Tag Archives: Rascovar

Avoiding MD’s Pension Reality

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 14, 2017 – Let’s be honest: No one wants to face up to Maryland’s giant $19 billion long-term shortfall in its retirement program for state workers and teachers. Not the Republican governor nor the Democratic legislature.

True to his Lone Ranger approach, Gov. Larry Hogan is calling for a dramatic change – an optional 401(k)-style retirement program for new state employees.

It sounds good but falls apart when examined close up.Avoiding MD's Pension Reality

The best that can be said about this plan is that it saves both the state and new workers upfront money. Unfortunately, it could leave tens of thousands of state workers far worse off in their retirement years.

Hogan didn’t bother consulting with legislative leaders, pension agency officials or the employee unions to get their input and cooperation. Thus, the governor’s plan has zero chance of passing.

But it goes over well on TV and radio. It allows Hogan to brag that he tried to fix Maryland’s pension problem – though he really didn’t.

Flawed Retirement Approach

Hogan’s plan would weaken the current retirement program by encouraging new workers to leave the system and instead sign up for his 401(k) savings plan. This could mean the loss of a huge sum of regular contributions to the existing pension system. The retirement system’s shortfall would grow, not shrink.

As for workers opting for this “defined contribution” program, 5 percent of their paychecks would go into their IRA account, matched equally by the state. (State workers today contribute 7 percent of their salaries into the pension fund.)

Workers then could invest all that retirement money into the stock market or other financial instruments.

That’s where the risk soars.

In bad economic times, state workers could lose much of their retirement nest egg if they’re not careful. Worse, they’d no longer be eligible to receive a regular state pension. They could find themselves leading a hard-scrabble life in retirement.

The notion of providing state workers with optional ways of saving for their “golden years” makes sense. But not if it means entirely eliminating that pension check.

Existing 401(k) Option

There’s no reason to embrace Hogan’s plan because the state already offers supplemental retirement programs that do much the same thing: a 401(k) investment option and tax-deferred annuity and investment plans. Workers can defer up to $18,000 in salary annually.

The only catch is that the state does not offer a matching payment, as nearly all private-sector businesses with 401(k) plans do. A healthy state match could go a long way toward encouraging workers to save a lot more for retirement.

Perhaps the best way to go is a hybrid system combining a smaller, defined pension benefit with a 401(k) savings component that includes a generous state match. That would put most state retirees in a much stronger position after they leave work. It also could ease the state’s retirement-fund shortfall over the long run.

The catch: It would cost Hogan & Co. a lot more money each year to get such a program started, money the governor doesn’t have in these uncertain economic times.

Besides, Hogan isn’t about to pour more money into worker pensions if he can avoid it.  In fact in his new budget he eliminated a mandated $50 million supplemental contribution to the retirement program created to help bring down the shortfall.

That move deepens Maryland’s pension predicament.

There’s no incentive for Democratic lawmakers to support Hogan’s poorly thought-through bill, either. They’d just as soon let the pension problems slide, hoping against hope for a return of strong economic growth, which could mean high investment returns for the retirement agency.

Thus, the governor’s bill will get a polite hearing – followed by a dignified burial.

Then Hogan can denounce Democrats for failing to “save” the state retirement program. He’ll score political points while kicking the true pension-funding dilemma into the future.

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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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Del. Dan Morhaim’s Response

Jan. 27, 2017 — Maryland Del. Dan K. Morhaim of Baltimore County, the subject of an ethics inquiry over his lack of transparency concerning his financial arrangement with a marijuana dispensary and growing company, took issue with last week’s column on ethics in Annapolis in which he was mentioned.

His lengthy, legalistic response — which delves into aspects not mentioned in my column — is reproduced below in full. He disputes any and all claims of ethics violations. He asserts he followed legislative rules of conduct.

Not discussed is what the legislature’s Joint Ethics Committee is still considering: Whether his decision to not fully publicize his financial relationship with a company applying for marijuana licenses was acceptable behavior.

Morhaim was a longtime supporter of legalizing medical marijuana and co-sponsored the bill that became law. He also spoke out frequently at meetings of the Medical Cannabis Commission as it promulgated rules for awarding grower and dispensary licenses. He failed to publicly inform the panel, his fellow lawmakers and constituents of his financial relationship with Doctor’s Orders, which won preliminary licenses. He is now the company’s medical director.

