Tag Archives: Maryland

Tale of Two Conventions

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 1, 2016 – The past two weeks have given us remarkable contrasts of political polar opposites and stunning role reversals. This country’s Democratic and Republican presidential nominees haven’t been this far apart in our lifetime.

The contentious and fearful GOP convention might have set back Republican hopes for victory in November, but Democrats’ more unified and positive gathering sent spirits rising. In the process, you may have noticed Maryland delegates played a largely silent role in Cleveland but a highly visible and important role in Philadelphia.

Tale of Two Conventions

That’s no accident. It reflects the state’s mirror-like standing within the two political parties.

Republicans know Maryland is hostile territory for their presidential candidates. This year, Donald Trump is even persona non grata at the Republican governor’s mansion. The national GOP and Trump strategists have largely written off heavily Democratic Maryland.

No wonder Marylanders were missing from the GOP podium – except for ex-Marylander Ben Carson, now residing in Florida, who energized his fans with a typically rambling speech that included a baffling reference tying Hillary Clinton to Lucifer.

Democratic Doings

Compare that to the frequent Marylander sightings at the DNC in Philly: Retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski delivering a rousing farewell from the podium as well as nominating Clinton for president; Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake presiding over the roll call of state delegates; Rep. Elijah Cummings blasting Trump from the podium, and forgotten former Gov. Martin O’Malley starting a political comeback with a slashing, crowd-pleasing anti-Trump denunciation.

The most surprising performance came from O’Malley. Twice before he bombed as a convention speaker. He laid a giant egg as a presidential candidate this year, too.

But his righteous anger and overblown theatrics played well last week (at least with those in the convention hall) as he lit into Trump with vigor and fiery indignation. The partisan crowd roared.

Will this be the break O’Malley needs to re-start his stalled political ambitions? Perhaps. Speculation has O’Malley being named the permanent new DNC chair, where he could continue ramming Trump with gusto.

More likely, the Clinton brain trust will want more than a one-dimensional firebrand, especially since O’Malley delayed endorsing Clinton. His best shot at a prominent Washington post in a Clinton administration is to take up the role of a pent-up surrogate for the Democratic ticket.

That way he could continue the retail politicking he loves and hopefully impress Team Clinton with his sincerity and effectiveness.

Surrogate Heaven

Surrogates will play a big role in Hillary Clinton’s 100-day campaign.

Whereas Donald Trump pretty much is a one-man show featuring The Donald extemporizing at large pep rallies and on Twitter, the Democrats are turning to a star-studded list of Trump attackers: President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Team Clinton is portraying Trump as an imminent danger to American society and world peace, a from-the-guts speaker with no political experience but plenty of wild, unprincipled and impractical ideas.

Democrats start with an unexpected advantage. Dissension within the GOP and Trump’s unpopularity with several traditionally Republican core groups – women and college-educated males – give Clinton a rare opportunity to appeal to a far broader audience than usual for a Democratic nominee.

Trump’s unorthodox and extreme views has left the GOP adrift, no longer anchored to some of the party’s historic planks – free trade; a muscular foreign policy; a hostile attitude toward Russian autocrats; limited government spending; restrictions on presidential powers and respect for traditions and constitutional precedents.

Playing the Reagan Card

No wonder Clinton, in her acceptance speech quoted Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt, both icons of modern-day Republicans. The Democrats’ position on many issues is now more in sync with the GOP’s historic traditions than is Trump’s.

Reagan spoke repeatedly of enlarging the Republican Party’s base to include discontented Democrats and independents. This was his “Big Tent” theme.

Clinton has embraced the Reagan strategy while Trump has opted for an approach that excludes appeals to minority groups – the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. Instead, he is pinning his presidential hopes on winning over vast numbers of discontented white blue-collar voters.

If Trump triumphs, he’ll have to do well across the country among that demographic group, including in Maryland. He’ll have to exceed expectations in the Baltimore region and even the Washington suburbs.

That’s a tall order, especially when Trump’s limited resources aren’t likely to be spent in the Free State. At the moment, he’s targeting pivotal states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Florida. Yet two of these states haven’t gone Republican in a presidential election in over 20 years.

Clinton, meanwhile, may have secured victory in the battleground state of Virginia by choosing Old Dominion Sen. Tim Kaine for her ticket.

Meanwhile, a federal appeals court last week unanimously banned North Carolina’s discriminatory voter ID law, a ruling that may now give Democrats an unexpected bump in that toss-up state.

Yet with over three months still to go, this year’s presidential race remains unpredictable and very much up for grabs. Trump may appear as the underdog, but no one expected him to seize the GOP nomination, either. We’re in for a wild ride between now and early November.

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Trump All the Way

By Barry Rascovar

July 18, 2016 – This is a big week for Republicans – their quadrennial national convention in Cleveland. For Maryland’s conventioneers, it’s “Donald Trump All the Way.” Nary a discouraging word will be heard from them – unless they’re talking about Hillary Clinton.

Trump All the Way

Republican National Convention delegates meet in Cleveland this week.

The state’s GOP delegates’ loyalty to Trump, the party’s flamboyant and controversial presumptive nominee, was sealed when the New York real estate tycoon thrashed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the April 26 Maryland primary.

Most of the GOP convention-goers from Maryland are chosen by congressional districts. They are bound to the primary winner in that district in the opening rounds of balloting.

Trump made the math easy, though: He won all eight congressional districts handily.

