Tag Archives: Rascovar

Plan B for Baltimore

By Barry Rascovar

July 6, 2015 — Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. never devised a backup plan before killing Baltimore’s pivotal, $2.9 billion Red Line rapid-transit route last month. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake seems equally bereft of new transit ideas.

Red Line route killed by Hogan

Red Line route killed by Hogan

So let’s see if we can help with some less expensive, but sensible, proposals to improve mobility and job access in Maryland’s largest urban region.

Since Hogan is expected to stubbornly resist pleas from transit and regional officials to revive a slimmed-down version of the Red Line, it is time to move on to Plan B.

Clearly, Hogan had not done his homework — another rookie mistake from a first-time elected official. A more seasoned politician would have delayed the Red Line announcement until it could be paired with an alternative proposal for moving mass transit forward in metro Baltimore.

Rawlings-Blake hasn’t been much better. She seems bereft of what to do next — a failure of the mayor, her staff and her transportation and planning teams to recognize that viable options were needed as a stand-by once a conservative Republican became governor.

Bare-bones Transit

Baltimore’s transit system might be called a bare-bones, 20th century model. Buses traverse the main thoroughfares radiating like spokes from downtown. Cross-town buses add to the mix of slow-moving public transit on heavily congested city streets.

Baltimore’s Metro (14.5 million riders per year) works exceedingly well — it is fast and clean — but only serves people who can reach its one line, from Owings Mills to Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The region’s north-south light-rail line (8.6 million riders per year) is slow-moving through downtown, never connects directly with the Metro and isn’t heavily used.

There’s also a popular, city-subsidized Downtown Circulator with four routes that offer free service and actually connect people to where they need to go within the city. It’s becoming a drain on a money-poor city, though.

Charm City Circulator bus

Charm City Circulator bus

Suburban transit is a joke. Unless you own a car or live near a corridor road with buses, you’re out of luck in the Baltimore ‘burbs.

That’s a pretty weak transit operation. Killing the Red Line erases an opportunity to integrate and coordinate Baltimore’s public transportation network with a strong east-west line.

Yet there are steps the city and state can take to ameliorate this sad situation. Among the possibilities:

Resurrect the western part of the Red Line, from Social Security headquarters in Woodlawn to the Lexington Market downtown, as a busway.

Separated buses-only lanes built for fast transport could achieve much of what the Red Line was designed to do in West Baltimore and western Baltimore County. Both the light-rail and the Metro have stations near Lexington Market. If a busway proves successful, more spurs could be added, such as a Catonsville tie-in and a Columbia tie-in.

Extend the existing Metro line from Hopkins to Northeast Baltimore and then White Marsh in Baltimore County.

This Green Line, proposed in 2002, would add greatly to Metro ridership, especially if the state offers ample parking for suburban drivers who are anxious to avoid the hassle, delays and high cost associated with taking their cars downtown for the day.

Expand the city’s Charm City Circulator routes to more neighborhoods; embrace the same approach in the suburbs. 

This would require ongoing state subsidies and cooperation from surrounding counties but it would give people — especially the young and the elderly — convenient travel options they don’t have now.

Develop transportation programs for getting city job-seekers to suburban employment centers.

Free Jitney service from bus stops and transit stations to buildings in suburban business parks would help immensely.

Right now, long commutes and one- or two-mile walks from bus and transit stops prevent employable city workers from filling two-thirds of the job openings in the suburbs. That’s a situation Hogan and his economic development team should jump into immediately and devise affordable solutions.

Expand bus service in metro Baltimore; enlarge the MTA’s fleet of buses by purchasing smaller vehicles; reduce the number of bus stops.

Baltimore needs more right-sized transports that can navigate narrow city streets. It also has way too many bus stops, placed there by powerful Democratic officials. Hogan, as a Republican governor, can put an end to this silliness. Fewer close-together stops means faster trips for passengers.

Expand MARC commuter rail service; add frequent rush-hour/mid-day service to Aberdeen Proving Ground; turn MARC’s West Baltimore station into a bus/rail/circulator hub; open a new rail station/bus/circulator hub at Hopkins Bayview; turn the MARC Martin State Airport stop into a rail/bus/circulator hub.

MARC commuter rail train

Commuter rail train (MARC)

MARC can serve as a transit magnet for the metro Baltimore region. The potential is there.

APG and nearby business parks in Harford County need a practical transit option for civilian employees that is fast, convenient and dependable.

MARC’s West Baltimore station was planned as a key transit hub of the Red Line. It’s still a great idea if Hogan wants to show disgruntled residents of that impoverished area he cares.

Hopkins Bayview and Martin State Airport are natural transit hubs, if the state builds large parking lots and adds circulator routes. This would be a godsend for eastern Baltimore County and East Baltimore residents in search of transit alternatives.

Now that Hogan has wiped away a couple of decades of Red Line planning and $288 million already spent on that transit line, it’s incumbent upon the governor to move on to a more cost-effective plan involving a variety of transit options.

He could start with some of the suggestions listed above.

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Hogan to Baltimore: ‘Drop Dead’

By Barry Rascovar

June 29, 2015 –Larry Hogan Jr. never has had an affinity for Baltimore. He’s never lived in a big city. He’s a suburban Washington, suburban Annapolis kind of guy.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. standing in front of Purple Line map

Hogan also is a cold, calculating political animal. He has embraced  a staunch right-wing mindset — all government spending is bad, all liberal social programs are wasteful, all outlays that don’t help him politically are a boondoggle.

