Tag Archives: Maryland

Will Hogan’s Slimmed-Down Budget Implode?

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 30, 2017 – Through no fault of his own, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s slimmed-down, $43.5 billion budget could implode at any moment, depending on actions in Washington by President Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress intent on slashing federal domestic spending.

Just one example: Trump wants immediate repeal of the Affordable Care Act – the hated Obamacare he pilloried in the campaign. Tea party Republicans in Congress are marching rapidly down that same path.

It sounds wonderful to Trump’s followers and foes of the ACA.

But the loss of ACA funds would blow an immediate $1.26 billion hole in Hogan’s balanced budget – and would add up to a stunning $7.7 billion loss for Maryland over the next five years.

That’s just the tip of Maryland’s deficit iceberg if Trump and his Republican majority on the Hill start chopping with their budget axes.

Maryland’s Budget Plight

Losing ACA funds would cost Maryland $100 million in savings from drug rebates that Hogan is counting on in his budget, $62 million in child health matching money, $16 million for home care and $225 million in federal support that subsidizes health insurance for 60,000 moderate- or low-income Marylanders.

Then there’s Trump’s federal job freeze, with Virginia and Maryland most at risk of seeing large declines in its federal work force.

Think what it would mean for the Free State’s economy – and tax collections – if Trump and Congress slash the workforce at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Social Security Administration, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health – all centered in Maryland.

There’s nothing in Hogan’s budget to cushion the state from a Trumpian-sized downsizing of the federal government. Instead, his fiscal blueprint ignores that approaching whirlwind and focuses instead on ratcheting downing spending without destroying existing social programs.Hogan's Slimmed-Down Budget

Clearly, the governor is trying to make it past the next election using smart spending hold-downs and a hoped-for upward bump in revenue collections.

He certainly wasn’t considering the anti-spending mood in Washington or the state’s precarious long-term budget outlook. Hogan just wants to get through 2018.

But legislative budget analysts noted last week there are very large deficits looming that Hogan hasn’t addressed.

Budget Quicksand

Those potential pools of red ink leave “the state vulnerable to expected federal cost containment actions” that include personnel cuts, greatly reduced agency budgets and repeal of the ACA without a viable replacement.

As it stands, Hogan’s budget could run into big trouble with Maryland’s Medicaid program this coming fiscal year. Legislative analysts politely wrote that the governor’s budget “contains optimistic assumptions” about slower Medicaid enrollment and the state’s ability to recoup drug rebates from pharmaceutical companies.

If Hogan’s number are wrong, his Medicaid allocation could be in deficit territory by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Some of the governor’s budget-balancing tricks aren’t likely to work, either.

For instance, he figures he can save nearly $100 million if the legislature repeals spending mandates lawmakers approved last year. Don’t count on Democratic lawmakers giving the Republican governor what he wants.

Additionally, Hogan wants to increase the budget deficit in future years by handing out tax cuts to military retirees, police and firefighters, tax savings to those with student loans, and tax breaks to small business owners offering sick leave to workers.

The cost? $106 million in the first year and $488 million over the next five years.

Deficits Return

Hogan says he wiped out the state’s structural deficit with this budget – but only because he grabbed $170 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

Even worse, analysts say Hogan’s financial plan does little to prevent a widening structural deficit in future years, growing to $432 million a year from now and $1.2 billion four years later – and that doesn’t even take into account the worsening fiscal situation if Obamacare is repealed.

The Department of Legislative Services also points to deeply troubling trends in the Maryland Department of Transportation’s six-year capital spending plan. MDOT can’t build all the projects it is promising due to a tightening revenue picture.

Maryland’s gas tax receipts are far less than expected, debt service costs are rising and MDOT operating expenses are galloping ahead of projections.

On top of that, Hogan has set aside $747 million in MDOT cash to greatly increase highway-construction aid to Maryland counties. That move would require a sharp cutback in bonds issued by MDOT, which means reducing the number of promised transportation projects over the next six year.

MDOT’s Growing Budget Hole

All told, MDOT is $1.7 billion short of the money it needs to complete projects on its list. Moreover, analysts say the department is underestimating its own operating expenses by $585 million in future years.

There could be tough questioning and resistance to Hogan’s transportation program when his minions try to explain this disturbing situation to the General Assembly’s budget panels.

Yet the MDOT quagmire could rapidly become a secondary concern if the White House and Congress go on a budget-cutting rampage this spring, creating “carnage” in state capitals.

On its own, Hogan’s budget appears to be a sensible, Republican-styled attempt to slowly diminish spending in ways that begin to align appropriations with the state’s annual revenue flow.

He resorts to a number of gimmicks to balance this year’s fiscal package, but what governor doesn’t?

There are almost certain to be fireworks over Hogan’s more questionable budget proposals in the next few months—especially if the man in the White House turns off much of Maryland’s fiscal pipeline from Washington.

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‘Honest Prince George’ Strikes Again

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 16, 2017 – Back when I was a naïve and newbie political reporter covering the Maryland General Assembly in the early 1970s, I was baffled when legislators joked in lounges and hallways about “Honest Prince George.”

I found out soon enough it was a jovial but derogatory reference to the questionable “pay for play” politics practiced by some leaders of Prince George’s County.

Rapid land development and the county’s population explosion made the Washington suburb prime ground for under-the-table payoffs to elected officials who got builders construction permits and re-zoning approval.'Honest Prince George' Strikes Again

Straight-arrow Prince George’s senators and delegates would join in the verbal State House sparring about their “honest” county, but they knew better than most what was going on.

