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February 28, 2009

Democrat Van Hollen has Obama on one side, history on the other

Rep. Chris Van Hollen figured his mission was complete after Democrats bulked up their majority in Congress last fall.

Letting someone else lead the House campaign committee would free him to advance on the leadership ladder. And he’d avoid blame if the party lost ground in the next election.

After all, it’s been more than a century since a party added seats in the situation Democrats find themselves in now.

“We have our work cut out for us,” says the Maryland congressman in an interview. “We have to beat history in a big way.”

But when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted, Van Hollen agreed to stay on as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee through the 2010 election.

She gave him a fancier title as one of her assistants, and the 50-year-old representative from Kensington, whose star continues to rise, has emerged as one of his party’s most visible spokesmen.

With a Democrat in the White House, the campaign job is easier in many ways.

President Barack Obama’s donors should be a ready source of cash to help Democrats maintain a financial advantage over the Republicans. And interest groups are now reinforcing Washington’s power shift by moving the Democrats’ way.

Recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce played against type by praising selected Democrats for voting in favor of the $787 billion stimulus package, which the Chamber supported. Maryland freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil was among the vulnerable incumbents rewarded with statements designed to impress business leaders back home.

Democrats, including Van Hollen, had encouraged the chamber effort. “They were heading in that direction,” he says, “but we reinforced the idea that it’s important to let people know when someone’s with you and not just when they are against you.”

The chamber’s actions have not sat well with Republicans, who like to think of the business lobby as a reliable ally.

House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio told a group of reporters last week that he “wasn’t happy” with the move but chalked it up to chamber officials “being their usual pragmatic selves.”

Van Hollen’s responsibility for scoring partisan points has been complicated, though, by Obama’s call for an end to petty political gamesmanship. Editorial writers were quick to jump on Van Hollen after the DCCC aired radio ads last month that criticized 28 House Republicans for votes identical to ones that Van Hollen and most Democrats had cast.

Obama’s reputation will on the line in next year’s congressional contests, even if his name isn’t on the ballot, says Van Hollen, now in the midst of recruiting candidates for targeted races.

“The 2010 election is not just a referendum on how Congress is doing. It’s also a midterm report card on the president,” he says.

The extent of Obama's political involvement isn’t clear yet, though he seems unwilling to risk his capital on longshots. He kept his distance from a Senate runoff election in Georgia in December and has yet to get involved in a special election in upstate New York this month, where Republicans have an excellent chance to take back the seat formerly held by Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, now a member of the Senate.

Public opinion, fickle and fleeting, particularly in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, is rising for Democrats in Congress, a coattail effect linked to Obama’s popularity and swift passage of the stimulus package.

Enthusiasm for Obama is also contagious among prospective House candidates, according to Van Hollen.

“I do think Obama has excited a lot of people about public service and an opportunity to change the direction of the country. And so I think a lot of people are going to take a look at running this time around,” he says. But “there’s a difference between inspiring people to run and then winning these elections.”

There are early signs that the Republicans are regaining their footing. They’ve started to unite their base by returning to their fiscally conservative roots, while counting on Democratic mistakes to help them win back some of the 54 districts they lost over the last two elections.

It’s way too early to guess how many seats will change hands, but a variety of factors favor the Republicans. They “simply have more opportunities for pickups than do Democrats,” Stuart Rothenberg, a respected independent analyst, concluded recently.

At the same time, Rothenberg said it would be “impossible” for Democrats to lose enough seats—40—for Republicans to regain control. Out of 435 House districts, just 23 Democratic and 10 Republican ones will be in play, he estimates.

History does holds out some hope for Democratic gains. One of the two elections since the Civil War in which a new president’s party added seats was in the Depression year of 1934.

“The American people are hurting economically and the president and the Democratic Congress are working overtime to try to climb out of the economic hole that we’ve inherited,” says Van Hollen. If Republicans “just say no to every Obama initiative, I don’t think they’re going to get the support of the American people.”

Posted by Paul West at 8:00 AM | | Comments (0)

February 27, 2009

Death penalty debate could end with fizzle

Today, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee rejected a bill that would repeal the death penalty. Like two years ago, the effort failed on a 5-5 tie vote (a majority is needed for passage).