Thus, it was easy for Governor Hogan to kill more than a decade worth of work, more than a quarter-billion dollars already spent and to forfeit $900 million in federal funds that would have gone toward building a pivotal rail-transit line for Baltimore, the Red Line.

No Help

It is reminiscent of President Gerald Ford’s stern rebuke to New York City’s pleas for urgent help to avert imminent bankruptcy in 1975. As the New York Daily News summed it up so aptly in its banner headline the next day: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.

Ford thought a bailout would be a wasteful boondoggle, too. Why save the nation’s greatest city? That’s not government’s role!

New York Daily New, 1975

New York Daily New, 1975

Hogan takes the same unyielding attitude toward Baltimore, which in his mind really isn’t part of Maryland.

It’s such a nonentity — where poor people live — that when he sent word on Twitter of his $2 billion in road projects and $167 million for the Purple Line project in the Washington suburbs, Hogan’s aides failed to show Baltimore City on their map. It had vanished into the Chesapeake Bay.

Freudian slip? You bet.

When asked that day what was in his transportation package for Baltimore, the Republican governor said there was nothing.

Saw It Off

Hogan would just as soon see Baltimore and its expensive needs disappear, or as Republican presidential candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater famously said in 1963, “Sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea.”

GOP Presidential Nominee Barry Goldwater

GOP Presidential Nominee Barry Goldwater

It’s no surprise Hogan committed over 90 percent of his transportation package to roads and bridges, becoming the darling of the asphalt and concrete industries. Fund-raising checks will roll in from those interest groups.

Giving the back of the hand to Baltimore is becoming a Hogan habit. Sure, he put on a good face by sending in the National Guard and jovially walking the mean streets of the city briefly (with State Police protection, of course).

But what has the governor done for Baltimore since then to address city residents’ discontent? Precious little.

This is the same governor who deep-sixed needed education aid for city schools in his first budget and then backed out of a compromise to restore some of those funds.

It was just more wasteful, irresponsible spending in Hogan’s eyes.

Body Blow for City

Failing to support the Red Line is a crushing blow for the state’s only large city, a city that in many respects is barely treading water.

The Red Line could have been a giant jobs-generator and income-producer in an urban center with very high unemployment. Instead, he called it a “boondoggle.” (Ironically, Hogan at the same event praised the Purple Line because of it jobs-producing potential.)

it would have been a godsend for the people in West Baltimore who rioted in April over their impoverished conditions, creating access to employment opportunities along the Red Line route, from Woodlawn to Johns Hopkins Bayview.

it would have sparked retail and commercial development and housing at nearly two dozen Red LIne stations.

it would have rejuvenated Baltimore’s sagging downtown business district.

It would have eased some of the traffic gridlock and auto pollution.

Most of all, it would have given Baltimore a connected, viable rail-transit system, providing the missing link not just for city residents but for suburban families living to the east and west.

Sticking to Pledge

The Red Line is dead, killed by a stubborn Larry Hogan. He has fulfilled his campaign promise to conservative, non-urban followers.

There won’t be any major rail transit expansion in Baltimore for two decades or more, thanks to Hogan. That $900 million set aside for the Red Line is lost forever. The highway boys are cheering

The $288 million already spent by the statehas now been turned by Hogan into government waste. His staff, in typical Republican fashion, blamed Democrat Martin O’Malley for that spending on the Red Line, though the onus rightly should have been placed on Republican Bob Ehrlich, who gave the go-ahead.

What Hogan won’t admit is that this money had been well spent — until Hogan turned that sophisticated planning and detailed engineering blueprints to ashes. The wasteful governor is Larry Hogan.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz astutely asked Hogan in a statement what he proposes as his Plan B, his back-up plan, for Baltimore.

There is no alternative. Hogan to City: ‘Drop Dead.’

Now Hogan’s aides are scrambling to come up with some pitiful city road work that can be paraded as a Potemkin Village of a transportation substitute for Baltimore.

Political Calculation

The governor’s decision was a cold, calculated political move: fortify rural and suburban support with $2 billion in road and bridge work and hunt for additional votes for the next election in the Washington suburbs, thanks to his tentative support of the Purple Line.

But don’t be surprised if the Purple Line never gets built.

Hogan remains hostile toward rapid transit. He wants to do the job on the cheap, squeezing Prince George’s and Montgomery counties for hefty extra contributions and then getting a private-sector consortium of builders to chip in another $400 million or more.

This most likely means a slimmed-down rail line that won’t work well or no line at all. There’s also the chance the private-sector developer will be forced to charge exorbitant ticket fares for decades to recoup the investment demanded by Hogan.

Birds of a Feather

It’s no accident Hogan picked a transportation secretary known as a highway man, with zero experience in rapid rail transit. He was brought in to kill at least one of the expensive mass-transit projects, and he  may eventually succeed in killing both.

No wonder Hogan and Secretary Pete Rahn talked about the Red Line as “fatally flawed” and a “boondoggle” because — horrors of horrors — it included costly tunnels through the heart of downtown Baltimore.

Exactly how do you build an efficient subway line — or an “underground” as the British call it — without spending a lot of money to take the Red LIne below grade through the heart of a crowded urban center?