Now “Honest Prince George” has surfaced again.

Blown Cover

Arrests by federal prosecutors so far have nabbed a liquor board commissioner, a longtime former councilman and a yet-to-be-named state legislator involved in a bribery and payoff scheme.

Will Campos, a ten-year councilman and ex-delegate resigned his state post in 2015 after only nine months in office, realizing the feds were hot on his trail.

He pled guilty earlier this month to taking nearly $50,000 in payoffs to direct $325,000 in county funds to business owners over a seven-year period. On one occasion, he was handed a white envelope in the bathroom of a College Park restaurant. It was stuffed with $3,000 in cash.

Another ex-delegate, Michael Vaughn, turned in his resignation letter last Wednesday due to “ongoing health challenges” – like avoiding a long prison sentence (clearly not good for your health).

Prosecutors say one of their targets is a delegate who voted in committee to extend Sunday liquor sales in Prince George’s as part of a bribery scheme. Vaughn was the only county delegate on that committee who voted in 2015 for that Sunday liquor-sales bill.

More shoes will drop as federal investigators continue the latest Prince George’s County corruption probe.  It’s certainly been a lengthy, and sad, saga.

Baggett First to Fall

The first bigshot in Prince George’s to fall was Jesse Baggett, chairman of the then-all-powerful Board of County Commissioners during the county’s massive land-development boom in the 1960s and early 1970s. Baggett went to prison in 1971 for taking a $3,500 bribe from a builder in exchange for help on re-zoning.

The county became ground zero for the headline-grabbing Marvin Mandel racetrack scandal in which the secret sale of a county half-mile track in Upper Marlboro formed the case against Governor Mandel and his co-defendants, including a prominent county lawyer, Ernest N. Cory, Jr., who lied repeatedly to the state racing commission about the Mandel group’s ownership of the track.

This unsavory reputation by county leaders helped unseat many of them in the 1970s. Leading the reform group was Steny H. Hoyer, now the county’s longtime congressman, and an influential lawyer-politician, Peter F. O’Malley.

Yet the smell of money proved irresistible for a few. A veteran state senator, Tommie Broadwater, went to prison for food stamp fraud. A delegate, Leonard Blondes, was found complicit in a bribery scheme.

A one-term delegate and county councilman, Tony Cicoria, stole $65,000 in campaign contributions, lied on his tax returns and then while on the council went AWOL for 13 months to avoid arrest. Cicoria eventually was nabbed in Florida  where his return to Maryland was delayed by local charges of using a phony drivers license.

Good old “Honest Prince George.”

Johnson’s Shame

In the 21st century, the most flagrant offender has been former County Executive Jack Johnson, who used his office to extort $1.6 million from developers during his eight years in office.

When Johnson and his wife, herself a county councilwoman, were arrested by the feds, Johnson was shouting at his wife to stuff illicit cash into her bra and panties and to flush the rest down the toilet. (Officers recovered $79,600 from Leslie Johnson’s undergarments and another $100,000 from the water closet.)

Then there was the sad case of current Sen. Ulysses Currie, accused of using his office and committee chairmanship to twist arms for his client while getting a kickback worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Currie beat the rap, but not without humiliating himself with a defense that claimed Currie was too dumb to be dishonest.

And of course there was Tiffany Alston, who avoided criminal punishment by resigning as a state delegate 2012 after she stole thousands from her campaign fund to pay herself and cover her wedding expenses.

Constant Surveillance

Unfortunately, a few politicians in Prince George’s continue to regard elective office as a way to enrich themselves through quid pro quos.

Other jurisdictions, such as Baltimore County and Baltimore City, have similar shameful histories – witness the recent indictment of Gary Brown, Jr. on the eve of his appointment as a state delegate for laundering $18,000 in campaign contributions for his boss, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, through his relatives.

At least Prince George’s voters had the good sense to elect a reformer, Rushern Baker, as county executive to help clean up the mess left behind by Jack Johnson.

Still, the ballooning liquor board scandal points to a continuing problem in the county that will need constant surveillance and scrutiny to scrub Prince George’s County of its “pay to play” reputation.

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Response from Franchot’s Top Aide

Jan. 10, 2017–Len Foxwell, a longtime confidante and aide to Comptroller Peter Franchot responded to the column, “Maryland’s Demeaning ‘Begathon’ Continues” (see next item below) with the following lengthy defense of his boss. It’s three times longer than the column Foxwell finds objectionable, so be prepared.

Also note:  Maryland’s Jan. 25 “begathon” can be viewed live on the Board of Public Works page of the maryland.gov website. Watch the long hours of 24 school superintendents trooping before the board trying to justify more money for school construction — and then judge for yourself the value of this exercise.

Meanwhile, here is Foxwell’s missive:

January 9, 2017

Dear Mr. Rascovar:

Good afternoon, and Happy New Year.  Here’s to good health and both personal and professional fulfillment in the year ahead.

Having read your most recent contribution to MarylandReporter.com – a politically-lubricated jeremiad against the Maryland Public School Construction Program’s longstanding appeals process – I feel obliged to respectfully rebut several of your more misleading and uninformed points.

My first is in response to your characterization of the process itself – “a demeaning ‘begathon’ that long ago outlived its usefulness and turned into a political circus allowing the governor and comptroller to praise and reward their friends in the counties and humiliate their enemies.”  From this passage, your readers might assume that you have diligently attended previous school construction appeals hearings in recent years, and that you are personally familiar with the tone and tenor of the proceedings.

