to push political ideas. This has turned Garrett County into a mecca for minimum wage. Our leaders complain that families don’t stay in the area, yet college educated people are left working at Lowe’s or Wisp, for a scant $ 7.25 per hour, because our local government has done nothing to address wage inequality. . . .

“While the state has certainly been unfair to the county, county government has done nothing but benefit a few select business owners, while largely ignoring the struggling working population.”

That’s a portion of the responses to my rather mild column.

Folks speak their mind in Garrett County, though they do so with extreme politeness. I found it a neighborly place that isn’t given sufficient attention by the powers in Annapolis. The citizens of that remote mountain county deserve better.

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The Political Isolation of Garrett County MD

By Barry Rascovar

April 21, 2014–There is nowhere in Maryland more isolated and cut off from the rest of the state than Garrett County.

Distance (200 miles uphill from Baltimore) and the Alleghany Mountains present formidable barriers for the hardy souls who inhabit the state’s western-most county.

Garrett County-map of state                                                       Isolated Garrett County (in red)

It is a large, forested county with prime tourist attractions in the summer (Deep Creek Lake) and winter (Wisp ski resort).

But its tiny population, not surprisingly, is shrinking. Help from Annapolis has been modest at best.

Only Pittsburgh TV News

Here’s how bad the situation is for Garrett residents: They are considered part of the Pittsburgh metropolitan census area rather than the Cumberland census tract. The only news they get from cable TV is from Pittsburgh.

They see plenty of TV ads about Pennsylvania’s heated race for governor but not a peep about Maryland’s coming elections.

Only the recent intervention of the internet had allowed Garrett citizens to keep in touch with news from Baltimore and Annapolis on a timely basis.

Adding to the county’s isolation is a political reality: Garrett is overwhelmingly Republican. Democrats are outnumbered 2-1. The mountain politics practiced there are decidedly conservative and at odds with the ruling liberal Democratic majority in the megalopolis far to the east.

Speaking “Out West”

I ventured “out west” this past week to address the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce. Due to a late-arriving bout of laryngitis, those packed into a conference room at Wisp had to listen to my croaking, cracking voice. Their patience and tolerance were impressive.

Democratic (and Republican) voters in this county of 30,000 souls will be casting their ballots with scant information about the statewide candidates. No Democratic candidate for attorney general or governor is going to devote limited resources and time to educate Garrett voters.

So these mountain voters are pretty much on their own learning about the candidates. Of the three Democrats running for governor, only Attorney General Doug Gansler seems to offer a ray of political moderation. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown knows little about the county and will continue the beneign neglect policy followed by the O’Malley administration toward this small, conservative, Republican county.

On the Republican side, neither Harford County Executive David Craig nor businessman Larry Hogan Jr. of Anne Arundel County are targeting Garrett as a priority. How voters gather data for an informed election-day decision is a bit baffling.

Garrett County

Despite its isolation from the rest of the state, Garrett has much to teach those living on the other side of the Eastern Continental Divide.

Only in conservative Garrett have elected officials taken the lead in making sure their children receive a college education.

Every Garrett high school graduate knows the county will pick up the cost (after grants and scholarships have been applied) to guarantee college study or training at Garrett’s community college.

Garrett College Offerings

That small institution, with a main campus and three outreach centers, has developed a reputation for its programs in “Adventure Sports;” natural resources and wildlife technology, and business and information technology.

This is an aggressive, pro-active plan other Maryland counties should emulate. Government ensures full tuition payment for any Garrett high school graduate. In Maryland, that’s revolutionary.

Garrett’s leaders are providing their youth with skill sets needed to man tomorrow’s plants and offices. Government is playing a pivotal role in developing a local workforce that makes economic development appealing.

Garrett County map

That may not fit the mold of a “conservative” government, but it is a practical, real-life recognition that government is there to help people, not erect barriers to their success.

That same mind-set is evident in the kinds of individuals Garrett sends to Annapolis. Yes, these are conservative thinkers. Yes, they are rock-ribbed Republicans. But Garrett’s mountain life adds a bit of cooperative pragmatism to the mix.

Both Del. Wendell Beitzel and Sen. George Edwards are hard-core conservatives. They also are realists. They understand they are vastly outnumbered by Democrats and that taking rigidly ideological positions in total opposition to the Democratic majority will get them nowhere.

They are willing to collaborate and compromise on many issues. They understand their county’s many needs. They also understand that Annapolis works best when delegates and senators try to bridge the political gap through dialogue and finding common cause.

Collaboration Pays Off

Edwards and Beitzel work with Democrats. It pays off in small ways that mean much back home. In the most recent legislative session, Garrett took home an extra $464,000 for its schools, which suffer unfairly from a state aid formula that penalizes counties with shrinking school populations.