He took the Maryland primary with 54 percent of the vote, scoring a high of 63 percent in the Eastern Shore-Harford County First Congressional District and a low of 46 percent in the Baltimore City-dominated Seventh C.D. and the Montgomery-Frederick counties Eighth C.D.

His lowest margin of victory, 14 percentage points, occurred in the liberal Seventh Congressional District.

Unity in Cleveland

If there are rumblings of discontent among Maryland’s GOP faithful, those dissenters are staying far away from Cleveland.

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., who grudgingly told the media he would not be voting for Trump (though he still hasn’t explained precisely why), has found an ideal excuse: the annual J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake in Crisfield – the can’t-miss high point of Maryland’s political summer season.

Hogan hasn’t been a big fan of building up the state GOP infrastructure, anyway. He has yet to attend a Lincoln Day fund-raiser supporting local central committees. He also skipped the last two big annual Republican fund-raisers.

That makes sense, since Hogan was elected after running an outsider campaign on Facebook through his Change Maryland organization. Hogan’s novel approach may have set a new paradigm for statewide GOP campaigns and debunked the value of relying on the local party apparatus for support and backing.

Some Maryland conventioneers remain angry at Hogan’s “no” vote on Trump and his refusal to give silent assent in Cleveland.

Hogan’s Sidestep

But he would have done so at a cost. Democrats were itching to tie Hogan to Trump and the nominee’s sometimes insensitive broadsides. Hogan safely sidestepped that problem by staying home and announcing he’s washed his hands of national politics.

While some die-hard Trump supporters say they won’t forget Hogan’s snub of their hero, they are small in number next to the horde of Democrats and independents he might alienate through a Trump endorsement.

Maryland, after all, is a heavily Democratic state. For Hogan to win a second term, he can’t afford to turn off the state’s large pool of centrist voters. They helped him win in 2014.

Hogan’s second-in-command, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, won’t be in Cleveland, either. He’s made it clear that Trump “is not my choice at all.” Rutherford will be joining his boss at the Tawes schmooze-fest.

Kittleman’s ‘Strong Feelings’

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman has been the most prominent Maryland Republican to cite emphatically his disapproval of Trump’s sometimes racist comments.

Kittleman, whose father Bob was one of Howard County’s most prominent civil-rights leaders, stated that Trump does not represent his “strong feelings” on civil right and diversity. “That’s not how I was raised.”

Still, those voices of dissent won’t be heard on the Cleveland convention floor or in the convention hotel hallways.

This is Donald Trump’s moment to shine and he’ll get no argument from his staunch delegate supporters from Maryland.

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A Journalist’s Best Friend

By Barry Rascovar

July 11, 2016—Every Maryland journalist who has filed a freedom of information request or challenged efforts by officials to keep public deliberations secret owes a debt of gratitude to Jim Keat, who passed away July 6 after a prolonged bout with cancer.

Keat passionately detested public secrecy. He led the fight to enlarge and put teeth in Maryland’s Open Meetings Act and its Freedom of Information Act.

Investigative journalists and State House reporters would have been thwarted in their demands for government documents and entrée to state and local government meetings were it not for Keat’s fierce determination to remove the shadows from official public actions.

I knew Jim longer than anyone in my newspaper career. When I held down a summer internship at the Baltimore Sunday Sun after graduating from college, Jim gave me a shot at a job he could offer me once I completed my master’s degree at Columbia University.

The job entailed editing news-analysis copy for a brand-new Sunday opinion section Keat was starting from scratch, called Perspective. I botched the editing test quite badly but you’d never know it from the way Keat diplomatically suggested I stick to learning the reporting trade.

I’m eternally grateful for that rejection, since it saved me from a life on the copy desk far from what I really wanted to do: report on political and governmental news of the day.

Unsung Newsroom Hero

Keat later served 16 years in a key but unheralded role as assistant managing editor for The Sun’s news sections. Every newspaper has someone like Jim Keat, whose name is not widely known to the public but who keeps the complex internal workings of a newsroom in sync and on time.

No news-gathering problem was too big or too small for Keat to handle. He had superb news judgment and vast knowledge of foreign and national affairs as well as what was “hot” on the local scene.

He served as a buffer for journalists when things got heated in editorial meetings. Keat’s boss, Paul Banker, was a reclusive man of few words who rarely dealt with the local staff. It was left to Jim to serve as an intermediary and mentor to us lowly city-desk reporters.

When I joined the newspaper’s Washington Bureau, Keat became our go-to guy for reporters with complaints about how their stories were handled and for those lobbying to pursue tips that might lead to a Page One “scoop.” He saved my hide on numerous occasions.

Then when Jim was winding up his nearly 40 years with the Baltimore Sun, he joined me and his old pal Joe Sterne in the editorial department, where he coordinated daily production activities of the opinion pages. He edited letters to the editor and pounded out well-crafted editorials with an élan and rapidity that spoke to his skills as a consummate journalist.

Advocate for Openness

But it was Jim’s sterling work on behalf of government openness, both at the newspaper and in retirement, that set him apart.

Keat once admitted that he was “frustrated by the inability of the people, not just newspapers, to find out what the government is doing.”

He became a leader of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association’s freedom of information lobbying in the Annapolis State House and before county and city councils.

He led two MDDC public records audits of Maryland agencies that demonstrated the closed-door nature of bureaucratic fiefdoms. Keat also plunged into public battles over cameras in the courtroom, court records access and the necessity of regular government audits to test if agency records indeed are accessible to the press and public.

Keat became a constant spectator and testifier at hearings that unmasked weaknesses in Maryland’s Open Meetings Act. Throughout his long career he remained a passionate and demanding voice for freedom of the press and government openness.