Anything built on the surface would compound downtown gridlock and make a joke of Red Line time savings. Sure, tunneling is very expensive but not if you take into consideration that it will be serving Baltimoreans a century from now.

By Hogan’s and Rahn’s thinking, all of the Washington Metro’s downtown subterranean rail network is a gigantic boondoggle. So is New York City’s subway. And London’s, too.

It’s a phony argument that stalwart conservatives like Hogan trot out.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who helped Hogan get elected, used the same sort of illogic in 2009 to blow up a badly needed $12 billion rail tunnel between his state and New York City that would have doubled New Jersey commuter capacity.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Christie, like Hogan, set aside the long-term good he might do so he could boast to voters about chopping off the head of a wasteful project.

Solid Democratic

What’s wasteful in this case is failing to give Baltimore a decent mass-transit system that holds the potential to stimulate economic development, job growth and improve residents’ quality of life.

Hogan has no interest, though, in anything dealing with Baltimore. He feels like a stranger there. It’s overwhelmingly Democratic turf. Why bother?

“With these projects, we’re going to touch the lives of citizens across the state,” Hogan said in his announcement. He needed to add the words, “except in Baltimore.”

Now Rahn & Co. are hastily trying to jerry-rig an alternative transportation scheme for Baltimore.

More buses on narrow, overcrowded city streets?

Paving over the existing light-rail line and converting it into a busway?

Or just shoveling more transportation dollars to the city to re-pave its potholed network of deteriorating asphalt?

Without speedy rail transit nothing will prove effective in the long run. Yet Hogan says won’t pay for it in Baltimore (though he will in suburban Washington).

Burying Baltimore

Larry Hogan has put a deep nail in Baltimore’s coffin. He’s not looking to ameliorate the damage, either.

Maryland’s governor is a jovial, common-man sort of figure, but we’re learning that he holds a rigidly conservative view of the world.

In Hogan’s world, Baltimore needs to fend for itself because this governor — to use lyrics from the musical  “West Side Story” — would rather “let it sink back in the ocean.”

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Shamelessly Scoring Political Points

By Barry Rascovar

June 25, 2015 — What can Martin O’Malley do to become competitive in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination?

O'Malley campaigning

Presidential candidate Martin O’Malley campaigning

Issue profound position papers on issues of the day? That’s not his style.

Announce impressive lists of endorsements of his candidacy? The names aren’t there.

Pull off headline-grabbing stunts? Now we’re getting there.

Why else would he send an email to supporters and the media a day after the dreadful racial killings in South Carolina headlined, “I’m pissed”?

Why would he start the next three sentences with that same epithet?

Getting Noticed

Drawing attention to O’Malley’s still lagging candidacy was the whole idea. Surprise people with your profanity. Get them to notice.

Well, it worked — somewhat.

The former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor’s stunt gained space in the New York Times — a six-paragraph article headlined, “An Angry O’Malley Calls for an Assault Weapons Ban.” It began this way:

“Using an off-color word to describe his anger, Martin O’Malley, a Democratic candidate for president, called for a new national assault weapons ban and other gun control measures in an email sent to supporters after the shooting deaths at a South Carolina church this week.”

Mission accomplished!

Being “pissed” got O’Malley his brief, passing moment in the spotlight. He highlighted his positions and accomplishments on gun control, though his rush to capitalize on the South Carolina killings made him look rash, opportunistic and foul-mouthed.

Muting the Message

Others in the presidential race, like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, expressed sympathy and muted their political messages while friends and families in Charleston were still in shock from the tragic church killings.

Not O’Malley. For him, it’s all politics, all the time.

It isn’t the first time he’s used crassness, or even direct insults, to make a political point.

When then-Mayor O’Malley was feuding with the city’s African-American state’s attorney, Patricia Jessamy, over the slow pace of criminal prosecutions in Baltimore, he went on a profanity-laced tirade before reporters, skewering Jessamy: “She doesn’t even have the goddamn guts to get off her ass and go in and try this case, and I’m tired of it.”

To say this offended African-American women voters is putting it mildly.  O’Malley was being uncouth, immature and disrespectful. He also distorted the facts.

Stick Figures

On another occasion, O’Malley’s furor over lagging court trials resulted in the mayor submitting a demeaning 10-point plan to Maryland’s top judge — the state’s first African-American chief judge — Robert Bell. It contained stick figures to illustrate how O’Malley’s fast-trial program would work.

Insulting? You better believe it. Intentional? Darned right. Offensive? That was the idea.

O’Malley is no shrinking violent. Sometimes he lets his Irish get the better of him, but usually there is motivation behind his rude behavior.

This time, though, he missed the mark, He came off looking juvenile and un-presidential.

At the moment, O’Malley’s poll numbers are terrible. Even after declaring his formal candidacy, even after constant appearances on TV news programs, even after hurling profane invective in his emails, the candidate is at the very bottom of the list in presidential polls, scoring an embarrassing one percent.

Why?

Perhaps it’s because O’Malley is showing he’s not yet ready for prime time.

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MD: Not Quite ‘Open for Business’

By Barry Rascovar

June 22, 2015 — Larry Hogan, Jr. was elected governor partly because he promised to bring jobs and companies to Maryland and reverse the hostile, anti-business mindset of the outgoing governor (and current presidential candidate), Martin O’Malley.Open-for-business-sign-MD Reporter

Six months later, the results are mixed, at best.