That would be incorrect.  I have had the good fortune of attending every Public School Construction Program appeals hearing since Comptroller Franchot took office in 2007.  To date, I haven’t actually seen you at any of them.  I find it highly improbable that you have followed this annual event – which customarily lasts several hours – on the Board of Public Works’ streaming video feed.  Therefore, I have to question your authority to editorialize on the performance of the Board members at this annual event.

The Board of Public Works provides the public with both a video archive and written transcripts of past meetings.  I would respectfully encourage you to go back, catch up on what you’ve missed over the past decade or so, and offer your readers with specific instances in which Board members gratuitously “humiliated” participants in the meeting or otherwise demonstrated inappropriate conduct.

In stark contrast to what you have described in your column, I think you’ll find that the Board of Public Works is, for the most part, quite laudatory of the efforts of Maryland’s local school systems to carry out their shared mission effectively in this age of limited financial resources.  As for Comptroller Franchot, you will find that he reserves particularly high praise for those school systems that have performed well on their annual public school maintenance surveys, as conducted by the Interagency Committee for Public School Construction.

This is a longstanding priority of his, one that dates back to the early days of our previous governor’s administration, because schools that are maintained properly tend to have a longer life span, which leads to cost savings for Maryland taxpayers.  Even more important, we believe, is the fact that – all things being roughly equal – students who have the opportunity to learn in safe, comfortable and attractive schools tend to outperform those who don’t.

The Board members have also utilized this open and transparent public forum to encourage local school systems to consider alternative construction practices and other strategies – such as the use of geothermal energy whenever possible – to achieve cost savings and better learning outcomes.  All of these would seem to be valuable points of discussion for those who share an interest in the fiscal well-being of our state and our ability to prepare students for success in a complex global economy.  Yet, inexplicably, none of these points found their way into your analysis, which leads me to speculate — with apologies in advance for being impolite —  that you simply have no idea what you are talking about.

In fairness to you, these meetings have had their moments of honest disagreement between Board members and local school systems.  Last year, for instance, the Board members sought to hold the Howard County Public School System accountable for its management of, and response to, the presence of unacceptable levels of mold in several of its schools, which had led to several reported cases of illness and hospitalization.

Similarly, there was considerable discussion about the decision of the Carroll County Public School System to close multiple schools within the county due to insufficient enrollment, despite Governor Hogan’s willingness to invest $4 million to forestall that effort.  Given the number of Maryland students, teachers and families whose lives were affected by these two issues alone, I think we would all be interested in knowing whether you regarded those public discussions as (to borrow your own terms) “distasteful” and “unbecoming.”

You correctly note that Comptroller Franchot has “conducted a consistent crusade to force [Baltimore County] to install portable, temporary air conditioners in all schools lacking central cooling units.” However, you incorrectly suggest that his effort is rooted in a desire to discredit the incumbent Baltimore County Executive and thwart whatever political ambitions he may harbor.

It is worth noting that Comptroller Franchot’s engagement in this subject dates back to June 16, 2011, when he wrote letters to then-Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston and Baltimore City Schools CEO Andres A. Alonso.  Noting that the conditions within many of their school facilities can “pose an obvious health and safety risk to all concerned,” he asked “how…children can focus and learn – much less perform to the best of their abilities on final exams and standardized tests – in such an environment.”

He went on to write that “it is equally hard to see how teachers and staff members can feel like their hard work and sacrifice are truly valued when they are forced to work in such unpleasant workplace conditions,” and noted that these conditions “erode the quality of the learning experience” and “sends a disturbing message of indifference to those who have dedicated their lives to serving our children.”

Bear in mind that in June of 2011, Mr. Kamenetz had been in office for approximately six months, and was still several years away from being mentioned, within Maryland political circles, as a probable candidate for statewide office.  To that same point, the letters in question were authored more than three years prior to Governor Hogan’s successful gubernatorial campaign.

Therefore, the notion that the Comptroller’s commitment to safer classrooms for the children of Baltimore City and Baltimore County is inspired by a nebulous political rivalry with Mr. Kamenetz, or an equally nebulous political alliance with Governor Hogan, is beyond asinine.  Your insistence on force-feeding this discredited narrative erodes whatever credibility you have accumulated over the course of your career and – at a time when our political system is in such desperate need of sunlight – serves as a reminder of why public confidence in the media is trending in the wrong direction.

It is my belief that Comptroller Franchot’s perspective on the air conditioning issue has been well-documented.  For the sake of brevity, I won’t unpack his entire argument in response to yours.  Suffice to say that, in the year 2017, every child, teacher and public school employee is entitled to air conditioned classrooms in the warmer months – when it’s not uncommon for building temperatures escalate into the triple digits – just as they are entitled to heated classrooms on frigid days.

Despite the fact that hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars have been invested in the Baltimore City and Baltimore County school systems for building improvements since Comptroller Franchot took office, more than 50,000 school children in these two jurisdictions – most of whom hail from low and moderate-income communities – are unable to learn in the same conditions that are taken for granted elsewhere.  They are, however, expected to demonstrate the same academic progress and perform comparably on standardized tests as their peers.

The Maryland NAACP regards this as a “neglected civil right;” Comptroller Franchot views it as a fundamental matter of social and economic justice, and Governor Hogan has lent his support, and that of his Administration, to a grassroots coalition of families who demand equity for vulnerable children and teachers who otherwise would have no voice.