Give Thanks

So the next time you read an expose or article on government wrongdoing made possible by documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests, take a moment to thank Jim Keat.

And when you read stories about officials unsuccessfully trying to slam the doors to public meetings, again thank James S. Keat.

He was a Maryland journalist’s best friend. Jim’s relentless work advocating for open access to the people’s government made a lasting contribution to this state.

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Sifting Truth from Hogan’s Fiction

By Barry Rascovar

July 5, 2016 – He’s at it again. Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. keeps promoting a phony story line to justify attacking Democratic lawmakers and scaring local officials into believing vital road projects are in grave jeopardy.

If that’s the case, why hasn’t the governor named those highway construction projects that are on the “kill list” because of those evil Democrats in the Maryland General Assembly?

He can’t do so because there’s no such animal. Hogan’s bluster is just that: hot air lacking factual back-up.

Last week, Hogan went before conventioneers at the Maryland Municipal League and tried to scare them out of their pants.Sifting Truth from Hogan's FictionHe told them “we cannot and will not let” the General Assembly’s Democratic majority hinder road and bridge repairs.

He did not give one example of such a dastardly deed.

Rally ’Round the Governor

Then he amped up the volume, declaring Municipal League members must rally ’round Hogan to safeguard their local highway aid.

“We’re going to keep fighting to make sure these priority road projects in every jurisdiction continue to move forward,” he said.

“But we need our municipal and our county officials, each and every one of you, to stand with us so our roads and highways don’t go back down a path of neglect and under investment.”

So what is this despicable act perpetrated on local governments and its citizens by the Democratic legislature, according to Republican Hogan?

It centers on a  bill passed in 2015 by lawmakers that forces the state to rank all highway, bridge and transit projects costing more than $5 million that increase capacity. Structural deficiencies and urgent repairs are not included in this ranking.

Hogan vetoed the bill but Democrats easily overrode that veto this year. The law went into effect July 1.

These transportation projects will be rated according to nine objective metrics, such as how much each undertaking improves transportation safety, the economic benefits each project brings to the counties and state and each project’s impact (negative or positive) on the environment.

Hogan’s own transportation department will pick the measurement criteria and do the analysis, not some liberal do-gooder group.

Toothless Law

Once the annual ranking is produced, that’s the end of the story.

Hogan need not follow this priority list. He can ignore it completely.

All he must do, under the law, is explain why he’s disregarding this objective listing of Maryland’s most important road, bridge and transit projects.

It’s a feel-good law lacking any teeth. There’s no enforcement provision. Hogan’s ability to pick and choose transportation winners and losers remains fully in place.

Had this law been in effect in 2015, Hogan still could have killed the Baltimore Red Line subway project and shifted those funds to rural highways where his most ardent supporters live. Nothing would have changed.

All the new law does is provide some welcome transparency. Finally, citizens will get a glimpse into a previously closed-door government process that historically has led to corruption and blatant political favoritism.

Finally, there will be a values-based rating of road, bridge and transit projects and a ranking of which ones score highest.

It Could Get Uncomfortable

Does this endanger local officials’ favored road projects? Not at all. Hogan can still distribute road and bridge goodies as he chooses.

But the rankings may raise uncomfortable questions if county leaders are pushing for a project that scores extremely low.

Yet listening to Hogan’s rants one gets the impression a cataclysmic event is upon us.

He has called it a “terrible, terrible piece of legislation” that threatens “every bridge and every road” project in Maryland!

He has made the blanket statement – lacking concrete, follow-up proof: “We would have to kill pretty much all the road projects in 22 of the 24 jurisdictions. Every bridge and every road.”

Where’s the Proof?

What’s missing are the names of those endangered projects. Until Hogan produces such a list of the road and transit projects he’s been forced to kill because of the new law, his words amount to political bombast.

One of the governor’s likely opponents in 2018, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz put the new law that Hogan keeps screaming about in perspective: “I think it’s fair for the General Assembly to ask how do you establish priority.”

Indeed it is. It’s time to remove some of the mystery surrounding the selection of road, bridge and transit projects and start telling the pubic why some road widenings go to the top of the list and others go to the bottom.

We’re not talking small potatoes here. Maryland’s six-year transportation program amounts to nearly $16 billion.

Shining a bit of sunshine on the selection process is long overdue.

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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com

 

Applying the Law, Not Emotion

By Barry Rascovar

June 27, 2016 – If there is a bright spot in the widespread damage done to Baltimore and Maryland by the Freddie Gray conflagration and its aftermath, it is the sterling performance of Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Barry G. Williams.

While Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby placed politics and placating the city’s riotous crowd above her duties to pursue prosecutions based on rigorously impartial and complete investigations, Williams did the opposite.

Applying Law, Not Emotion

Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams

He ruled only on the basis of facts and the law. He didn’t let mob psychology or the passions of protesters seeking a scapegoat deter him from doing his duty as an officer of the court.

He wasn’t swayed by pressure from fellow African-Americans demanding convictions of police officers because someone had to be held responsible for Freddie Gray’s unexplained death in the back of a police paddy wagon.

He didn’t take Mosby’s bait to rush to judgment against the officers on the basis of her prosecutors’ suspect conspiracy theories, novel legal theories and “logical inferences.”

Instead, Williams quietly and sternly administered the law to the nth degree. He gave weight only to solid, verifiable facts, not suspicions.

Sparkling Example

He took seriously the legal precept that the accused can’t be found guilty unless there is so much evidence there is no longer “reasonable doubt.”