Since Hogan took office in late January, 12 companies have notified the state they will close or impose mass layoffs, costing 1,439 Marylanders their jobs.

The latest is the production crew of “Veep,” an award-winning HBO political comedy that has filmed in East Columbia and Baltimore for four years. The economic impact for the first three years of production: $114 million.

A day earlier, U.S. Foods, Inc. announced closure of its distribution center in Severn in Anne Arundel County, a warehouse that employed 500 Marylanders.

Next week, Labinal Power Systems will shutter its manufacturing plant in Salisbury, where 650 people made wire harnesses for military aircraft, including the Chinook helicopter.

‘Climate Change’?

“Veep” is moving its film operation to California because of that state’s bigger tax credit. Safran, the French owner of Labinal, is consolidating operations in Texas; U.S. Foods is shifting its Severn jobs to Manassas, Va.

MD promotional poster -- out of date

MD promotional poster: Out of date

Hogan’s pledge to implement business “climate change” is not working as expected.

Sure, he proudly crowed about McCormick & Co.’s decision to build a large headquarters edifice in Hunt Valley rather than moving its 2,000-member HQ staff to Pennsylvania or Virginia.

But all is not well in the Free State.

Despite Hogan’s promotional claims, Maryland may not be “Open for Business” in the eyes of corporate leaders.

Job Losses Mount

Unilever is moving its production of vegetable oil and margarine spreads, like Country Crock and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, from Baltimore to Kansas. Job loss: 137.

DynCorp International is shuttering its aviation support equipment facility at Solomons Island in Southern Maryland. Job loss: 121.

Clothier Jos. A. Bank is displacing 122 employees at its Hampstead plant in Carroll County.

T. Rowe Price is outsourcing 211 accounting and record-keeping jobs from its Owings Mills campus in Baltimore County.

In July, 69 workers at Riverbed Technology in Bethesda in Montgomery County will be jobless.

In August, 54 workers at Orion Safety Products’ Easton plant in Talbot County will be out of work.

Historic Distillery Closes

Meanwhile, the giant British firm, Diageo, is throwing 103 people at its bottling plant on Washington Boulevard in Baltimore County into the unemployment lines.

This ends 83 years of liquor operations there: The Relay plant was Maryland’s first legal distillery opened in 1933 after the end of Prohibition; Seagram’s used to bottle Calvert Whiskey in the building.

Not exactly the kind of job-creating start Hogan had in mind.

Results still lacking

Results still lacking

Of course, he did brag about the 16,400 jobs added overall in April — though he downplayed the 5,700 jobs lost in March.

That’s pretty much in line with O’Malley’s uneven job-creating performance.

In his last full month in office, the presidential candidate proudly announced the state had generated 11,000 new jobs in December.

Inconvenient Truth

What we’re seeing is the reality politicians don’t want to admit: They have, at best, marginal ability to influence the job-creation, job-loss decisions of private-sector companies. Larger macro-economic and macro-corporate factors are in play.

Thus, O’Malley could do little to stem job losses during and after the nation’s Great Recession. Hogan can do little to overcome corporate consolidations or international and industry developments that influence CEOs.

Yes, Maryland’s economic development team under Hogan is far friendlier and eager to make it simpler for businesses to re-locate to the state by easing their regulatory burden.

But Maryland remains a relatively high-cost state for corporations, especially compared to neighboring Virginia and Delaware. Government red tape is terrible in Baltimore City and many of the state’s most populous counties.

Hogan also is ideologically opposed to large financial giveaways to corporations — a form of economic bribery favored by many states.

‘Veep’ Fumble

Thus, he failed to offer “Veep” a larger tax credit than California to keep the film crew in Maryland, even though the legislature had given him that authority.

No wonder he earned the wrath of Howard County Del. Frank Turner, who said Hogan “dropped the ball,” and the county’s state senator, Ed Kasemeyer, complained Hogan sent the wrong signal “that Maryland isn’t committed.”

Loss of “Veep” and possibly “House of Cards” next year is a serious blow to a budding state industry. Just the economic impact of HBO film production in Maryland since 1997 is estimated at $300 million.

Job losses from a diminished film industry in Maryland could affect thousands of workers and businesses.

According to Towson University’s Regional Economic Studies Institute (RESI), the average film production in the state spends $16.8 million, hires 746 Marylanders, calls on 857 Maryland businesses and vendors for accessories and supplies, and spends 2,952 room nights in Maryland hotels. The average tax credit for a Maryland film production: just $3.3 million.

But don’t expect Hogan to get in a bidding war for films with California or other states. How he will make up for the job losses and lost spending isn’t clear.

Immediate Challenges

He faces other, more immediate and daunting challenges that could involve distasteful state subsidies to draw jobs to Maryland or keep jobs in-state.

There’s the question of how to retain Marriott’s headquarters (2,000 workers) in Bethesda from moving to Virginia, which is eager to offer a bevy of attractive tax and financial enticements.

There’s the question of winning the battle for a new FBI headquarters. Again, Virginia is offering a battery of enticements to the federal government. How can Maryland effectively compete when the governor is ideologically skeptical of offering lavish incentives?

There’s also the matter of the rapacious owner of the Washington Redskins, Daniel Snyder, who wants to shake down either the Maryland, Virginia or District of Columbia government for a new stadium that will cost him nothing, or next to nothing.

These will be tough decisions for Hogan, especially with his distaste for corporate giveaways.