I suspect there is space for honest disagreement – however irrational – over the need for immediate relief for these children.  However, I would respectfully suggest that it is the height of disrespectful arrogance to blithely dismiss, as “plants,” those who have attended past Board of Public Works meetings to make their voices heard.

These are working parents who took unpaid time off from work to stand with their children as they described conditions in a classroom without air conditioning or even functioning windows.  They are members of our civic and faith community – such as the Rev. Dr. Alvin Hathaway of the Union Baptist Church in Baltimore – who refuse to stand by as certain children are held accountable for all of the obligations of enrollment in a Maryland public school without a fundamental right that is available to their peers.

All of them took advantage of the unique opportunity afforded by the Board of Public Works to express their points of view in an open, transparent forum, and many of them did so after feeling as if nobody else was bothering to listen to them.  None of them did so with professional benefits in mind, or to curry favor with members of the Annapolis political establishment.  Rather than trivialize their service, I would humbly suggest that you regard them as an aspirational model.

As a point of reference, I have attached copies of the 2011 correspondence that I referenced earlier in this letter.  I thank you in advance for considering the points articulated in this letter, and wish you, once again, a happy new year.

Sincerely,
Len N. Foxwell Chief of Staff Comptroller of Maryland

Re-imagining State Center

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 2, 2017–As an early New Year’s gift to Maryland taxpayers, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. delivered the final blow to an outrageously priced scheme to turn over to private investors the 28-acre State Center complex in Baltimore for redevelopment.

Re-imagining State Center

The $1.5 billion State Center plan rejected by the Board of Public Works.

Hogan’s predecessor as governor, Martin O’Malley, had pushed hard  forthe State Center deal in a way that benefited the developers but left the state with unconscionably high rental payments for the next half-century – beginning at $30 million or more per year and escalating by 15 percent every five years.

O’Malley’s proposal also would have threatened the state’s triple-A bond rating by smashing through Maryland’s debt ceiling.

Additionally, the deal hinged on the state constructing for the developers a high-priced underground garage, costing $28.3 million. The money to pay for the 20-year bonds on the garage would come out of the state’s struggling Transportation Trust Fund at roughly $2 million a year.

As an extra kick-in-the-pants, state workers would have to pay to park in the underground garage even though they now get free parking on surface lots at State Center.

It was a boondoggle of immense proportions disguised as a mixed-used redevelopment of State Center to help revive midtown Baltimore.

Public-Private Partnership

The initial plan, worked out by former Gov. Bob Ehrlich in the early 2000s, made sense as a model for smart transit-oriented development. It was the sort of public-private partnership that would benefit Baltimore, the state and the developers – office space, retail, apartments and community amenities centered around two mass-transit lines.

Then came the Great Recession. What had been feasible plans for State Center’s re-birth crumbled. As lingering effects of the recession dragged on, the State Center proposal took on more of a Mission Impossible cast.

When O’Malley revived the concept with new developers and a new set of financing figures, what had been a good deal became more and more suspect.

The legislature started asking questions and looking at the proposal’s details. Analysts for the General Assembly didn’t like what they discovered.

The state was being asked, essentially, to underwrite this massive $1.5 billion project. There would be only one prime tenant in the developer’s lone Phase One building – the state of Maryland, occupying nearly all of the office space.

Even worse, the developers wanted to charge the state unheard of water-view rental rates for a mid-town building in a tenuous neighborhood overlooking other mid-town buildings, a hospital and a public housing project.

Then the underground garage was added to the state’s to-do list by the developers. As the Department of Legislative Services put it, “A significant amount of private investment has been continuously stripped out of the plan.” It was replaced by state taxpayer dollars.

Kopp, Franchot Skeptical

Comptroller Peter Franchot bailed out as a State Center supporter some five years ago, complaining about the exorbitant rents and the fear of losing Maryland’s money-saving triple-A bond rating.

Treasurer Nancy Kopp kept worrying about breaching the state’s borrowing limit by undertaking the capital leasing costs of the State Center project.

Thus, O’Malley no longer had the votes to gain Board of Public Works approval to complete the revised deal with the developers.

When Hogan entered the picture, he tried to work out a fair settlement that would not leave the state holding the bag and the developers reaping all the rewards.

He even turned to mediation with the developers. But the numbers wouldn’t work unless the state contributed heftily to the privately built project.

So Hogan pulled the plug on the State Center arrangement just before Christmas and then sued the developers to leave no doubt the deal has been cancelled.

What Next?

The fate of State Center after the legal finger-pointing ends is an open question.

It would cost in excess of $200 million for the state to replace its office buildings on the site. That’s capital money the state lacks at the moment.

More sensible would be leasing deeply discounted office space for state agencies in nearly empty downtown high-rises while working with the city on a new residential-and-retail plan for the State Center acreage.

Franchot even proposed a pie-in-the-sky idea: a large sports arena for Baltimore at  State Center. Hogan immediately asked the Maryland Stadium Authority to investigate this remote possibility.

It’s unfortunate a prolonged recession cut the economic legs out from under the original State Center development plans.

But it did.

Now it’s time to start all over.

Let’s re-imagine what State Center could become a decade from now: A catalyst for strengthening midtown neighborhoods, creating a new corridor of residences and shops, and givng state workers quality office space for state workers on the current site or at a more affordable location somewhere in Baltimore’s downtown area.

Hogan faced reality and pulled the plug because the deal on the table didn’t work. His next move will be even more important: defining the future uses for this valuable 28-acre property.