All this comes from a lawyer who spent much of his career in the U.S. Justice Department investigating and prosecuting bad cops who gave prisoners “rough rides,” denied defendants their legal rights or harmed minorities in their custody.

Williams has been a sparkling example of how a judge is supposed to act in trials large and small. Like Detective Joe Friday in the old TV series “Dragnet,” Williams wants, “Just the facts, ma’am.” Then he applies the factual presentation of defense and prosecution lawyers against what is written in the Annotated Code of Maryland and in appellate court interpretations of the law.

That’s the way justice is supposed to be meted out in the United States. The highly politicized rulings of the current Supreme Court don’t appeal to Williams. He remains faithful to the law, not emotions or social movements of the moment.

Such bedrock reliance on fact-based and statute-based decisions deserves widespread applause.

Indeed, the next time U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin is asked to recommend a name to the White House for a federal judicial post, Williams should be on Cardin’s short list. And the next time Gov. Larry Hogan is in the market for an appellate judge from Baltimore, Williams should get top consideration.

Faithful to his Oath

There’s a reason Williams was selected to preside over a complex series of hyper-sensitive trials. He runs a strict, no-nonsense courtroom. He’s super-smart. He doesn’t get caught up in Court House politics or appeasing an angry populous. He remains faithful to his oath to apply the law fairly and without partiality.

Williams has more Freddie Gray cases on his docket – unless Mosby drops the cases rather than risk looking inept and foolish for stubbornly pursuing cases that already seem to have more holes than Swiss cheese.

Within legal circles, Mosby’s reputation has taken a mighty hit. Her hurried prosecutions are imploding. She doesn’t appear up to the job. Yet she should have no trouble getting reelected given her star power within the city’s African-American community. She almost certainly will be challenged, though.

Applying the Law, Not Emotion

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby

More serious is her frayed – some argue broken – relationship with the city’s police department. It’s a situation of her own making that could lead to future blow-ups and deep divisions hurting her ability to piece together winnable cases.

How Baltimore’s all-but-certain next mayor, state Sen. Catherine Pugh, handles this delicate and highly explosive situation could determine whether the city’s criminal justice system wages an effective fight against those bent on victimizing and harming Baltimore residents.

That issue has been ignored amid the media and political focus on Freddie Gray.

Maybe it’s time for cooler heads to prevail. City officials certainly could take their cue from the way Judge Williams objectively handles the “hot-potatoes” tossed into his courtroom.

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Crunch Time for P.G. Hospital

By Barry Rascovar

June 13, 2016 – Here we go again: Another liberal-conservative showdown over a new hospital for Prince George’s County. Only this time, the confrontation isn’t between Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and the Democratic legislature.

Instead, the tug-of-war is between a conservative political scientist from a Republican think-tank and Democrats in the county who control its hospital system.

Crunch Time P.G. Hospital

Proposed Prince George’s Regional Medical Center

The think-tank guru, Robert Moffit, was placed on the Maryland Health Care Commission by Hogan. It’s his second time around, having been on the panel before under Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich.

Due to a quirk in the way the commission conducts its business, Moffit has life-or-death powers over the proposed $655 million Prince George’s Regional Medical Center. He’s been assigned to evaluate this project and if he’s unwilling to sign off, the panel won’t issue the essential certificate of need (CON) for construction.

Wring Price Concessions

At the moment, Moffit is playing hardball.

He wants to wring $112 million from the project’s cost by cutting the number of acute care beds and dramatically shrinking room size. Moffit’s modifications call for fewer inpatient beds, fewer operating rooms, fewer emergency room bays and no specialty wing run by the Mt. Washington Pediatric Center.

It would be a stripped-down model designed to break even with far fewer customers coming through the doors.

That’s in keeping with both conservative Republican manta (do more with less) and a trend in health care that stresses outpatient treatment over hospital admissions.

Moffit, who works at the Heritage Foundation, doesn’t want a white elephant – a hospital that is half-empty and unable to pay its bills or avoid red ink.

That’s been the sorry state of county hospitals for decades under Dimensions Healthcare System, which has shortchanged county residents through long-standing management incompetence, political cronyism and an inability to offer quality medical care.

Deal in Annapolis

A running battle in Annapolis finally led to an agreement in which the state and county governments would chip in for a brand-new regional medical center in Largo, replacing the run-down, 75-year-old hospital at Cheverly and consolidating county in-patient beds at one site.

What sealed the deal was agreement by county politicians to relinquish control to the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS), which has a record of turning woebegone hospitals into winners for patients and the bottom line.

But Moffit doesn’t seem impressed with what UMMS brings to the table. He’s so focused on the financials that he may be missing key, unspoken elements.

First, Prince George’s County is a health care desert. It is bereft of a comprehensive medical center. No wonder sick residents go elsewhere for in-patient hospital care – to Southern Maryland, to Anne Arundel County, to Montgomery County and to the District of Columbia.

A gleaming, ultra-modern regional medical mecca at Largo, with all the bells and whistles patients and doctors demand, could reverse the out-migration of patients in a hurry.

Indeed, the combination of a cutting-edge, high-tech hospital run by a nationally ranked teaching hospital could result in a stampede of primary care physicians seeking office space nearby. The dearth of primary care docs has been a major shortcoming in the county – a situation UMMS already is working hard to fix.

Different Fruits

Moffit also wrongly compares costs for the P.G. regional medical center to the new community hospital Washington Adventist Hospital is building in Montgomery County. The two have as much in common as apples and oranges.