Does this constitute a violation of the public’s trust or the General Assembly’s rules of conduct? Morhaim says no.

Morhaim’s other work in the General Assembly over two decades has been exemplary, acting as a leader on procurement reforms and giving much-needed expert guidance, as an emergency room physician, on a host of medical matters.

Yet the marijuana ethics issue was so troubling to legislative leaders that Morhaim was removed from the committee handling key health policy bills and lost his subcommittee chairmanship.

This is not the first time Morhaim has defended himself against an accusation of unprofessional conduct.

In 2005, he was reprimanded by the state’s physician disciplinary board. He agreed to a one-year probation for pre-signing blank forms falsely certifying he had examined nursing home residents and found that they met conditions required for withdrawal of treatment.

Morhaim, juggling two jobs as an ER doctor and a physician for a nursing home, maintained this was a clerical mistake and that no patient safety issues were involved.

The physician board felt otherwise but gave him one of it less severe penalties.

Here, then, is Morhaim’s letter explaining his side of the current ethics controversy:

“Mr. Rascovar/Barry:

             “You got several important points wrong in your articles about me.

             “First, this investigation began because of an erroneous Washington Post report that suggested I had not made proper disclosures.  In fact, I did. The Post has since retracted its erroneous report. [Editor’s Note: The Post did not retract its story nor indicate it was “erroneous.” It simply elaborated on the article, presenting more of Morhaim’s side and fuller details about Maryland’s legislative disclosure rules.]

           “The Washington Post made the following correction on 10/14/2016 that recognized that I followed all disclosure rules.  The Post wrote: ‘Correction: Earlier versions of this article included incomplete information about what Maryland Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Baltimore County) reported on financial disclosure forms. While Morhaim did not report that he had been hired as a consultant to be the clinical director of the prospective medical cannabis company Doctor’s Orders, he did disclose that he might work as a consultant in the medical cannabis field and had received income as a consultant. Maryland law requires lawmakers to disclose sources of income but does not require those who work as consultants or lawyers to reveal their clients. A July 14 letter from Dea Daly, ethics counsel to the General Assembly, said Morhaim was not required to disclose his consulting clients on the form.’

            “In an email (9/28/2016) sent to me, the Washington Post reporter concluded that, ‘I plan on reporting that nothing in these emails shows that you were trying to lobby for Doctor’s Orders and nothing shows you pushing regulations that appear to narrowly benefit Doctor’s Orders.’  On 9/29/2016, the Post published, ‘The emails do not show Morhaim directly pushing for any changes­ that appear to be tailored specifically to benefit Doctor’s Orders’(This statement appeared in paragraph 20 of a 24-paragraph article.)   

             “It’s unfortunate and inappropriate that you’ve based your articles on allegations solely from other media. At no time did you contact me to get my perspective on these issues.

             “Second, before I had any business dealings with a medical cannabis applicant, I consulted with the Legislative Ethics Committee’s counsel about its propriety, and I followed their advice. All the proper disclosures as required by State Ethics Law were made, and these are in the public record.

            “Third, because I was following the written advice of the Legislative Ethics Committee staff, it was felt that there might be a conflict of interest on the part of that staff. Therefore an independent counsel was deemed advisable to insure that the investigation was above suspicion. There is no suggestion that retaining the independent counsel reflects on the gravity of the investigation. It’s also important to note that no charges or complaint have been filed in the case.

            “Fourth, I had no contact with any medical cannabis applicant until after the enabling 2015 legislation was enacted. I have been fighting for Maryland patients to have access to medical cannabis for the last 14 years, and my record on disinterested health public policy is second to none. For the one related bill I introduced after that (HB104 – 2016), I received clearance in writing in advance from the ethics counselor. Further, neither I, nor any member of my family, has any financial interest in any cannabis entity.

             “Fifth, my consulting work for an applicant was never kept secret. That’s why we’re having this discussion to begin with. It was properly disclosed on the application, which is a public document. I didn’t tout this association because this would have been improper. Had I done so, it would have been perceived as lobbying for the applicant instead of letting the rigorous double blind selection process of the Cannabis Commission play out. My consulting work was focused exclusively on clinical issues and concluded in the fall of 2015.