That’s a victory for common sense and the two legislators’ ability to show their colleagues that a real need exists for extra school assistance.

On other issues, Garrett’s politicians are simply outnumbered. Garrett is the one county that could benefit substantially from shale-oil hydraulic fracturing. But the O’Malley administration seems ready to impose the toughest “fracking” regulations in the country. That may be overkill.

The net result will be to scare off drilling companies, which already have flooded into Pennsylvania and Ohio. Garrett’s natural resources will be left untapped and its landowners will be denied an economic benefit that could give the county a much-needed economic boost.

Where’s O’Malley?

The O’Malley administration’s hostility toward fracking and other business development programs that involve environmental issues has left Garrett in a precarious position. Its economic issues aren’t being addressed by the governor.

There is scant attention paid to finding ways to reunite Garrett citizens with the rest of Maryland. Garrett’s economic needs just aren’t high on O’Malley’s priority list.

Maybe things will change with a new administration in Annapolis. But don’t count on it.

What Garrett could use is another William Donald Schaefer in the governor’s mansion, a chief executive who identifies with the state’s most isolated and needy jurisdictions and who comes into office with a “do it now” attitude.

Sadly, politicians like Schaefer don’t come along often. Then again, perhaps the next governor will seize the moment to show that he understands the importance of lending more of a helping hand to Maryland’s western-most county.

Barry Rascovar can be reached through his blog-site, www.politicalmaryland.com, or at brascovar@hotmail.com.

MD’s Obamacare Fiasco Continues

By Barry Rascovar

March 3, 2014 – HOW HIGH will it go? How much more will it cost the O’Malley-Brown administration to fix or totally replace the dysfunctional online health insurance system that it bragged about until it crashed on Day One?

It already is the most costly debacle in state history.

MD Healthcare Connection

MD Healthcare Connection

None of the state’s options are appetizing.  Meanwhile, the problems keep mounting, the latest being $30 million in extra taxpayer expenses due to the computer software’s inability to identify recipients no longer eligible for free Medicaid insurance.

Just fixing this deeply flawed software will cost untold tens of millions of dollars. Moving to a new, proven software system used in another state could send new spending into the stratosphere. Converting to the federal system has heavy costs as well as severe limitations and the potential for more breakdowns.

Frantic Scramble

“It seems like we’re shooting in the dark,” said an exasperated Del. Addie Eckardt, an Eastern Shore Republican at a hearing last week. She’s right.

State officials have been frantically scrambling ever since the administration’s highly touted online system froze and refused to work as promised on Oct. 1.

Officials are still grasping for straws, hoping the new prime contractor can make lemonade out of this lemon of an IT jalopy.

As for the next step once insurance enrollment closes on March 31, it’s another shot in the dark. Whatever the choice, it will be very expensive.

But will it work? There’s no guarantee that it will.

What a mess.

Loss of Federal Funds

Complicating matters is the looming end of federal largesse. Come 2015, the state is supposed to foot the entire bill for its health insurance exchange.

Maryland has expended $182 million in federal funds with little to show for it.  How much the state will be on the hook after Jan. 1 is another unknown, but we do know it will no longer by Martin O’Malley’s problem.

Gov. Martin O'Malley

Gov. Martin O’Malley on the air

What a distasteful present he’s leaving on his successor’s desk.

It’s baffling that no one running the legislator or the administration is insisting on an immediate and thorough investigation of this historic screw-up. This won’t be viewed favorably by future historians.

Not only is accountability lacking but the O’Malley-Brown administration is running away from this question as fast as it can.

Where’s Anthony Brown?

Note that Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, the widely promoted point man on healthcare reform, continues to be missing in action. Yet he owes the Maryland public a full and frank explanation of his central role in this debacle.

How this affects Brown’s candidacy for governor remains of pivotal importance.

Lt. Gov. Brown testifies on healthcare bill

Lt. Gov. Brown testifies on healthcare bill

Does his “deer caught in headlights” performance disqualify him from serious consideration?

Is this the type of evasiveness on vital issues we can expect from him if he’s elected governor?

Do we want a governor who takes cover when controversies rage and lets underlings take the heat for him?

As Desi Arnaz famously said to Lucy, Brown has got “some ‘splainin’ to do.”

More Sinkholes Ahead?

Meanwhile, legislative committees continue to treat this disgraceful public embarrassment with kid gloves. History will not look kindly on their performance, either.

Digging out of this enormous sinkhole hasn’t been easy. The road ahead looks susceptible to similar perils.

What’s lacking is responsible, accountable leadership. That could become a dominant bone of contention as the June 24 primary approaches.