The Largo project will be far more expensive because the demands for services are far greater in Prince George’s – and infinitely more complex.

The current Dimensions hospital in Cheverly is the second busiest trauma center in Maryland. With violent crime rising in the populous county, you can expect an even greater need for more emergency room bays and high-cost trauma medical care. That’s not factored into Moffit’s equation.

Nor does the commissioner take into account the enormous size of the county with a population that will hit 1 million in the not too distant future. Yet there’s a lack of even one high-caliber hospital.

That’s unacceptable.

Centerpiece of Change

Moffit concedes “a new general hospital campus in Prince George’s County is needed.”

What he doesn’t acknowledge is that this large, fast-growing subdivision with a huge minority population has always been short-changed. For too long, this populous region of Maryland has been denied a first-class regional medical center that can handle diverse and complex cases.

The last thing Prince George’s needs is a shrunken, run-of-the-mill general hospital.

Additionally, Moffit fails to take into consideration that a highly competent and experienced operating team from a premier teaching hospital will be running things.

Moreover, the mission isn’t just cost-efficient management of the new Prince George’s hospital. There’s a larger goal: to transform the county’s entire health care delivery system.

The centerpiece of that transformation is the new regional medical center.

Dumbing down the medical centerpiece denies county residents the kind of top-flight regional inpatient facility they deserve. It sets the stage for a penny wise/pound foolish decision from the Health Care Commission.

It also could lead to an angry response in Annapolis from dismayed Democratic legislators who are unwilling to accept a second-rate compromise.

They could demand sweeping changes in laws governing the Health Care Commission, reconstituting the panel and ensuring that one commissioner no longer gets to rule with near-dictatorial authority on hospital-construction projects.

There’s still time for a sensible resolution. Dimensions and UMMS have until Aug. 31 to respond to Moffit’s unreasonably stiff demands. It would be just as unrealistic to under-build as to over-build at Largo.

This is one decision the Health Care Commission had better get right.

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Grading Larry Hogan

By Barry Rascovar

Five vetoes and two major appointments in the past week tell us a great deal about Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. – some good, some not so good.

He’s proving to be a more conservative governor than voters probably imagined when they voted him into office. He’s also proving surprisingly doctrinaire in the extreme language in his statements and messages.

Let’s look at Hogan’s recent decisions and grade him the way his college professors might have:

Transit oversight board  

Hogan’s veto language is hysterical in discussing the Maryland Transit Administration Oversight and Planning Board, HB1010. His veto message is a blatant political document meant to rally the faithful. Hogan said  the bill’s provisions “represent a sophomoric attack on sound transportation policy by creating an unprecedented imposition of a politically-driven board to second-guess the authority of an executive branch agency.”

That’s pure hogwash.

This bill merely sets up a transportation advisory panel, another toothless tiger, like the earlier transportation scoring system he vetoed but the legislature overrode. But at least citizens who ride public transit would have a voice to express their concerns via this advisory group.

Transparency and public input are at the heart of this bill, two elements any sane politician ought to applaud. But by vetoing the bill, Hogan comes down emphatically on the side of secrecy and imperial-style decision-making.

In his message, Hogan made the ridiculous claim that the bill degrades Maryland’s quality of life and harms the state’s competitiveness – total buncombe.

He gets an emphatic F.

Morgan State University housing

This bill bars redevelopment of the Northwood Shopping Center in Baltimore, where student housing is planned for nearby Morgan State University – unless a local community group approves.

This is a local spat that never should have been taken on by the General Assembly. It is dangerous overreach.

Besides, the conflict between town and gown largely has been settled. There’s no need for such a disruptive and intrusive piece of legislation.

Hogan chose the correct path.

He gets an A.

Bridge over the Potomac

The governor had nasty words for this bill, which forces the state to set aside $75 million over the next 10 years to start paying for a replacement for the scary-as-hell 76-year-old Harry W. Nice Bridge that connects the northern neck of Virginia with Southern Maryland.

Grading Larry Hogan

Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge crossing of the Potomac River in Southern Maryland

Hogan accused the legislature of superseding the “professional judgment” of his transportation staff. Au contraire, governor.

This bill restores the priority status given to replacing the Nice Bridge by the O’Malley administration. Instead of building a modern $1 billion bridge, Hogan’s folks want a far cheaper expansion of the existing, dangerous crossing over the Potomac River.

That’s not good enough. Until Hogan cut tolls on Maryland roads and bridges, the state had designated a replacement for the Nice Bridge as one of its top objectives. Now there’s not enough money to do the job.

There’s nothing wrong in the legislature expressing its will on major transportation projects. The long debate over the original Bay Bridge took place in the General Assembly. Governance in Annapolis is a shared responsibility – something Hogan wants to change.

Give him an F.

Supporting renewable energy

This bill forces utilities to turn more rapidly to renewable energy for electricity. It’s a boon for advocates of solar and wind power.

The current goal is 20 percent renewables by 2022. This bill forces utilities to reach 25% and to do so two years sooner.

That’s a steep challenge, even with subsidies from ratepayers that could cost close to $200 million by 2020. It may be asking for the impossible.

Maryland has made good progress on the road to renewable energy. But there’s a limit to how far this state, given its latitude and harsh winters, can march in that direction. We’re not part of the Sunbelt and state officials have walled off vast stretches of Western Maryland for renewable wind farms.

Besides, utility rates have been rising for Marylanders, many of whom struggle to make ends meet. Hogan is not about to permit what he sees as a backdoor tax increase.

He merits an A for this veto.