             “Sixth, my work as a consultant and as a practicing physician is not different in any way from the work done by the many legislators – in our citizen legislature – who are lawyers, accountants, or businesspersons. They are required to disclose that they have dealings with subject matter affected by state legislation, but as consultants they are not required to name their clients on the Legislative Ethics disclosure forms. The ethics counselor, as part of the disclosure filing process, confirmed this policy to me in writing.

             “If you wish, documentation of any or all of the above can be provided to you.

            ” Last, I respectfully ask you to do what the Washington Post did: print a correction to the facts.

             “Thank you for your consideration, and should you choose to write further articles about this one aspect of my legislative activities, I trust you will keep in mind the factual record provided to you now. 

“Sincerely,

“Dan

“Del. Dan Morhaim”

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Politicizing Ethics Reforms in MD

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 23, 2017 – Two bleak views of American society were on display last week coming straight from our elected executives – expressed first by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and the next day by President Donald Trump at his inauguration.

On Thursday, Hogan stood in front of the State House steps at a staged event so he could rail against the “culture of corruption” in Maryland’s legislature – though evidence of this “culture” is limited to a handful of examples.

Politicizing Ethics Reforms

Gov. Larry Hogan promoting his ethics reforms

Then he marched up the steps in photo-op fashion to present one of his ethics reform bills to House and Senate officials.

On Friday, Trump used his first speech as president to paint a deeply negative portrait of the country – despite years of prosperity and slow, steady growth. “This American carnage” he called the situation.

In each case, the Republican speakers left no doubt they were riding to the rescue on a white horse to save citizens from a clear and present danger perpetrated by the Democratic establishment.

Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric was understandable. That’s his style. This billionaire New Yorker sees himself as champion of “the people.” He says he inherited an Augean stable of stench – miserably failed government policies only “The Donald” can clean up and “make America great again.”

He promised radical change and his Friday message signaled his intention to follow through on his pledge to disrupt the status quo.

White Knight in Annapolis

Hogan’s bombastic rhetoric on legislative corruption also was understandable. It’s all about positioning Hogan in his reelection bid as the white knight doing battle with evil Democrats in the General Assembly.

Recent indictments of an ex-state legislator, a nominee for a House of Delegates vacancy and the Prince George’s County liquor board chairman set the stage perfectly for Hogan’s call to clean up the political arena.

But he combined that call for ethical government with continual bashing of the Democratic establishment in the state legislature.

Remember the “let’s work together” governor who told lawmakers only a week earlier how much he wanted to set partisanship aside and solve problems together?

That proved a mirage.

The real Larry Hogan resurfaced on Thursday, full of outrage about the Democratic-controlled legislature’s “climate of corruption” he wants to erase. Instead of sitting down and devising a joint ethics package with lawmakers, Hogan took the partisan route sure to grab all the headlines for himself.

Weak Ethics Commission

Hogan says he wants lawmakers to turn over the power to punish wayward colleagues to the State Ethics Commission, which has very limited enforcement and punishment tools.

Indeed, the commission already oversees lawmakers’ financial disclosure forms – and in 2015 fined four legislators a whopping $250 each for missing the filing deadline.

The power to discipline, humble and even eject elected legislators lies solely with the legislative bodies themselves.

Hogan wants to change that, though whether a panel controlled by the governor should hold such authority over legislative branch officials could bump up against separation of powers provisions in the Maryland constitution.

In practical terms, Hogan faces a bigger problem: His reform plan won’t work.

It won’t root out or stop wayward lawmakers from pursuing unethical behavior tied to monetary payoffs.

How Corruption Happens

Legislative corruption in Annapolis usually occurs when a delegate or senator accepts cash or favors from businesses in exchange for helping those businesses gain passage of favorable bills or friendly regulatory actions.

Two former delegates are embroiled in a liquor board payoff scandal in Prince George’s County. Hogan’s reforms wouldn’t have stopped the alleged payoffs.

Why? Because the transactions were hidden from view. There was no way Hogan or the legislature or the State Ethics Commission could have known a crime was being committed.

The lawmakers apparently lied on their disclosure forms, knew they were doing it and continued pushing legislation to aid businesses that stuffed cash in their pockets. Only dogged work by federal prosecutors unearthed what was going on.

The same holds true in the case of Ulysses Currie, accused in 2013 of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars as a consultant for a supermarket chain while pressing state and local bureaucrats to give the company favorable treatment.