Yet proving Maryland is open for business may require more than easing restrictive business regulations and putting a smile on the faces of Maryland’s business-development leaders.

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

Hopeless in Baltimore?

By Barry Rascovar

June 17, 2015 — Sometimes you just want to scream, “What an outrage!”

Book burning

That certainly is the case with the “Baltimore Book Burning” revealed in The Baltimore Sun — hundreds of books mindlessly trashed by city school officials who seemed to have forgotten their raison d’etre: to create a love of learning among children and to better the community.

Instead of taking the textbooks and library books from the now-closed Heritage High School (shuttered as a cost-saving move) and wisely offering them to students, their parents or others in the community who might benefit from the knowledge and pleasure books can impart, bureaucratic knuckleheads opted to “recycle” them — a polite, modern-day way of conducting an old-fashioned book-burning.

Any book published before 2000 was deemed outdated and thus useless to other schools or to the citizens of Baltimore who might benefit from reading a good yarn, or a book that helps them learn.

That’s right, books the same age as the one I wrote, entitled, “The Great Game of Maryland Politics,” were deemed antiquated. All those words about the politicians and government actions during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were judged to be useless by so-called “educators.”

So were books by Mark Twain, John Milton, Thomas Hardy, John Steinbeck, William Shakespeare and Elie Wiesel.

Anti-education Educators?

There were plenty of newer books in the junk pile, too, because no one from school headquarters bothered to supervise this mass destruction of knowledge printed on paper.

It’s hard to remain hopeful about Baltimore’s future when the school system seems dominated by anti-education paper-pushers and numbers-crunchers.

No wonder many teachers, parents and elected officials were anguished by this flagrant display of uncaring hostility toward the written word.

How can they have faith in the city’s education leaders after witnessing this sickening waste and intentional destruction of essential learning tools?

Back to the Basics

Baltimore is a struggling, aging urban city with serious poverty, employment, housing and crime issues that urgently need addressing. It also has a school system filled with too many unthinking placeholders more concerned about their paychecks than the basics of education.

Humanity suffers when there are intentional book-burnings like this one. Ignorance flourishes when bureaucrats fail to open their eyes to simple, creative solutions that would benefit society.

What happened at Heritage High School is unacceptable. Baltimore City’s political leaders need to act.

Either the school system becomes a partner in educating and uplifting the city’s communities or it becomes an enemy of the people.

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Presidential Dreamin’

By Barry Rascovar

June 1, 2015 — What a surprise. . . . Martin O’Malley is running for president.

Gov. Martin O'Malley

Martin O’Malley

It’s now official but it hardly was a secret Maryland’s former governor and Baltimore’s former mayor would be spending the next nine months trooping around Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and other key Democratic primary states.

At the moment, he’s a long, longshot. Ireland’s largest bookmaker, Paddy Power, puts O’Malley’s chances at 25-to-1. (Let’s hope he plucked some four-leaf clovers when he visited the Old Sod recently.)

That’s better than the odds on Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (33-to-1) or former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb (50-to-1), but they’re not O’Malley’s problem.

Climbing to the Top

Mount Hillary is the former governor’s Mount Everest of a challenge. Hillary Clinton is given an even-money chance of winning the presidency by Paddy Power. (Her closest rival, according to the bookmaker, is Republican Jeb Bush. His odds are 7-to-2.)

The latest (May 28) Quinnipiac Poll shows Clinton with 57 percent of the Democratic primary vote. O’Malley is a whopping 56 percent points behind.

Sanders registered a respectable 15 percent, Vice President Joe Biden (who may not even become a candidate) had 9 percent of the Democratic vote, and O’Malley was tied at 1 percent with Webb and former Rhode Island Governor and Senator Lincoln Chaffee.

Clearly, Martin O’Malley has a huge, almost impossible, challenge in front of him.

But we’re talking politics, here, not statistical mathematics. Anything can happen. And sometimes does.

Remember 1976, when a little-known ex-Georgia governor surprised everyone and not only won the Democratic nomination but went on to defeat President Gerald Ford?

Jimmy Carter was such a no-name that when he campaigned in Annapolis in the summer of 1975, I wrote him off after listening to him deliver a mundane speech to a dozen or so retired officers at the Naval Reserve Club.

So much for my crystal-ball abilities.

That Arkansas Governor

And remember when a former Arkansas governor came from behind to defeat the likes of Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas to win the Democratic presidential nomination?

Bill Clinton even lost the Maryland primary to Tsongas, 43-36 percent, but ran the table in southern primary states.  He went on to defeat a sitting president, George Herbert Walker Bush.

In politics, miracles can happen.

It takes high-voltage energy, intestinal fortitude, the guts of a burglar, a solid record in government, a strong message and the determination to succeed no matter how bleak the situation.

O’Malley has all those attributes. He proved that when he ran for mayor of Baltimore in 1999 as a distinct underdog — the only white candidate in a minority-majority city. He shocked a lot of people by putting together a flawless campaign and winning fairly easily.

Then in 2006, O’Malley took on an incumbent governor, Republican Bob Ehrlich, and beat him convincingly.

But running a successful presidential campaign is in another, elite category — especially when you’re running against an overwhelming favorite whose husband remains the most popular politician in the nation and who would be the first woman to hold the country’s highest office.