For most legislation, that would be the end of the story. But not this bill. Not this year.

Gov. Martin O’Malley has said he would do “everything in my power” to end capital punishment in Maryland this year. He’s calling for a full vote in the Senate, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller says that will happen – as soon as next week.

Miller is putting aside his respect for the committee process and allowing a rare procedural move to unfold. When the committee result – known in Annapolis as a report – comes to the floor, a senator will recommend that the report be rejected, and that the full bill be substituted in its place. That way, the full Senate can debate the measure.

“This is a bill of some importance,” Miller, a death penalty supporter, said this morning before the committee action. “A bill that the public reads about and expects their legislators to take a stand.”

Miller supports the death penalty. And no one knows the thinking of the other 46 members of the Senate better than him.

“I don’t anticipate a long, protracted debate,” Miller said yesterday. “I think I know where the votes will be.”

That sounds like the Great Death Penalty Debate of ’09 could end wth a fizzle. A Baltimore Sun survey of senators showed that majority want to keep capital punishment.

So after next week the Assembly could put the death penalty behind it for another year, and get back to talking about just how bad the state budget is.

Posted by David Nitkin at 3:33 PM | | Comments (4)

Slots hopes look dim for Magna

Even if Magna Entertainment Corp., the owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico, wins its argument that Maryland's bidding process for slots is unconstitutional, it still might have a hard time getting a serious shot at one of the state's gambling licenses. Gadi Dechter reports this morning that Magna blamed its failure to submit a $28.5 million licensing fees to "market conditions" in its application for a license. The objection Magna is raising now in court -- that the bidding process is uncontstitutional because it the law doesn't include a specific provision saying the fee would be refundable -- isn't mentioned anywhere in the application. And moreover, the state argued yesterday that Magna lobbied for the very language it's now calling defective.

So even if Magna gets a do-over on the bids, it would still have to convince the slots commission that it's the best company to build and run what would, potentially, be the most lucrative gambling parlor in the state. At that point, it would still have to live down an admission that, essentially, it had trouble ponying up (so to speak) the licensing fee. Considering that the company would have to find way more money than that to make a slots operation a go, Magna might not accomplish anything through its lawsuit other than delaying the cash-rich Cordish Cos. from breaking ground at Arundel Mills.

Posted by Andy Green at 9:59 AM | | Comments (6)

February 26, 2009

Death penalty committee vote most likely on Friday

Sen. Brian Frosh told Julie Bykowicz of the Baltimore Sun that a Judicial Proceedings vote on a death penalty repeal is most likely on Friday. That's mainly because Frosh, the chairman, is concerned about two absenses on the 11-member committee today, which could affect the outcome. Democrat Jamie Raskin and Republican Nancy Jacobs have other obligations today.

Bykowicz also reports in today's Baltimore Sun that the procedural move that would bring the repeal to the floor of the Senate has been settled. If the committee votes "unfavaorable," there would be a motion on the floor of the Senate to reject that committee report, and substitute the full bill in its place.

Senate President Mike Miller is gritting his teeth, but says he'll go along with the manuever even though it violates the committee process. Miller says Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is leading repeal efforts, deserves to have his day in the legislature.

That's magnanimous of Miller, but the Senate president often shows no remorse about standing in the way of governors. Did side deals lead to Miller's decision -- over, say, a gubernatorial appointment or two to the lawmaker's allies? Or is the Senate president earning a chit he can cash in later?

Posted by David Nitkin at 10:43 AM | | Comments (2)

Has Tom Schaller gone conservative?

Not to keep picking on the New York Times, but they had another slightly questionable Maryland reference in a story today about La. Gov. Bobby Jindal's response to Obama's speech Tuesday night.

Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana has been a rising star in the Republican Party, but his stock took a hit as he was roundly panned for his televised response to President Obama’s first speech to Congress on Tuesday night.

Conservative commentators were among the harshest critics, calling Mr. Jindal’s delivery animatronic, his prose “cheesy” and his message — that federal spending is not the answer to the nation’s economic problems — uninspired.