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The Disappointing Mayoralty of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 6, 2016 — It started with such bright promise,  yet as Stephanie Rawlings-Blake leaves the mayor’s office today for the last time there’s a deflated feeling that she failed to live up to expectations.

She came into the mayor’s job with an ideal pedigree — the youngest elected City Council member in history, 12 years as a councilwoman, vice president and then president of the City Council. A lawyer and Public Defender, she learned important lessons from her father, Howard “Pete” Rawlings, a legendary figure in Annapolis known for his courage and dedicated budget expertise,

The Disappointing Mayoralty of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

Outgoing Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

Like her father, she was a policy wonk with the determination to make tough decisions for the betterment of the city. Rawlings-Blake followed after her father in doing what’s right, not what’s popular.

She straightened out Baltimore’s red-ink-laced budget, took on the police and fire unions to get the city out of a horrendous pension bind and found a way to cut the city’s too-high property tax rate more than prior mayors.

In case you haven’t noticed, business development is surging in Baltimore. A program is in place to attack vacant housing blight. The city has a $1 billion plan under way to modernize its public school buildings.

Sadly, all this was overshadowed by the mayor’s standoffishness, her failure to enlarge her inner circle of advisers and her arrogant behavior on the day when civil unrest broke out in Baltimore in 2015.

On that day, Rawlings-Blake closeted herself in meetings, refusing to take phone calls from Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. about calling in the National Guard.

It was shockingly poor judgment followed by a continuing inability to display the kind of one-on-one contact with distraught citizens that might have helped tamp down the flammable situation.

Insular Mayor

Meanwhile, Rawlings-Blake, despite her years of City Council service, proved unable to win over council members on key issues. She feuded for years with Council President Jack Young and with Comptroller Joan Pratt, and also regularly criticized the governor.

She too often listened only to a small coterie of trusted advisers and longtime friends, then seemed surprised when her ineffective lobbying in Annapolis and in the Council chambers led to failure.

She spent too much time in her last year on official trips, promoting her national Democratic Party standing and grooming herself for a future career as a partisan TV analyst.

What a disappointing way to end her political life. She leaves the mayor’s office after seven years with barely a pulse-beat of citizen support.The Disappointing Mayoralty of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

Yet Rawlings-Blake has in many ways set the table quite nicely for new Mayor Catherine Pugh, who will reap the benefits of her predecessor’s courageous budgeting reforms, school construction program and economic development moves.

Future historians will remember Rawlings-Blake far more favorably than Baltimoreans do today. It’s unfortunate that she leaves on such a low note. She performed some valuable services during her tenure as the struggling city’s top elected official. Yet her deeply flawed leadership on the day when Baltimore burned will always be a black mark against her mayoralty record.

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Advice to Hogan: ‘Take a Deep Breath’

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 28, 2016–Leave it to Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. to make a positive, pro-active announcement and then gum up the works with snide, partisan remarks and a political snub that won’t be forgotten.

Here’s the good news: Hogan reversed course on what to do about the narrow, aging and dangerous Harry W. Nice Memorial Potomac River Bridge in Southern Maryland. He unveiled a $765 million plan to erect a new, wider and safer bridge nearby in just six years.

Advice to Hogan

Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge in Charles County

Hip, hip, hooray!

Here’s the bad news: Republican Hogan refuses to work with Democrats on this important construction project. He froze out Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton of Charles County from the announcement ceremony in a political snub that could come back to haunt him.

He also continued to foolishly rant about a transportation planning law enacted by Democrats over Hogan’s veto that the governor inaccurately describes as potentially destructive to road and bridge projects.

To top it off, Hogan railed against a bill Middleton pushed through the General Assembly last session calling for the Maryland Transportation Authority to set aside $75 million a year over the next ten years to pay for the replacement bridge.

Pay-Go Proposal

Middleton’s pay-as-you-go approach met with fierce opposition from Hogan and his transportation minions. The bill, SB 907, passed anyway. Then Hogan vetoed the bill, though Middleton and his offended colleagues could override that veto a few months from now – unless Hogan comes to the bargaining table.

Clearly, Hogan doesn’t like to cooperate with those nasty Democrats. He certainly doesn’t like sharing credit at good-news announcements.

Is it any wonder Hogan has been unable to move his priority bills through the Democratic-dominated legislature?

He continues to float the bogus notion he is eager to compromise with Democrats. What he really wants is total agreement on his proposals. That’s Hogan’s version of compromise.

Middleton’s replacement-bridge bill was aimed at getting Hogan to negotiate with lawmakers over how to erect a safer Potomac River crossing in Southern Maryland. The highly-respected senator has been trying for 15 years to replace the 76-year-old, two-lane bridge.

Advice to Hogan

Sen. Mac Middleton of Charles County

Less-Costly Option

Hogan’s transportation team, though, opposed that plan and backed a less-costly, $150 million patch-up of the decking of the Nice Bridge – easily the state’s most terrifying water crossing. Middleton says the administration argued that not enough people use the Nice Bridge to justify the $1 billion price tag of a replacement structure.

Suddenly, though, Hogan has done a Trump-like flip-flop and essentially conceded that Middleton has been right all along: a new, safer crossing is needed.

Yet the administration continues to twist the truth.

The governor’s spokesperson made the ludicrous statement Middleton wasn’t invited to the announcement ceremony because he had nothing to do with making the project a reality.