Education collaborative

This bill, SB910, runs into all sorts of constitutional conflicts. The goal is noble – a panel tasked with devising ways to help poor students do better in school. But two members of the General Assembly would hold seats on this board, which would hire a director and staff and set far-reaching education policy.

That’s the job of the executive, not the legislative branch, as any student of high school civics knows.

Hogan is right to teach the bill’s supporters a lesson in constitutional government.

His veto gets a grade of A.

New Public Service Commissioner

Del. Tony O’Donnell of Calvert County is the governor’s latest Public Service Commission nominee. In some ways, it’s a curious choice. O’Donnell, a former House minority leader, is a sharp, talkative conservative Republican who seems to have worn out his welcome even in Republican circles in the House of Delegates.

He knows a lot about the inner workings of electric utilities and the science of nuclear energy, having worked as a supervisor for BGE at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant.

Yet he’s a pro-business Republican who isn’t likely to give much weight to environmental pleas for “green” power. He’s also not a lawyer and hasn’t steeped himself in the arcane statutory meanderings of utility regulatory law.

O’Donnell will bring an interesting outlook to PSC deliberations. But he’s liable to find those endless hearings dull, long-winded and extraordinarily dense.

Hogan could have done better. He gets a B-minus for this appointment.

New Court of Appeals judge

The governor played political favoritism here, nominating his chief lobbyist, Joe Getty, to the state’s highest court.

Yes, Gov. Marvin Mandel did the same thing with Judge John C. Eldridge. But Eldridge brought to the bench considerable experience with a high-powered law firm. He was widely respected as a legal scholar.

Getty, in contrast, is a former legislator and solo practitioner from Carroll County. He could be overwhelmed by the immensity of confronting 200 highly complex legal appeals each year.

Getty, a staunch but sensible conservative, replaces one of the most liberal judges on the appeals court, Lynne Battaglia. He brings a different perspective to deliberations.

But he also could find himself over his head, having never served as a jurist or been under the gun to write dozens of obtuse appellate decisions on technical legal disputes.

Hogan should have named Getty to a lower court so he could gain much-needed experience before throwing him into the judicial lion’s den.

The governor’s grade: C-minus.

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Tough Job? Call Bobby Neall

By Barry Rascovar

May 23, 2016–They never seem to give Bobby Neall easy assignments. Now Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. wants the former Anne Arundel County Executive, former state senator and former state delegate to take on another near-mission impossible: reorganize state government.

It sounds like a simple task but it isn’t – not when Maryland’s government spends $42 billion a year and employs over 80,000 entrenched bureaucrats and nearly 10,000 contract workers.

Tough Job? Call Bobby Neall

Robert R. Neall, the governor’s new senior adviser

Compounding Neall’s assignment: Republican Hogan’s motives are deeply distrusted by the Democratic legislature. Any move that smacks of cutting government operations to pay for election-year tax cuts will be buried by legislative Democrats.

Neall says Hogan hasn’t asked him to slash government spending to make way for voter-appealing tax cuts. Instead, “this is something the governor wants to be part of his contribution – modernizing government and make it perform better, and maybe in the process saving money.”

The idea, according to Neal, is to come up with “a new platform capable of doing more and delivering better services and hopefully at lower unit prices. The businessman in the governor is coming out. It’s not just about budget cuts to make tax cuts possible.”

State government certainly could use a good shake-up.

Mandel’s Magic

There hasn’t been a major reorganization in 46 years, when Marvin Mandel, taking his cue from proposals put forth by the 1968 Constitutional Convention, took 248 unwieldy agencies and boxed them into 12 cabinet-level departments.

Suddenly the governor, not individual fiefdoms, controlled state government. It was one of Mandel’s great achievements, giving Maryland government a modern organization that was manageable and the envy of other states.

While Mandel’s basic structure has stood the test of time, the state’s operations again have spread its wings, becoming ungainly, duplicative and inefficient.

Neall sees his main opportunity in an area that would avoid headlines: government’s “backroom” operations – the massive services and supplies needed for the daily activities of 90,000 state workers.

“Having a Department of Veterans Affairs is fine,” he noted, “but it may not need its own personnel office, its own purchasing office, its own procurement office.”

Centralized backroom services might make sense, especially in an age of computers and two-way video communications. But it can still be controversial – witness the furor among parole office workers when personnel functions were removed from their workplace and consolidated at the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

IT Laggard

Maryland government also has a reputation for lagging behind the times in information technology. Witness the disgracefully botched software to handle the Affordable Care Act and the continual IT screw-ups in social services computer operations.

Neall diplomatically notes, “Maryland state government has never been good at using technology. We’ve lost a lot of ground.”

Improved IT operations may hold the key to a leap forward in government efficiency and customer satisfaction but Neall’s efforts could encounter a major barrier – the costs involved.

Maryland’s Parole Commission, for instance is awash in paperwork. Boxes of inmate records are piled to the ceiling in large storage rooms. Converting these legal documents to computer-accessible records and protecting this data from cyber theft won’t be cheap or rapid.

Neall sees his main job as taking a hard-eyed look at state operations and then answering this question: “What’s the best way to deliver services to citizens today?”

For example, “We no longer get all our clothes in a clothing store; we shop online off a website.”

Process, Not Overhaul

Neall is not talking about wiping out entire departments and turning government into an amorphous internet presence. Instead, he wants to zero in on how state employees and agencies go about their jobs: “How they organize their work, the processes and the time sensitivity.”

In many areas, government is unnecessarily slow and cumbersome, irritating the heck out of constituents. It may be time to learn from the private sector.