Mr. Jindal, 37, the son of Indian immigrants, has been regarded as a potential presidential candidate in 2012 who would bring diversity and youth to a post-Obama Republican Party.

But the speech raised questions.

“This was the moment for him to seize the mantle with new ideas, new direction, and lay the groundwork for himself as a creative new thinker,” said Thomas Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “He just used old platitudes and party clichés.”

Now, the story didn't exactly say that Tom is one of those conservative commentators, but you might be forgiven for coming away with that impression. However, I can assure you that the author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without The South is many things, but conservative is not one of them.

Posted by Andy Green at 10:36 AM | | Comments (3)

February 25, 2009

Obama pick Gensler grilled at Senate hearing

Big-time Baltimore Democrat Gary Gensler faced tough questions at his Senate confirmation hearing this afternoon about Clinton administration opposition to regulating private derivative contracts in the late 1990s.

Gensler is President Barack Obama's nominee to head the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a relatively obscure independent agency that has been dragged into the debate over the causes of the global financial crisis.

Under questioning from Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin, a populist Democrat from Iowa, Gensler said that "looking back now" it is clear to him that the Clinton administration "should have done more to protect the American public."

Top Clinton officials, including Lawrence Summers, who was a Clinton Treasury secretary and now is the Obama administration's top economic strategist, favored financial deregulation in the late 1990s. During that period, the Clinton team fought efforts by the CFTC to regulate private derivative contracts.

A decade later, "I very much would say that my views have evolved," said Gensler. He now favors giving the agency that he would head more authority, including the regulation of the estimated $28 trillion market in credit default swaps and other financial derivatives.

Between 1997 and 2000, Gensler was a senior Treasury official overseeing financial markets and domestic finance. For 18 years before that, he worked for Goldman Sachs, amassing a personal fortune currently estimated at more than $15 million.

Questions about Gensler's views concerning the Clinton administration's opposition to regulating complex financial instruments overshadowed another issue involving the future of the CFTC: whether the Obama administration will decide to put it out of business by merging it with the Securities and Exchange Commission in its effort to overhaul financial regulation.

In his testimony, Gensler appeared to side with members of the Agriculture committee, who strongly oppose a merger, since it would likely remove them from their current role in overseeing the CFTC--and the lucrative campaign donations that go with it.

Gensler knows more than a few things about campaign money. A past treasurer of the Maryland Democratic Party, he was a major fundraiser for Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. After her campaign ended, he switched to Obama and later became a key transition adviser.

His nomination drew an all-star cast of Marylanders to today's hearing. He was praised lavishly by the state's two sitting Democratic senators, Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin Cardin. Former Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes came out of retirement to add his enthusiastic endorsement for Gensler, who helped craft the Sarbanes-Oxley accounting reform law as an advisor to Sarbanes in 2002.

A vote on Gensler's nomination may not come until early next week, a committee aide said. He appears to be headed for confirmation, however. The senior Republican on the Agriculture panel, Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, issued a statement at the start of today's hearing endorsing Gensler for the job.

Posted by Paul West at 4:35 PM | | Comments (1)

Baltimore County lawmakers love animals

The question rings out from newsrooms around the country: “Is there any art with that story?”

Art in the newspaper business is most commonly photographs. The people who design pages know that readers get turned off by gray blocks of type. So they try to wrap the type around attractive photographs, to keep eyeballs on pages.

There’s also a rule that is common in newsrooms around the country: “Get the name of the dog.” If you are a reporter working on a story that involves an animal, make sure the name of the animal is in the piece.

Those two elements were on display in today’s Washington Post, in a story about a legislative plan to allow Marylanders to establish trusts so that surviving pets receive care. The Post ran the story on the front of its Metro section, giving it fuller treatment than the Baltimore Sun, which ran a brief (and, sadly, no longer has a local news section.)

To answer the question of “art” with the story, the Post turned to the two main pet-loving sponsors of the plan, both from Baltimore County. A photo on the section front shows Del. John A. Olszewski Jr. with his dog, Indy. Photo credit: “Courtesy of John A. Olszewski Jr.” A second photograph, of a long-haired gray cat named Prince Albert, ran on the back of the section, with the jump of the story. Photo credit: “Courtesy of A. Wade Kach.” He’s a Republican.