Hogan’s reform proposals wouldn’t have unearthed Currie’s questionable behavior. (A federal jury failed to convict Currie, whose defense boiled down to admitting that he wasn’t mentally alert to the fact his actions might be criminal.

Marijuana Mischief

Even in a current case involving Del. Dan Morheim of Baltimore County, Hogan’s ethics package would not have revealed Morheim’s unorthodox behavior or his links to a marijuana growing and distribution firm vying for state licenses.

Morheim, who claims he abided by legislative ethics rules, kept his employment arrangement with the marijuana company secret. Only when the company started touting the expertise of its newest employee to help win state licenses did reporters shine a light on this odiferous situation.

It’s clear state ethics laws need considerable strengthening. Unfortunately Hogan chose to turn the issue to his political advantage rather than initiating a non-partisan crusade aimed at overhauling government standards of conduct.

He opted to take the moral high ground and denigrate the legislative establishment because it helps his political advancement. That’s smart politics but dumb governance.

Like Trump, Hogan too often prefers a sledge hammer instead of a peace pipe. He’d rather boost his poll numbers than do the hard work of thrashing out complex details and compromises with Democrats in order to make significant ethics reforms happen.

To the public, though, Hogan is the hero. It is part of his strategy to claim the title of good-government reformer in the next election.

Democratic legislator now must carve out tougher ethics provisions governing public officials on their own. Hogan has made them the bad guys in this matter and they must prove him wrong.

But if ethics reforms are successfully enacted into law, citizens won’t give Democratic legislators much credit. They’ve been outflanked by Hogan once again.

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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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Maryland’s Demeaning ‘Begathon’ Continues

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 9, 2017— Here we go again. In a few weeks, school superintendents will trek, en masse, to the second floor of the Maryland State House to grovel before the Board of Public Works for additional school construction funds.

It is 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.

This time, the target for Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and Comptroller Peter Franchot is Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz – a man who has signaled a desire to run for statewide office next year.

Anything Hogan and Franchot can do to undercut Kamenetz’ credibility helps their reelection chances.

That explains the consistent animosity by this tag-team tandem toward Kamenetz’ requests.

Comptroller’s Crusade

Franchot has conducted a consistent crusade to force the county to install portable, temporary air-conditioners in all schools lacking central cooling units.

Former Baltimore County executives bear the brunt of the blame for leaving too many school kids in overheated classrooms during the early fall and early summer.

Kamenetz, on the other hand, has been making up for lost time with a $1.3 billion program to get students into air-conditioned schools. But his expensive plan is phased in due to fiscal constraints.

Maryland's Demeaning 'Begathon' Continues

School Construction in Montgomery County

Franchot has persisted in pummeling Baltimore County’s leader for not following his insistence that Kamenetz buy window A/C units.

Each has a point: Kids should not swelter on extremely hot days, yet it makes little sense to spend millions for a short-term fix when a long-term fix is in the works.

The ideal solution is for the state to forward-fund the money Baltimore County needs to finish the job ASAP through a combination of costly upgrades and replacement buildings.

Embarrass Kamenetz

However, neither Franchot nor Hogan has lifted a finger to support the county’s efforts. They could have designated a pot of school construction money for jurisdictions needing window-unit air-conditioners. Instead, they remained silent.

Their goal is to publicly embarrass Kamenetz. Thus, the dynamic duo voted last May to punish Baltimore County (and its school kids) by withholding $10 million in state funds for county school construction – thus delaying portions of the work on air-conditioning classrooms.

The two also withheld $5 million in badly needed construction dollars from Baltimore City, which also is in the process of getting all schools air-conditioned.

They demanded that the two jurisdictions air-condition all classrooms in a matter of months – an impossibility for any number of legal and practical reasons.

The two Annapolis politicos apparently think the city and county can simply wave a wand and, voila! they’ll reverse a situation that’s been festering for two decades.

The reality is that it will take a number of years – and billions – to correct this situation.

Political Favoritism

When the “begathon” parade shamelessly takes place on Jan. 25, it is likely Hogan in particular will look kindly upon Baltimore City’s requests, including the withheld $5 million, as a goodwill gesture toward the city’s new mayor, Catherine Pugh.