What may have changed the governor’s mind was news that a slowly recovering economy has led to far more car and truck traffic on Maryland’s toll roads and bridges, resulting in a $62 million surplus over the past year. The surplus will be used to help pay for the replacement bridge.

If this trend persists the state could save a ton of money on the new bridge, reducing the size of bond offerings. That, in turn, would free up millions for other state transportation priorities.

Friend or Foe?

The situation might brighten even more if Hogan sat down with Middleton to find a middle ground on the two financing approaches. They are not that far apart.

For a governor who has seen his relationship with the legislature deteriorate, it might make sense.

Middleton, the longtime chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is a powerful figure. He could be an important ally for the governor if Hogan wanted to build a partnership. Or he could be a thorn in the governor’s side. The choice is Hogan’s.

Last week’s bridge announcement won plaudits, as it should. A replacement is overdue. The governor found a way to slice 25 percent off earlier cost projections by relocating the planned structure 100 feet to the north over a deeper river channel.

Politically, Hogan’s new bridge plan will help him ramp up support in Southern Maryland as his reelection campaign ramps up late next year.

But the governor still needs to improve his batting average in the General Assembly before he goes before Maryland voters.

Perhaps he should take a cue from what he said following Donald Trump’s election on Nov. 8 when he advised Marylanders, “Everyone ought to take a deep breath” and give the new administration a chance.

Could this be the time for Hogan “to take a deep breath” and give bipartisanship a chance? It might lead to a compromise on paying for a new Potomac River crossing and open a channel for cooperation in the State House.

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Trump Adopts Hogan’s Campaign Strategies

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 21, 2016 – We should have seen Donald Trump’s huge upset victory coming: He used many of the same tactics and strategies as Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. when the Annapolis real estate developer shocked everyone with his big upset in Maryland two years ago.

The similarities are striking.

  • Hogan brilliantly used social media as a rallying point for conservatives and disaffected voters of all stripes. So did Trump.
  • Hogan was outspent 2-to-1 in TV advertising but easily offset that through free advertising via Facebook with his news-making statements that TV stations and newspapers picked up. So did Trump.
  • Hogan was the “change agent” in a year when Maryland voters dearly wanted something different in the Annapolis State House. This year, Trump was the “change agent.”
  • Hogan capitalized on the economic pain many people have been suffering since the Great Recession. Trump doubled-down on that one.
  • Hogan made himself the focal point for people fed up with in-grown establishment politicians who offered trite, tired and shopworn solutions. Ditto for Trump.
  • Hogan’s opponent was uninspiring, lacking in new ideas and tied at the hip to a disliked incumbent. That pretty much described Hillary Clinton, too.
  • Hogan was an outsider who had never held elective office. Trump followed suit on that one.
  • Hogan pounded away mercilessly on the incumbent’s unpopular policy of raising taxes and fees. Trump never relented in tearing down everything the incumbent president stood for.
  • Hogan promised to bring jobs to Maryland. Trump promised to bring jobs to America.
  • Hogan voiced people’s anger and dissatisfaction with the status quo. So did Trump, but in a much louder and far more outspoken way.

No wonder Larry Hogan, a conservative Republican in a very Democratic state, won in a rout. He crushed Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in all but the big three Democratic strongholds of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore City, plus Charles County in Southern Maryland.

Trump Adopts Hogan's Camapign Strategies

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. (right) and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford

Hogan’s victory signaled a new day for angry white voters, especially those living in rural and exurban areas and on the outskirts of suburbia. Donald Trump followed a very similar formula. It worked for him in 2016 just as it did for Hogan in 2014.

Hogan’s use of Facebook as a key communications and news-making tool was novel at the time. He created his Change Maryland page nearly four years before the election. Back then, he told Len Lazarick of MarylandReporter the page was “born out of frustration.”

Hogan had nothing to lose. He was the longest of longshots, similar to Trump’s status at about the same time.

Voters Wanted Change

“A lot of people are not happy with the direction of this state,” Hogan told Lazarick in a column published on MarylandReporter June 13, 2011. “Some businesses have closed and left the state. Others have just given up.”

In another interview back then, Hogan said, “We need a voice for people who don’t seem to have one” – almost exactly what Trump expressed over and over in his presidential campaign.

Hogan excoriated Gov. Martin O’Malley for his tendency to solve Maryland’s post-recession problems by raising an array of taxes and fees. Hogan said enough, already – let’s head in a new direction.

That’s what Trump promised voters, too.

By the time Hogan won his election, he had 120,000 Facebook followers – twice the number O’Malley had after eight years in office. Today, Change Maryland has 269,000 likes and the governor counts 7,431 Twitter followers.

Trump had astronomical success following the identical approach.

Trump Adopts Hogan's Campaign Strategies

President -elect Donald J. Trump

So clearly Trump, either directly or indirectly, learned from Larry Hogan’s trail-blazing 2014 gubernatorial campaign.

Ironically, Hogan refused to support Trump as a candidate or as the GOP nominee for president. Not my cup of tea, the governor said, recognizing The Donald’s unpopularity with Democrats in Maryland (he gained less than 35 percent of the Free State’s vote on Nov. 8).

Yet the similarities in the Hogan and Trump campaign approaches are stunning – and so were the results.

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

 

Political Maryland’s Democratic Cocoon

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 14, 2016 – A Martian landing in Maryland on election night never would have guessed that Donald Trump was about to pull off the upset of the century.