So the Post got it right. They got the art. They got the names of the pets. We suspect it’s the first time ever that two Baltimore County legislators had photo credits in one of the nation’s top newspapers at the same time.

We also suspect the Post’s photo desk had little trouble rejecting the request to shoot professional images of Indy and Prince Albert.

Olszewski and Indy

Prince Albert, owned by Kach

Posted by David Nitkin at 3:31 PM | | Comments (0)

O'Malley: No drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants

In a stand sure to spark controversy, Gov. O'Malley said today that he supports legislation requiring people to prove they are in the country legally before they can get a Maryland driver's license, the AP reports. Maryland is one of just a few states in the nation and the only one in the East that does not presently require proof of legal residence, a fact that upsets a great many people. (The other side of the issue says illegal immigrants will drive anyway, so we might as well make sure they know what they're doing, have insurance etc.)

One can only assume the governor is responding to O'Malleywatch's post on the subject from yesterday.

Posted by Andy Green at 3:10 PM | | Comments (10)

Will Steele punish Specter over stimulus vote?

RNC chairman Michael Steele raised some eyebrows this week when he indicated he was open to withholding national party support from and encouraging party primaries against the three Republican senators who voted for the stimulus package.

When pressed on the matter by Neil Cavuto of Fox News, Steele said he was “always open to anything, baby,” but also said a decision on “retribution” would be made by voters in individual states, as well as the Republican parties in the two affected states, Pennsylvania and Maine.

As the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder notes, only Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania will be on the ballot in 2010. Specter has a long reputation of moderation in some issues, and will certainly face a tough Democratic challenger (Chris Matthews of MSNBC looked at the race but has apparently decided against running). Whether there is a Republican insurrection as well just north of the Maryland border will be an important test of how the stimulus package is playing among both parties as Obama’s term unfolds.

Posted by David Nitkin at 12:52 PM | | Comments (3)

Maryland death penalty debate in the spotlight

The New York Times has an interesting account this morning about the death penalty debate in Maryland and elsewhere. (And by "interesting," I mean I'm not quite sure where they're getting this stuff.) Their take is that Maryland is an example of a national trend of renewed interest in abolishing the death penalty as a cost cutting measure, given data showing that capital cases (with all their appeals and such) are more costly than sending someone to prison for life, even given the cost of feeding and housing the inmates for so long. The Times also says that "experts" consider Maryland to be among several states likely to abolish the death penalty this year. Apparently nobody there read our story last week about how the votes, at the moment, aren't there in the Senate. Of course, The Times is also under the impression that a repeal came up one vote short of passing in 2007, which it didn't.

But looking at their main point, the economic argument has been a part of the death penalty debate in Maryland for years, even before the current economic crisis made budget cutting a more prominent concern. But I have a hard time, knowing the dynamics at work in the Senate, in believing that it would be the factor that pushes the issue over the top this year. None of the key senators who will decide how the issue proceeds have listed economic concerns as foremost in their minds; Sen. Bryan Simonaire of Anne Arundel, for instance, says he's worried about executing an innocent man, not how much it costs.

In general, the economic argument seems a bit limited in that states where the death penalty might be in danger of repeal are those in which it's not used that often anyway. There are so few capital cases in Maryland -- about five or six a year since the penalty was reinstated 31 years ago -- that repealing wouldn't make much of an impact on the budget. Texas, one would imagine, could save a bundle under this argtument, but I kind of doubt the Lone Star state is on the verge of repeal.

And if we need more evidence that cost isn't the primary element of the debate here, I offer this: Gov. O'Malley, Maryland's death penalty opponent in chief, is about to lead a march to the State House in protest of capital punishment. He's making the trek with priests and ministers, not accountants.

Posted by Andy Green at 9:43 AM | | Comments (9)

February 24, 2009

House approves tattoo bill (without abortion amendment)

Gadi Dechter reports this morning that the House of Delegates unanimously approved a bill that would require parental approval for minors to get tattoos or body piercings. Seems pretty simple, but it became a major political hot potato this week when Del. Gail Bates, a HoCo Republican, tried to amend the legislation on the House floor in a way that would have made it also apply to abortion. The logic: Isn't abortion a bit more significant than piercing your nose?