Unknown to Voters

Hillary Clinton’s name recognition is near-100 percent. O’Malley’s is near-zero outside of certain political circles.

But O’Malley has the edge in actually running a large government bureaucracy, first in Baltimore and then in Annapolis. He has dealt with the tough urban issues and fiscal crises; he has crafted liberal legislative agendas and then negotiated his way to victory.

He is from a younger, more energetic generation than Hillary Clinton. He can even strum and sing his way to the presidency, if need be.

On the minus side, O’Malley will have trouble outliving has “zero tolerance” policing tactics he instituted in Baltimore as mayor. While mass arrests for petty crimes did, indeed, bring down the city’s crime rate, it embittered generations of blacks who took out their anger in a wave of civil unrest this April.

Zero tolerance is offensive to most liberal Democrats, and O’Malley may have trouble explaining his past support for that policing policy.

He also could have difficult explaining the dozens of taxes he imposed on Maryland citizens during his eight years as governor. By the time O’Malley left office, his unpopularity stemmed from his reputation as a relentless proponent of tax increases.

Republican Larry Hogan was elected governor last year by running successfully against O’Malley’s heavy-handed tax record. While this may not be a major detriment for O’Malley during the primaries, it could kill his chances of winning in a national general election.

At the moment, O’Malley’s candidacy seems hopeless. But what if Hillary Clinton has health problems (she’s already had one blood clot)? What if the “get Hillary” media and right-wing frenzy persuades her to withdraw?

What If. . .?

Or what if O’Malley’s solidly far-left agenda gains momentum in the early primaries among Democratic voters and he becomes the cover-boy favorite of the media and liberal interest groups?

It’s also likely that O’Malley has a back-up plan: Campaign like crazy throughout Iowa and New Hampshire, but if Clinton still buries him in an avalanche of votes, gracefully withdraw.

Then declare your abiding support for Hillary and fanatically campaign for Clinton around the country as  a surrogate.

Under this backup plan, O’Malley would aim for presidential elections in 2020 or 2024. He’d still be a relatively youthful (for a president) 56 or 60.

At the moment, O’Malley isn’t held in high regard in his home state. It’s not even certain he could win the Maryland primary.

Both U.S. senators and most of the state’s Democratic establishment are gung-ho backers of Hillary Clinton. The Clinton family is beloved in the state’s African American communities — a pivotal component in any Democratic primary.

Yet we’re nearly a year away from that election in Maryland. O’Malley has plenty of time to improve his position — and hope that the front-runner makes some fateful mistakes.

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

The Laurel Preakness? Get Real

By Barry Rascovar

May 25, 2015 — The Stronach Group, which owns Maryland’s two thoroughbred one-mile tracks, is making noise, once again, about moving the crown jewel of Free State racing, the Preakness Stakes, to Laurel Race Course.

 

Pimlico Race Course

Pimlico Race Course

It’s a non-starter — and the Stronach folks probably know it.

Legally such a move can’t take place without General Assembly approval, which won’t happen.

From a racing standpoint, owner Frank Stronach would have to be brain-dead to transplant the Preakness.

All the fabled history would be lost. Laurel races couldn’t be compared with the 140 years of past Preakness performances at Pimlico. Different track, different racing surface, different times for traversing a mile and three-sixteenths.

Laurel, as built, can’t hold 140,000 fans; Pimlico can and did this month. Nor is it a certainty Laurel could draw even a respectable Preakness crowd.

It’s an isolated, suburban site where families are more interested in their kids’ soccer games than a horse race. No one can walk to the track, or catch a bus, easily. Few folks from the Baltimore region would make the long trek.

Sure, Laurel’s a nice, more up-to-date track, but to borrow from Gertrude Stein, “There is no there there.”

Diminished Triple Crown

A Laurel Preakness would diminish the prestige and currency of racing’s Triple Crown, thus devaluing Stronach’s Maryland holdings.

It also would be perceived as a huge slap at Baltimore just when the city is trying to recover from April’s civil unrest and the black eye it received nationally and internationally. The bitterness from such a move would be harsh and unforgiving.

On paper, consolidating Maryland thoroughbred racing at one track might appear a no-brainer, but it isn’t once you start peeling back the multi-layers of reality.

What the Stronach folks really want — given the fact a one-track racing schedule is illegal and probably a long-term money-loser — is concessions from Baltimore City and the state of Maryland to offset the two tracks’ operating losses, estimated at $5 million to $8 million annually.

There are a number of ways politicians could provide the track owner with financial help.

Subsidy Options

The state legislature, for instance, could revise the division of slots revenues slightly to allocate up to $10 million annually if the Stronach Group holds a spring-summer meet at an upgraded Pimlico.

The state already guarantees each of Maryland’s two standardbred tracks $1.2 million a year for just 40 days of racing. The money comes out of the slots revenue designated for bolstering purses at those harness-racing tracks at Rosecroft and Ocean Downs.

Stronach’s thoroughbred tracks are expected to receive nearly $46 million in slots revenue for purse awards in fiscal 2017 and close to $50 million by 2020. Surely the law could be amended to let the tracks apply for a subsidy from that account to offset operating losses .

Pimlico logo

Both the state and city also could work with the Stronach Group to float inexpensive bonds for some of the improvements at Pimlico.

Baltimore City, which already is giving over $100 million in tax breaks and another $300 million in public subsidies to developers of Harbor Point downtown, could offer a similar but smaller package of infrastructure improvements and long-term tax rebates if the Stronach Group turns Pimlico into a redeveloped, multi-entertainment center.