He and Franchot will save their contempt for Baltimore County School Superintendent Dallas Dance and, indirectly, Kamenetz. There could well be “plants” in the room to demonstrate Hogan and Franchot are supported by county residents in their harsh criticisms.

It’s all part of the set-piece melodrama the “begathon” has become.

In most cases, conservative, Republican-leaning counties will be treated with kid-gloves by the Republican governor while Democratic strongholds get a cold reception.

It’s quite a distasteful scene, one that is as unbecoming for the governor and comptroller as it is for the school chiefs forced to grovel before them.

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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Hogan’s Holiday Hoax

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 19, 2016 – You’ve got to hand it to Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. What a prankster he is!

He’s pulled off one of the great holiday hoaxes of recent times in Maryland.

He’s got everyone convinced he is willing to kill 66 major highway projects in Maryland in order to get the legislature to repeal a law requiring a transparent advisory evaluation and ranking of big road, bridge and transit proposals.

Hogan's Holiday Hoax

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

He’s worked himself into a lather about what, for political purposes, he niftily calls “the road kill bill” saying it will “wreak havoc on our entire transportation system.”

Anyone who disagrees with Hogan’s the-world-is-ending interpretation “is ignorant of the facts.”

This repeal-law effort, he says with a straight face, is his No. 1 priority in the coming General Assembly session.

That’s pretty strong stuff.

It’s got to be a holiday hoax. After all, virtually nothing Hogan is saying is based on a truthful, fact-based assessment of the situation.

He’s made the whole thing up – hopefully to give us a good laugh this joyful season (ho, ho ho!).

Darth Vader in Annapolis

Under Hogan’s alternative-universe scenario, the law passed by Democrats in the legislature ties his hands and requires him to kill road projects in all but a handful of urban jurisdictions – even though that’s not even close to what the statute says.

The state’s highest-ranking legal officer, the attorney general, says Hogan’s “Rogue One” interpretation of the law is pure science fiction. But for some reason Hogan wants to play Darth Vader in this reality show.

If you read the law, HB 1013, you’ll conclude it’s pretty meek: A toothless attempt to force more transparency in the state’s transportation funding process.

The law has no enforcement provision.

There is no penalty if Hogan ignores the statute.

It merely calls for a quality analysis, and ranking, of proposed transportation projects. After that list is compiled, Hogan & Co. are free to disregard the results – without any negative consequences.

Free Rein for Hogan

To drive home the point that the new law gives Hogan carte blanche to do as he pleases, lawmakers added this concluding sentence: “[N]othing in this Act may be constructed to prohibit or prevent the funding of the capital transportation priorities in each jurisdiction.”

In other words, Hogan can fund whichever road, bridge and transit projects he wants regardless of the score it receives.

All he’s gotta do is give “a rational basis for the decision. . . in writing.”

Like, “it will make the road safer.” Or “it will reduce traffic congestion.” Or “it will help economic development.”

Sounds easy for Hogan to abide by this law while he continues to dole out transportation dollars any way he wants.

Not according to the governor and his transportation boss, Pete Rahn. Indeed, Rahn has put forth four pages of regulations that ensure a fiery head-on collision in which dozens of road projects will be denied state funds.

As one witness put it at a Nov. 18 hearing on Rahn’s convoluted regulations, Hogan & Co. “are determined to not make this work.”

Transportation Funding Shortfall

Why would they do that?

One reason could be Hogan doesn’t have the funds to pay for all the road projects he’s promised the counties, according to the Department of Legislative Services.

DLS calculates Hogan will have to cut $315 million next year from his previous transportation proposals (and $1.6 billion over six years) to stay within the department’s debt ratio.

It seems that the six-year forecast for gas-tax receipts is falling far short of Hogan’s estimates and that the governor is overspending on transportation operations.

Something’s got to give. So naturally the politician in Hogan wants to shift blame to those evil Democrats in the legislature.

Suddenly a law that is unenforceable and totally advisory gets transformed by Hogan into Maryland’s “Nightmare on Elm Street.”

Political Posture

Hogan is likely to continue beating this bogus “road kill” issue to death as the 2018 election approaches.

He won’t get much help, though, from Democrats in the legislature.

It was clear at the Nov. 18 hearing that lawmakers want to work out a compromise in which the law is tweaked in ways that make it even more explicit Hogan remains fully in charge of deciding which transportation projects get funded and which do not.