That’s because Maryland is an outlier, an exception to what happens in presidential elections in the rest of the country.Political Maryland's Democratic Cocoon

Trump got slaughtered in Maryland, receiving just a little over a third of the vote. Only a few other heavily Democratic states, like Massachusetts and California, saw such lopsided Democratic victories in the presidential race won by Republican Trump.

The election map in Maryland looked surprisingly similar to the 2012 election map. Democrats have such overwhelming majorities in the densely populated Central Maryland subdivisions that this provides a protective cocoon for the party’s presidential candidate.

Central Maryland Landslide

Just in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in the Washington suburbs, Hillary Clinton ran up a lead of over half-a-million votes.

Overall this Democratic cocoon gave Clinton a big enough lead – even with a reduced turnout – to come close to matching Trump’s entire total in Maryland. Put another way, the Democratic cocoon allowed Clinton to build an advantage of roughly 800,000 votes. In the rest of the state, Trump beat her by just 177,000 votes.

Clinton won nearly 60 percent of Maryland voters. Trump finished at 35 percent – a little worse than Republican Mitt Romney performed in 2012’s presidential election.

Voting patterns this year indicate the Democrats’ cocoon may be expanding slightly. For the first time since 1956, Anne Arundel County went Democratic in the presidential race – by 1,500 votes.

Four years ago, Anne Arundel voters favored Republican Mitt Romney by a mere 203 votes. And in 2008, Arundel went for Republican John McCain by 4,667 votes.

Large Red Victories

At the same time, two Central Maryland counties continued to swing strongly in the Republican direction. Harford County gave 60 percent of its votes to Trump while his winning total in Carroll County was 76 percent.

Those Republican wins, however, could not come close to matching results in the Democratic cocoon subdivisions – Baltimore County, Baltimore City, Howard County, Anne Arundel, Montgomery, Prince George’s and Charles County.

Everywhere else in Maryland, red Republican voters ruled by substantial margins. While these counties hold the vast territorial mass of Maryland, the state’s population centers in the central corridor easily held sway on Election Day.

That population bulge is highly urbanized and suburbanized – ideal Democratic terrain. The rest of the state – mostly exurban and rural – is ideal ground for Republicans.

That was the pattern throughout America last week. The difference: In the rest of the country there were just enough rural/exurban Trump voters to fend off Clinton and win the presidency for the New York real estate developer.

Clinton captured the popular vote but lost the electoral count to Trump. While the nation is evenly split between the two political parties, Republicans hold a substantial state-by-state advantage.

Matching Clinton

In the U.S. Senate race, Democrat Chris Van Hollen pretty much matched Clinton’s vote totals across the Free State. Once again, the Central Maryland cocoon provided a highly protective shield for the Democratic nominee.

Van Hollen ran slightly ahead of Clinton percentage-wise, 60 percent to 59 percent; Republican Kathy Szeliga ran just ahead of Trump, 36 percent to 35 percent.

How the 2016 results in Maryland affect the full slate of local Maryland elections in 2018 is hard to determine two years out.

Central Maryland is growing a bit more Democratic and its population numbers are growing, too. The rest of the state is becoming more Republican but the population rise there – if any – is slowing.

That could pose a problem for Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., a very popular politician these days despite the fact he’s a Republican in a very blue state.

Much will depend on the job Donald Trump does in Washington.

What Happens in Two Years?

If Trump surprises people and has a successful couple of years in office, Hogan will be the beneficiary.  But if Trump remains an immensely controversial figure, Democratic Maryland could prove hostile to Republican candidates in 2018.

Indeed, an argument can be made that Hogan might have been better off under a Clinton presidency, since he wouldn’t have faced any presidential backlash against local Republicans if things go awry in Washington over the next few years.

Still, Hogan has proved a remarkably agile politician, even refusing to endorse or vote for Trump this year. Defeating this independent-minded Republican in 2018 still remains an uphill challenge for Democrats.

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

Buckle Your Election Seatbelts!

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 7, 2016 – Okay, so Maryland’s votes don’t really matter in tomorrow’s tumultuous climax to an unpredictable, deeply divisive political campaign for president.

We already know the outcome in heavily Democratic Maryland. The record-breaking flood of Democrats during early voting is a clear sign it could be another wipeout for Republicans running statewide.

The two GOP candidates, Donald Trump (for president) and Kathy Szeliga (for U.S. Senate) need a miracle-and-a-half to win in the Free State this year.

It ain’t gonna happen.Buckle Your Election Seatbelts!Maryland’s 10 electoral votes are safe for Democrat Hillary Clinton. There’s been no turn of events strong enough to dissuade state Democrats from supporting their party’s presidential nominee.

It’s one of 18 states, plus the District of Columbia that have gone Democratic in each of the past five presidential races.

That would place Clinton at 240 electoral votes – 30 shy of what she needs for victory. A combination of wins in battleground states like Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada could do the trick.

Getting to 270 Electoral Votes

Clinton also holds out hope in Arizona. A local race for county sheriff involving the controversial anti-immigration incumbent Joe Arpaio could prompt a heavy Hispanic turnout that might put Clinton over the top.

In Georgia, only a record turnout in the Atlanta suburbs could bring Clinton victory. Those areas are home to college-educated professionals and middle-income African Americans – two voting segments overwhelmingly for Clinton this year.

Trump’s road to the White House is far more difficult. He’s got to break through in one of those “Solid 18” Democratic strongholds, such as Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. Polls so far haven’t shown that it likely to happen.

Trump also needs to fend off Clinton in the toss-up states and pretty much sweep the board.