Stronach’s Contribution

While Frank Stronach has dragged his feet in putting dollars into his Maryland tracks, he has been a good corporate citizen, even footing the bill for an expensive machine tool-and-dye training school south of the Pimlico track that taught inner-city residents the skills needed to secure good-paying, in-demand jobs.

Thanks to millions in slots revenue already designated for future race track improvements, Maryland has signaled its willingness to help revitalize thoroughbred racing.

Now it needs to seal the deal in a way that ensures Pimlico’s future and offers hundreds of new jobs for the depressed community that lies to the historic track’s south and west.

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Hogan’s Hypocrisy

By Barry Rascovar

May 18, 2015 — Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. makes it sound like he’s riding to the rescue of Maryland’s underfunded pension program that has been continually “raided” by evil Democratic legislators in Annapolis.

Gov. Larry Hogan & Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford

Gov. Larry Hogan (left) & Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford

What a bunch of hogwash. It’s pure Hogan hypocrisy.

Hogan’s stance — torpedoing a $68 million education appropriation to the state’s most populous jurisdictions and shifting some of that money into the state pension fund — is based on politics, not policy.

Indeed, Hogan is a late convert to the cause of pension-fund integrity.

Silent Secretary

When legislative analysts went before House and Senate budget panels and proposed a 50 percent reduction in Hogan’s $150 million supplemental appropriation to the pension fund, the governor’s budget secretary not only failed to object but congratulated lawmakers for their assiduous work in responsibly paring Hogan’s budget request.

Not until it became politically expedient later in the session to slam Democrats for cutting the supplemental appropriation in half did Hogan belatedly turn into a pension-funding hawk.

Since then, he’s continually referred to Democratic lawmakers’ “raid” of pension money.

Another bit of Hogan flummery.

The pension agency got so offended at this misguided gubernatorial propaganda pitch that it issued a press release regarding “the mistaken impression that the pension fund had been ‘raided’ by the General Assembly during the recently-completed session. This is not the case.”

No Dipping Allowed

The agency explained that the dispute centered on how much extra should be spent to help the state more quickly reach full funding to pay for future pension payouts. The state’s required $1.8 billion budget contribution to the retirement account this year remained untouched.

Indeed, it’s illegal for the legislature or the governor to “dip into” the $45.7 billion pension fund. That money can only be used to make pension payouts. No “raids” are permitted. But you’d never know that from listening to the governor’s spiel.

Hogan’s pension purity pursuit was his way of diverting attention from his other action — denying important state dollars to Baltimore City and other high-cost subdivisions to help them avoid layoffs or cuts in school programs.

He said it would be “absolutely irresponsible” to give that money to the schools instead of pouring it into the pension fund.

He’s got his priorities reversed.

The greatest immediate urgency is bolstering education achievement in distressed communities like West Baltimore. That takes money.

Further fortifying the state’s pension program can be done more gradually over the next decade or two.

Harsh Consequences

Especially in light of civil unrest in poor, racially blighted Baltimore neighborhoods, Hogan’s decision to yank $11.6 million away from the city school system seems short-sighted and counter-productive.

The consequences of his action could be quite harsh when the General Assembly meets next January.  This slap in the face to Baltimore schools won’t be forgotten. Nor will legislators from Prince George’s and Montgomery counties forget Hogan’s slight, either. They lost a combined $37 million in school money.

The governor’s next big decision could be the fate of the two mass-transit lines affecting those three major jurisdictions — the east-west Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs.

His actions on the two lines could prove pivotal in his dealings with Democratic lawmakers. Deep-sixing either project will prompt an uproar. Yet Hogan is intent on appeasing his conservative base by finding ways to sharply reduce mass-transit costs.

He’s playing with political dynamite.

If he sets off a Democratic explosion over the fate of the Red and Purple lines, the resulting fallout could cripple Hogan’s efforts to constructively deal with the General Assembly over the next three years.

Judging from his rejection of supplemental education aid, this governor seems determined to restrict Maryland’s future spending habits at all costs. His goal is to lower taxes. Everything else is secondary.

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Hogan Keeps It Simple — and Low-key

By Barry Rascovar

May 11, 2015 — Larry Hogan Jr. is proving to be an unusual governor for Maryland, in many ways the polar opposite of his predecessors, Martin O’Malley and Bob Ehrlich.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Both Democrat O’Malley and Republican Ehrlich love publicity and making a PR splash. They craved the spotlight, issued a tidal wave of propaganda pitches and tried to dominate the daily news coverage.

Republican Hogan wants none of the above. He’s such a modest, low-key governor that he brings to mind the gubernatorial years of an equally low-key Maryland chief executive, Harry Hughes.

But there’s a difference. Hughes came to Maryland’s top office steeped in state government and political expertise. Hogan, in contrast, was a novice who had never held an elective post.

During his campaign last year, Hogan followed a disciplined KISS strategy — “keep it simple, stupid.” His themes purposely avoided divisive social issues and stuck to a few key promises — cut the state budget and then cut taxes.

Narrow Legislative Focus

Hogan followed a similar KISS approach in his first legislative session. His one and only focus: developing a slimmed-down budget that came close to wiping out Maryland’s chronic structural deficit.