House Speaker Mike Busch ruled the amendment out of order, saying it violated the "single subject rule," which requires that legislation address one topic only. That's a rule that is generally flexible when the party in charge wants it to be and strict when it doesn't. In this case, there's little chance that the House of Delegates would have approved a parental consent for abortion amendment, but allowing debate about it would have not only sidetracked the chamber for a time but would also have forced delegates to take a public position on something many of them would rather not. It's the kind of vote that's tailor-made for campaign attacks.

The GOP has been none too pleased with this turn of events. In the House Republican Caucus' blog, they write:

After a complex series of parliamentary maneuvers, the Speaker and the majority manipulated the rules of the House, taking advantage of superior numbers to do so, in order to stifle debate and avoid a vote.

Given the fact that the majority party has sufficent votes to kill any amendment, what is the harm in allowing free and open debate on an issue as important as the health and safety of minors? One has to wonder what exactly they are afraid of.

Posted by Andy Green at 12:06 PM | | Comments (12)

O'Malley lays out an education agenda

Sun reporter Liz Bowie, just back from the state School Board meeting, reports that Gov. O'Malley's appearance there this morning was significantly more substantive than these things usually are. She's writing up the details now (I'll add a link as soon as she posts a story), but he outlined a seven point plan for education policy in the state over the coming years, saying he wants to use the federal stimulus money coming out of Washington to make structural changes in Maryland's educational system.

Among the biggies was a plan to switch the tests Maryland students take to a system that would be comparable with international standards. He's also pitching increasing emphasis on science, math, technology, the environment and finance and wants better training for principals.

This is pretty unusual; governors have rarely gotten involved much in educational policy in Maryland, generally leaving the matter up to long-time schools chief Nancy Grasmick. Liz reports that Grasmick seemed at least reasonably well disposed to the governor's ideas, but given their history of not always seeing eye-to-eye, we'll monitor this to see how it develops.

Posted by Andy Green at 11:40 AM | | Comments (2)

Bereano bloodying the lobbyist competition

You don't become a million-dollar Annapolis lobbyist by being a wallflower. The most effective hired guns in the state capitol are also the most aggressive. They approach their jobs in part like a sport, a series of battles to be won.

Bruce Bereano, one of the most colorful and best-known lobbyists, displayed that warrior-like attitude yesterday as he geared up to fight off an effort to restrict his liquor industry clients from selling sweet flavored malt beverages favored by underage drinkers.

The fight over alcopops has been going on for a couple of years in Maryland. Some lawmakers want the beverages taxed and treated like liquor, not beer, which would make them more expensive and less widely available.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has balked at those efforts, but the Sun's Gadi Dechter is reporting that O'Malley supports a new compromise plan that leaves the tax rate unchanged but makes alcopops available only at outlets that also sell hard liquor.

The powerful liquor industry is opposed to those changes. Bereano, who represents the industry, thinks his group made effective arguments during testimony yesterday.

As Dechter reports, Bereano gloated before heading to the witness table: "This bill is bloodied." When he got there, he declared it "beaten up pretty badly."

That's Bereano for you.

Lots of emotion. Lots of energy. He's worked his way back into the upper tier of state lobbyists after a 1994 conviction for mail fraud related to skimming money from clients and funneling it to political contributions. He earned $806,000 in lobbying fees last year, down from his high of more than $1 million, but still good enough for eighth place overall.

No doubt Bereano is irked that he's not in the top earning spot. That distinction went to Gary Alexander, who took in $1.2 million. But Bereano's still trying. And there's a lot of other lobbyists that he is leaving bloodied and beaten up pretty badly.

Posted by David Nitkin at 8:19 AM | | Comments (2)

February 23, 2009

O'Malley gets a shout out from Obama

Barack Obama got a plug in for Gov. O'Malley and StateStat in his speech yesterday to the National Governors Association:

I know that many of you, rather than wait for Washington, have already made your states. You are innovators and much of the work that you've done has already made a lasting impact and change in people's lives. Instead of debating the existence of climate change, governors like the seven of you of you working together in the western climate initiative, and the 10 of you who are working together on the regional greenhouse gas initiative are leading the way in environmental and energy policy. Instead of waiting around for the jobs of the future, governors like Governor Gregoire and Governor Granholm have sparked the creation of cutting-edge companies and tens of thousands of new green jobs. And instead of passing the buck on accountability and efficiency, governors like Martin O'Malley and Governor Kaine, have revolutionized performance management systems, showing the American people precisely how their governments are working for them.