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Read other columns by Barry Rascovar at www.politicalmaryland.com

MD’s Quarter-Billion Dollar Healthcare Fiasco

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 16, 2014 — ACCOUNTABILITY is sorely lacking when it comes to Maryland’s botched rollout of Obamacare. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown  is nowhere to be found when tough questions are asked. Gov. Martin O’Malley deflects “who’s at fault” inquiries, focusing instead on getting the deeply flawed software partly operable.

The computer system’s main contractor, Noridian Healthcare Solutions, blames its prime subcontractor, who in turn accuses Noridian — a healthcare services company, not an IT firm — of incompetence and conning the state. Given that Noridian has received $65 million to construct a failed system, the subcontractor may have a point.

No Probe Planned

Perhaps Health Secretary Josh Sharfstein will decide in April or May to pull the plug on this IT horror show and start all over with a proven system from another state or join the federal healthcare sign-up exchange. That will cost a pretty penny.

But no one seems in a hurry to find out who screwed up.

Governor O'Malley explains IT fixes to Maryland's healthcare rollout.

Governor O’Malley explains IT fixes to Maryland’s healthcare computer rollout.

Democratic state lawmakers have put off till the summer a Department of Legislative Services analysis of what went wrong. That fits nicely with their support of Brown’s campaign to succeed O’Malley. It will be a long time after the June 24 primary before that DLS report surfaces.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Those same lawmakers tried to ignore the ongoing scandal during the current General Assembly session, but public pressure led to a series of hearings that deal with fixing the system rather than assessing blame. This helps Brown immensely, since he’s most likely to be fingered as the state official who was asleep at the switch.

First District Rep. Andy Harris wants the Department of Health and Human Services to probe Maryland’s waste of a quarter-billion federal dollars on a nearly inoperable system but that’s a political stunt by a tea party Republican who is becoming a nattering nabob of negativism.

U.S. Rep. Andy Harris

U.S. Rep. Andy Harris

Meanwhile, the O’Malley-Brown healthcare exchange continues to limp along with 29,000 Marylanders enrolled in private health plans — just one-sixth of the way to Brown’s previously stated goal of 180,000 and one-fifth of the way toward O’Malley’s 150,000 sign-up goal.

It’s a mess, the worst waste of taxpayer dollars in memory. Yet no one is launching a probe. It’s all being handled with kid gloves and diplomacy so as not to hurt Brown’s election bid or O’Malley’s longshot run for the White House.

Impartial Report

What’s needed is the equivalent of the Preston Report. Back in 1985, Maryland suffered a calamitous collapse of its privately insured savings and loan industry. It cost the state and S&L depositors hundreds of millions of dollars.

Gov. Harry Hughes and lawmakers created the Office of Special Counsel to probe “all aspects of the events” leading up to the S&L crisis. A prestigious Baltimore attorney, Wilbur (Woody) Preston, and a small team of his associates produced a package of legislative reforms and a 450-page report that detailed what went wrong and why. It was a honest and thorough assessment.

Special Counsel Wilbur Preston delivers his S&L report in 1986 (Baltimore Sun)

Special Counsel Wilbur Preston delivers his S&L report in 1986 (Baltimore Sun)

That’s what’s required now — an impartial dissection of this costly embarrassment by someone willing to lay out the facts without worrying about whether the blame falls on the lieutenant governor, the governor, the health secretary or the IT vendors.

How much of the blame belongs to O’Malley, who ultimately is responsible for what goes on in his administration? This was, after all, the most important initiative the state has undertaken in ages.

How much of the blame for this healthcare fiasco sits on Brown’s shoulders?

e’s made a big deal of his leadership on this reform, though he’s recently tried to weasel out by claiming he was only in charge of the legislation (also severely flawed) setting up the exchange.

Brown clearly was a figurehead leader — a general who showed up for the public meetings but left everything to his underlings. Even when he said he learned of the computer snafus, he apparently failed to sound the alarm.

Bleak Outlook  

Since Democratic lawmakers aren’t willing to ask the tough questions before the gubernatorial primary, and the governor has shown no eagerness to create a special panel to probe this scandal, we may never learn enough to reach a conclusion.

Even the DLS report is likely to be scrubbed of any finger-pointing at state leaders. That’s especially true if Brown wins the June 24 Democratic primary. Top Democrats in the legislature will circle the protective wagons around the presumptive governor.

What a mess.

We will glean quite a bit about the exchange’s IT failures from the competing lawsuits filed by Noridian and its prime subcontractor, EngagePoint. But that won’t lift the fog surrounding actions of healthcare exchange leaders, the governor and the lieutenant governor.

Sadly, this is one mystery that may never be solved.