The rest of his so-called “agenda” consisted of leftovers from the campaign trail — unrealistic Republican proposals that stood no chance in a heavily Democratic General Assembly.

During those 90 days in Annapolis, Hogan held few press conferences, issued few press releases and remained pretty much in the background.

By session’s end, he had won much of the budget battles, setting the stage for a similar push next year to make room for tax cuts.

He gave us a preview of his intentions last week by announcing reduced tolls on Maryland’s roads and bridges.

Bay Bridge toll cut

While this puts a giant crimp in Maryland’s efforts to replace aging bridges and improve interstate roads, the symbolism of Hogan’s toll-cutting action is what counted for the governor.

Even when dealing with the volatile protests and unrest in Baltimore, the new governor kept his participation low-key — and simple.

His actions were few but decisive — calling in the National Guard when requested, moving his office to Baltimore and delivering daily updates in which he basically introduced law-enforcement leaders to brief the media.

Hogan in Baltimore unrest

When cornered by reporters, Hogan refused to blame the mayor for what had occurred and refused to discuss details of events. He sounded a one-note response: “We are here to keep the peace.”

Compared with the frenetic, 24/7 campaign styles O’Malley and Ehrlich brought to the governor’s mansion, Hogan’s modest and even shy approach is a refreshing change.

His eternal optimism, concern and ready smile serve him well with Marylanders.

Next Big Test

That widespread popularity soon could be tested when Hogan decides what to do about two costly but critical mass-transit projects — Baltimore’s Red Line and the suburban Washington Purple Line.

He called them unaffordable during the campaign, but rejecting either project will create deep antagonisms and hostility toward the Republican governor that could dog him in the legislature for the rest of his term.

So far, Hogan has avoided these kinds of flash points, knowing that a Republican governor can ill afford alienating a large chunk of the legislature’s majority party.

How he navigates between his campaign statements and strong public sentiment for the Red and Purple Lines in three of Maryland’s largest and most politically influential jurisdictions will tell us much about Hogan’s ability to navigate his way through perilous political situations.

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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. Contact him at brascovar@hotmail.com.

Taming MD’s Structural Deficit

By Barry Rascovar

April 27, 2015 —  Can Republican Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. tame Maryland’s long-standing structural budget deficit? Judging from his first stab at it, he’s more than halfway there.

But high hurdles lie ahead if he is to reach the point where the state’s ongoing revenues far exceed annual spending.

Taming MD's Structural Deficit

Hogan may grumble to appease conservative groups about the remaining $206 million structural imbalance in the budget that’s been approved for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Yet that is a sharp reduction from the deficit anticipated back in November of a $525 million shortfall under Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Not Too Shabby

The General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services (DLS) says Hogan is 68 percent of the way toward wiping out the structural imbalance — and if he continues to hold firm in denying state workers a 2 percent pay raise starting July 1, he will reach 82 percent of his goal.

Not too shabby for a Republican governor facing an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature.

Those deficit numbers will grow somewhat if Hogan decides to give Democratic lawmakers some of the $202 million they asked him to restore to various education, health and wage programs.

Still, Hogan begins preparation for his second budget in remarkably good shape.

It’s no secret that the Big Three growth items in Maryland’s budget are: 1) soaring debt service payments; 2) continually rising education aid, and 3) ever-rising health-care costs.

Too Many Bonds

Debt service alone will jump by $167 million next year. Payments on general-obligation bonds has tripled in the last three years. Hogan needs to take a hard look at ways to reduce or slow Maryland’s issuance of those bonds, including the always popular school construction allocations, which in July’s budget hits a record $380 million.

Complicating matters for the governor is Maryland’s too-slow economic recovery from the Great Recession. DLS estimates state revenues in fiscal year 2017 will grow a modest 4 percent. Yet it will take a 5.7 percent growth rate to balance spending with revenue.

More economic development is the key. That’s a long-term proposition, though.

Hogan’s aggressive “Maryland is open for business” theme won’t result in major tax gains for the state any time soon. So the governor will have to continue cutting back on state agency spending while finding areas where deeper cuts can be made without creating a harsh backlash in the legislature.

Ratcheting down the structural imbalance is Hogan’s best course. The problem is that he’s also determined to deliver on his main campaign promise — lower taxes.

Thus, balancing the state’s books isn’t enough. He’s got to go further so he can justify a tax cut that does not create a new structural deficit.

More Daunting Problems

That’s where Hogan’s problems multiply. Aid to local governments is a likely target, until you start to pull the plug on specific spending programs, like money for schools, police, fire-fighting, the poor, libraries and parks.

MD's Structural Deficit

Indeed, almost every area of state government spending affects huge numbers of Maryland citizens. Hogan must take care not to antagonize too many of them. If he does, it could jeopardize his re-election

Looking down the road, Hogan faces even more daunting budget difficulties, Indeed, DLS puts the state’s combined deficit for fiscal years 2019 and 2020 at $1.165 billion .

As bad as this sounds, it is a huge improvement over what O’Malley left behind: a combined estimated deficit for those two years of nearly $2 billion. Hogan reduced that future imbalance by 41 percent in his first budget.

Fundamental spending changes won’t be possible with Maryland’s Democratic legislature acting as a brake on Hogan’s budget-cutting tendencies. That’s why the slow-but-steady approach makes so much sense.

It won’t please Hogan’s absolutist supporters, but gradualism could prove the most practical and politically astute path to follow.

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