Democrats aren’t going to cave in to Hogan’s illogical repeal demand. That is rightly seen as a politically inspired subterfuge.

Indeed, Hogan’s holiday hoax could backfire.

If, as expected, lawmakers amend the law so most everyone – except the governor – is happy with the outcome, Hogan no longer will be able to blame Democrats for killing road projects.

The governor remains the only person who can put forth funds for state transportation projects.

If he fails to deliver on his earlier road-improvement promises, he’ll have to man up to the fact that it was his decision.

That’s not the posture he wants as his reelection campaign draws near, which seems to be the most likely explanation for the governor’s bizarre “road kill” holiday hoax.

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What Hogan, Pugh & Mikulski Have in Common

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 12, 2016 – Reality is beginning to set in: The political world has been dramatically altered by Donald Trump’s surprise victory on Nov. 8.

Some politicians are adjusting while others are wailing like it’s the end of democracy, organizing pointless protests a full five weeks before Trump even takes office.

In Maryland both kinds of politicos – the realists and the hopeless idealists – have been on display recently.

What Hogan, Pugh & Mikulski Have in Common

Mayor Catherine Pugh and Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. at her inauguration in Baltimore’s War Memorial .

Count Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and new Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh among the pragmatists. They want to deal with reality on the ground.

The governor continues to steer an independent course largely free of ideological rigidity and party obeisance. His words and actions in Baltimore over the past week indicate that Hogan now understands the importance of carving out alliances with like-minded pragmatists such as the new mayor.

His gracious words of support at Pugh’s inauguration were followed by a celebratory event in West Baltimore marking a big step forward in attacking the city’s vast vacant-housing problem. Republican Hogan knows he has a quiet supporter in Democrat Pugh and it will be up to him to show her he’s determined to do what he can to uplift Baltimore’s economic development.

Putting Results Ahead of Ideology

For her part, Pugh made it clear she’ll be a non-ideological mayor who is interested first and foremost in results. Going to war with the Republican governor isn’t on her agenda – a marked change from the last City Hall occupant. She’s a lifelong networker who now intends to ask for favors and assistance from those in her wide-ranging list of business, political and foundation contacts.

Rather than snub the president-elect at Saturday’s Army-Navy game in Baltimore, she warmly met him and handed Trump a letter detailing how the “make America great” president-in-waiting can jump-start the city’s lagging economy with some big-ticket infrastructure projects.

She also has expressed the hope that she and Hogan can team up to win over the next president for development programs in Baltimore that create jobs and reduce government dependence.

Pugh isn’t being helped, though, by other Baltimore officials. The new City Council, as its first act, voted unanimously to condemn Trump and his intemperate Tweets and verbal assaults.

That counter-productive move achieved nothing positive and created a hostile atmosphere for Trump two days before he visited Baltimore.

Council Incompetence

It was a sign that the new City Council will pander to liberal political emotions and do little to help Pugh bridge differences with Republicans soon to be running the country.

What the new Baltimore Council members need to keep in mind is that war whoops and fiery denunciations bring nothing in the way of results. The city’s legislature already has a well-earned reputation for incompetence and irrelevancy. Sadly, it may get worse.

When faced with a staggering crime and drug crisis, intensely imbedded poverty and lack of economic opportunity, what action does the Council take on Day One? It alienates the president-elect. Now that’s really going to help address the city’s most pressing needs.

The new members of the City Council should step back and reconsider such rash behavior. They should take a cue from outgoing U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who made a strong call for civility and understanding among politicians of differing stripes in her farewell speech on the floor of the Senate in Washington.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski

Retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski

Mikulski was a down-the-line liberal Democrat yet she never stopped trying to find common ground with Republicans and conservatives. Getting things accomplished was paramount in her mind.

That’s the lesson the eight freshman Baltimore City Council members need to learn. They’re off to a terrible start – and that soon may be compounded by votes to approve a $15 an hour minimum wage that could prove so onerous businesses will quickly flee across the city-county line.

Politics, veteran practitioners tell us, is the art of the possible. Hogan, Mikulski and Pugh understand the truism of that expression. Getting bogged down in emotional ideology and name-calling is a sure sign of a weak political hand – and a formula for continuing failure to produce constructive results and progress.

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

 

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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