There are private companies that will deliver to you your birth and death certificates in a matter of hours – for a fee. But ask state government for that same information and it could take weeks.

A cottage industry has sprung up due to the frustration people encounter waiting hours in long lines at the Motor Vehicle Administration. For a fee, these companies will take care of everything for you. While there have been improvements at the MVA, it still isn’t market-sensitive or people-friendly.

Those are the types of efficiency changes Neall has in mind.

Avoiding Controversy

He’s hoping it won’t involve wholesale reorganizations that would raise hackles among legislators, unions and other interest groups.

So the chances of a Mandel-style re-shuffling of powerful state agencies aren’t likely. Indeed, most state operations will look the same to Marylanders.

“The storefront stays if you can deliver products in a timely fashion, create a sense of urgency and customer satisfaction,” Neall says.

Throughout his career, Neall has been recognized as an insightful budget analyst skilled in dissecting complicated business and government operations and then suggesting cost-saving efficiencies.

Turnaround Artist

He’s worked for Johns Hopkins Medicine for a quarter-century, the last 12 as head of Hopkins’ managed-care organization for the poor and near-poor. Priority Partners is the largest MCO in the state, but when Neall took over it was $10 million in the red. Within a year, he had eliminated the red ink.

Neall is trusted and respected by both Republicans and Democrats in Annapolis. He knows the magnitude of his task.

If anyone can pull this off it is Bobby Neall. The goal he has set is modernization, not wholesale reorganization.

It may not be sexy, but Neall would be happy to see a quiet, successful implementation that most people don’t even notice.

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Post-MD Primary: Insiders and ‘The Donald’ Triumph

By Barry Rascovar

May 2, 2016 – On primary election day, Maryland Democrats sent a strong message that for them experience and proven ability in public office are what count most. Frustrated Maryland Republicans, though, opted to follow a charismatic Pied Piper with wild ideas and zero elective experience.

That’s the biggest take-away from the April 26 balloting in the Free State. Except for Donald Trump’s easy triumph in the GOP presidential primary, Maryland voters came down heavily on the side of polished politicians whom they feel they can trust to deal with society’s intensely complex problems.

Post-MD Primary: Insiders abnd 'The Donald' Triumph

The “mad as hell” euphoria sweeping parts of the country against establishment figures didn’t flood into Maryland. Pragmatic insiders got the nod over impractical outsiders.

Top of the Ticket

–In the Democratic presidential primary, Hillary Clinton walloped Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. No “feel the Bern” groundswell of support for the far-left socialist-democrat in Maryland. He lost by a whopping 30 percentage points – one of his worst drubbings outside the Deep South.

That bodes well for Clinton in Maryland this November. She will benefit from solid Democratic support in a heavily Democratic state as well as the ABT (Anyone But Trump) factor: Two out of three Americans tell pollsters they view “The Donald” unfavorably.

–In the Republican president primary, Trump trumped two weak contenders, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio. It was easy pickings in Maryland for the outspoken billionaire real estate developer. He’s popular in rural areas (where he held his only Maryland campaign events) but he is detested in the state’s population centers. Maryland won’t be on his November list of winnable states unless his advisers live in the same world of unreality as the candidate.

United States Senate

–In the Democratic race for U.S. Senate, voters overwhelmingly favored Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who blew away Rep. Donna Edwards by a far wider than expected margin. Edwards won African-American jurisdictions but not by stupendous totals. She got clobbered everywhere else, especially in the Baltimore suburbs and in the state’s largest jurisdiction, Montgomery County.

Van Hollen’s easy romp on May 26 will make it nearly impossible for the GOP nominee, state Sen. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County, to compete in a November election where Democratic turnout could set a record. The ABT effect could severely undercut her chances, too.

Congressional Primaries

In two suburban Washington congressional primaries, Democratic voters again opted for well-qualified and proven establishment officials.

–In Montgomery County, state Sen. Jamie Raskin defeated two Democratic outsiders, a wine-business multi-millionaire, David Trone (who tried to buy the election by spending a record $13 million), and a former local news personality, Kathleen Matthews.

Raskin isn’t flashy or charismatic. But he’s a solid constitutional law professor and an ultra-liberal who learned in Annapolis how to work effectively within the legislative system. His legal smarts could prove a decided plus in the House of Representatives.

He and his wife, Deputy Treasury Secretary Sarah Bloom Raskin, also could become one of Washington’s most prominent power couples after November, since Raskin is virtually assured of victory in the general election.

–In heavily Democratic Prince George’s County, former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown won a close congressional race against former two-time State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey. The two insiders far outdistanced the field, which included a vocal Latino-rights candidate.

Voters in Prince George’s clearly preferred the tried and true, remembering Brown’s quality service in the county as a two-term delegate rather than his weak performance as lieutenant governor and his abysmal run for governor in 2014.

Mayoral Race in Baltimore

–In Baltimore City, a stampede of candidates filed for the Democratic nomination for mayor but only two were taken seriously by voters. The non-politician outsiders, exemplified by lawyer Elizabeth Embry and multi-millionaire financial investor David Warnock, failed miserably to gain traction.

Warnock ran an uplifting campaign but he never persuaded voters he has what it takes to turn around a troubled, aging urban city. His advertising symbolism – driving through Baltimore in an old pickup truck – befuddled rather than enlightened viewers.

Embry, meanwhile, kept harping on criminal justice reforms – a misleading platform since Baltimore’s mayor plays a minor role in this area. That’s the job of the state’s attorney and the state legislature. Her smarmy last-minute advertising blitz portraying the two leading candidates as virtual criminals was a black mark in an otherwise constructive campaign.