It’s a tall order, but not impossible.

His base of support remains white, less well-educated males (and some females) who have suffered from the Great Recession and feel government has ignored their plight while government accommodates immigrant and minority groups.

Can Trump Turn Out His Voters?

Trump has lit a fire under these “mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” voters. But will they come out and vote in overwhelming numbers? Are there enough of this “silent majority” to overcome the growing voting strength of minority groups throughout the country?

Trump’s greatest weakness is in the suburbs surrounding big cities, home to college-educated professionals. For decades, these communities have been solidly Republican in presidential races. Not this time, though.

Donald Trump has turned off women in these households with his coarse language, racism, sexist remarks and disdain for females in general. It could cost him the election.

Szeliga, meanwhile, always faced an uphill battle of long odds running against U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, a popular politician for several decades who has unified the Democratic Party behind him and has made no mistakes in this campaign.

Once Trump’s balloon deflated in Maryland with the state’s leading Republican, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., angrily walking away from him, Szeliga’s chances faded dramatically. Her only hope was a sweeping victory by Trump in Maryland behind a unified GOP. She needed to catch a rising Trump tide. She also needed Van Hollen to alienate part of his party’s faithful, which never happened.

Yet despite the lack of drama in Maryland’s vote-counting tomorrow night, it’s still anyone guess who will occupy the White House.

Polling Confusion

Polls have been terribly misleading and contradictory. Highly suspect polling methodology by some organizations has compounded the situation. So has the sudden glut of polls released by colleges we’ve never even heard of before.

Tomorrow you can throw all those supposedly accurate polls away. None of them can predict with any degree of accuracy the human factor when it comes to casting a presidential ballot. That’s especially true when it comes to that other unpredictable factor – turnout.

So buckle your seatbelts and get ready to stay turned late into the night on Tuesday. It’s even possible we won’t know the outcome till the votes are counted in Alaska, where the polls close at 1 a.m. our time.

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Medical Miracle in Largo?

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 24, 2016—It took over three years to surmount the bureaucratic, regulatory and political hurdles but it finally looks like a half-billion-dollar, state-of-the-art regional medical center will rise slowly in populous Prince George’s County.

It’s way overdue. For a county of 900,000 people, Prince George’s lacks a premier hospital. No wonder so many local residents go outside the county for their medical care.

The organization that runs aging

Medical Miralce in Largo?

Aging Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly

medical facilities in Cheverly, Bowie and Laurel, Dimensions Health Corp., has been a disaster for the county over the past quarter-century. Political hacks and cronies filled management posts. The quality of health care suffered.

For a jurisdiction with a high rate of chronic diseases and the second-largest pool of indigent patients in Maryland (after Baltimore City), there’s long been a crying need for dramatic change.

Now it finally may be coming.

Last week, the Maryland Health Care Commission gave unanimous approval to the 205-bed University of Maryland Prince George’s Regional Medical Center in Largo Town Center. The 11-0 vote masked the enormous, complicated struggle that preceded it.

Plenty of Political Resistance

For years, county politicians with vested interest in maintaining the status quo fought furiously to block efforts to overhaul the Dimensions system. The group’s tentacles extended into the county executive’s office and the county council.

Compounding the situation was the war cry of these officials that white outsiders were trying to oust black Dimensions leaders. In a county with a large African American majority, this vocal objection proved loud enough to ward off reforms.

Finally, the current county executive, Rushern Baker, pressed hard for a Dimensions housecleaning. He brokered a deal with the University of Maryland Medical System to assume control – of both the medical and management staffs. It wasn’t easy getting the Dimensions higher-ups to agree.

Capital contributions from Annapolis proved daunting as well. Lawmakers and governors have been reluctant to pour big bucks into the Prince George’s medical system as long as Dimensions remained in control.

Then Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. objected to paying $20 million a year to Dimensions to keep the existing medical centers afloat until a regional medical facility can be built.

The legislature eventually had to mandate an annual state contribution to keep the current medical facilities in operation until the opening of the new center in 2020.

Total cost: $543 million, with $208 million coming from the state, $208 million from the county and $127 million in bonds issued by the new hospital entity.

Downsized Project

The total would have been higher but for the fact Robert Moffit of the health care commission, who carefully reviewed and analyzed the project, insisted that the new facility be financially viable. The size of the high-rise was reduced and so was the price – by $100 million.

What sealed the deal, though, was the fact UMMS now will be the owner-operator of the regional medical center. With its close ties to the state’s largest medical school, UMMS dominates Maryland’s hospital landscape.

It has a proven track record of turning around deep-in-debt medical centers and bringing superb talent and health care to under-utilized facilities it manages.

Such a reversal still is some years away but already UMMS’ presence at Dimensions hospitals has improved the quality of care and brought down operating expenses.

Medical Miracle in Largo?

Proposed University of Maryland Prince George’s Regional Medical Center in Largo

But UMMS faces another challenge: attracting enough physicians and physician groups to the county to minister to this underserved population. That’s a slow process but the work has begun.

Once the new regional medical center is fully staffed by UMMS personnel and filled with the latest in medical technology, physicians and patients are likely to develop a magnetic attraction to the Largo facility – which Moffit of the health care commission termed an “excellent” location in the heart of the county’s population.

Now that the worst of the regulatory and political barriers seem to have been surmounted, there is light at the end of this long tunnel – and the prospect of greatly enhanced health care for people living in the state’s second-largest jurisdiction.

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