Seven out of ten city voters supported the two most experienced insider candidates, former Mayor Sheila Dixon and state Sen. Cathy Pugh. That’s a ringing endorsement of competence in office over protesting voices from outside the government arena.

Pugh very narrowly defeated Dixon by winning over the city’s white voters and business community. Dixon ran strongest among African Americans who remembered her decades of constituent service and who deeply believe everyone deserves a second chance.

The city should benefit from Pugh’s victory, which all but officially makes her the next mayor in December, given the Democrats’ lopsided voter advantage in Baltimore. She is on friendly terms with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and key state lawmakers and will have an open door in seeking help from Baltimore’s business and civic leaders.

On April 26, Maryland proved in most cases an island of sanity and stability in an election season marked by bizarre and hard to explain developments. The state’s voters, by and large, seem to have their feet – and their senses – planted firmly on the ground.

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Will O’Malley’s Folly Become Hogan’s?

By Barry Rascovar

March 28, 2016—The State Center boondoggle is back on the table.

This controversial deal, involving state buildings on 28 acres in midtown Baltimore, was tailored for developer-allies of former Gov. Martin O’Malley. It ended up on the back burner in December 2014 when the extent of the giveaway persuaded Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp to put a hold on the last approval necessary.

Since then, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. has kept the project on the shelf – where it belongs.

Will O'Malley's Folly Become Hogan's?State Center vision

Developers’ $1.5 billion State Center vision in midtown Baltimore

But in the last few weeks, Hogan’s economic development chief, Mike Gill, said the administration was reviewing the $1.5 billion project anew. A decision on what to do at the Baltimore workplace for thousands of state employees could come before January.

There’s no question government workers deserve better quarters. The 60-year-old State Center complex is badly out of date. New accommodations need to be pursued. The worst course of action, though, would be to proceed with O’Malley’s white elephant.

Outsized Rents

Under the deal worked out by the former governor, the state, which now pays no rent at State Center, would be charged sky-high monthly rates for occupying space in a new, privately owned structure. The lease payments of $18.5 million a year would escalate every five years over the next two decades.

Such high rental rates are comparable to Inner Harbor, water-view office space.

The state also would be responsible for maintenance and security expenses, bringing payments to $30 million annually just in the first five years.

Additionally, the state would lease the entire 28-acre State Center property to the developer for a ridiculously low ground rent. A prime parcel near downtown would be virtually gifted to the development team.

The developers also want the state to pay for a costly underground garage in the first new office building. This $28.5 million expense would deplete the Transportation Trust Fund just when demand for road and bridge improvements is in high demand.

In another twist, state workers who receive free surface parking at State Center, would have to pay to use those underground spaces.

Bond Rating in Peril?

The most troubling aspect for Hogan is that the State Center plan could cost Maryland its coveted triple-A bond rating.

Because the developers want to use the state’s locked-in rent payments – nearly $500 million over the next 20 years – to obtain private financing for the massive project, the payments qualify as a capital project.

As such, the State Center development would blow the lid off Maryland’s debt ceiling. It would mean cutting other projects from Hogan’s construction plans and could lead to higher interest rates when Maryland goes to the bond market.

It’s a bad deal for taxpayers, and for Hogan, who inherited this mess from O’Malley (and from Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich, who announced the heavily subsidized state-private sector project prior to the Great Recession).

Joe Getty, Hogan’s chief legislative officer, was in the state Senate when his budget committee reviewed the State Center project in late 2014. He concluded that the excessive rent charged the state “sets us up to cut [other] projects that have strong commitments in other areas,” such as money for Baltimore City school construction and bond money for a new Prince George’s County hospital.

The Department of Legislative Services noted at the time that the State Center undertaking “will require a significant amount of annual general fund appropriations that could be avoided if the State instead constructed new or renovated space to replace the aging State Center infrastructure.”

Moving Downtown

Another promising avenue for Hogan: Move State Center workers into modern, renovated office space in Baltimore’s Central Business District.

Huge vacancies exist there – upwards of 30 percent and growing – which translates into deeply discounted rents. The state could lock in long-term leases at excellent prices and avoid paying future maintenance costs.

At the same time, DLS suggested the state could sell State Center’s buildings and 28 acres to the highest bidder. This would partly offset the cost of renting new office space downtown and avoid costly repairs at the current buildings.

That seems to make more sense than going forward with a sweetheart arrangement concocted by Hogan’s predecessor.

Here’s another oddity: The Ehrlich administration never bothered to seek competitive bids for the State Center project. After the initial development group dissolved during the Great Recession, O’Malley renegotiated the same deal with a slightly different group of developers.

Now may be the time to see what State Center’s 28 acres bring on the open market and what imaginative uses other developers suggest for the site – using their money, not the state’s.

No Termination Clause

That likely would require a payment to the current developers to terminate their contract with the state.

Here’s why: O’Malley’s State Center deal lacked a “termination for convenience clause.” This is routinely inserted into every state contract – but curiously not this one. Thus, the state is locked into 20 years’ worth of lease payments – pure gold for the builders – unless the developers are bought out.

For Hogan to endorse the current project makes little logic. It would saddle the state with unnecessary additional debt and exorbitant annual lease payments for two decades, endanger Maryland’s bond rating and squeeze other state construction priorities.

It also would amount to an endorsement of a questionable state subsidy pushed through by his Democratic predecessor.

Proceeding in a new direction might be Hogan’s best option.

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