Looks like that little "endorsing Hillary Clinton" incident isn't hurting him too much...

Posted by Andy Green at 6:18 PM | | Comments (2)

Obama Plan Dollars Coming To Maryland This Week

The first money for Maryland under the new economic stimulus law should begin flowing later this week, President Obama told the nation's governors today.

More than $275 million is being made available to Maryland's governnment to help fund Medicaid, the state-federal program designed to provide health care for the poor. The new money, to be placed in a special U.S. Treasury account, will be administered by the Baltimore-based Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Medicaid, the exact amount of initial funding for Maryland is $275,508,598. Those funds are for the first six months of temporary federal aid for Medicaid, part of some $15 billion being distributed nationwide. Eventually, some $87 billion in Medicaid relief will be provided nationally over the next two years.

State officials have said they expect Maryland to receive more than $1 billion to prop up Medicaid, which is being squeezed by a shortfall in projected state revenues as a result of the declining economy.

Obama told a gathering of governors at the White House this morning that his administration will make the first batch of Medicaid funding available on Wednesday, which “means that by the time most of you get home, money will be waiting to help 20 million vulnerable Americans in your states keep their health coverage.”

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, in Washington for the annual winter meeting of state executive, will be home sooner than that, of course.

O’Malley, a Democrat, said late last week that, despite the injection of emergency federal aid, the state's budget problems will make it impossible to carry out a planned expansion of Medicaid this year to cover poor adults in Maryland who have no children.

The Maryland Hospital Association and the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative had urged the governor to move ahead with the expansion. They maintained that bringing more people under Medicaid would save lives and reduce health care costs now being subsizied other citizens who have health insurance and whose premiums are higher as a result.

In Maryland, parents with annual incomes up to 116 percent of the federal poverty guideline, which is about $20,500 for a family of three, became eligible for Medicaid last year.

The limit had previously been 40 percent of poverty, considered low for one of the wealthiest states in the country. Adults without children up to the higher level had been scheduled to become eligible this July.

Posted by Paul West at 1:17 PM | | Comments (2)

Maryland GOP takes to the web

As Laura Smitherman reported this weekend, Maryland's Republican party is making aggressive use of the Internet in an effort to get its message out and broaden its appeal. The House caucus has established its own blog and has begun posting periodic YouTube videos of its members talking about the issues of the day. The most recent one, on a wonky proposed change to Maryland's income tax that probably will never see the light of day anyway, isn't exactly riveting video, but it gets the point across -- and gives Republicans a platform they would have a hard time finding otherwise:

Posted by Andy Green at 12:29 PM | | Comments (1)

Jack Johnson for guv?

The Gazette had an interesting tidbit last week from an editorial board meeting with Prince George's exec Jack Johnson: He's seriously condering a run for state office when his term ends and isn't ruling out a primary challenge to Gov. Martin O'Malley. He's the first serious Democrat I've heard of who's even close to considering doing such a thing; even Comptroller Peter Franchot is steering way clear of saying anything like that in public.

The Gazette suggests this is odd timing, given that Johnson has inflamed the populace in PG by asking county legislators to raise the property tax cap for the next two years in an effort to close a projected $132 million deficit. He's since said he could back away from that, depending on what happens with federal stimulus money.

Kenny Burns at Maryland Politics Today (a blog that keeps a particular eye on Prince George's politics) is much harsher. He ticks off a laundry list of reasons why Johnson may not be ready for prime time, such as his reaction to the Cheye Calvo incident (you remember, the mayor whose dogs were shot during a botched police raid?), the lack of any resolution to the death of Ronnie White (an inmate who was killed in the county jail), Johnson's pricey trip to Africa at taxpayer expense, the fact that he didn't exactly light the world on fire in his re-election bid, etc. etc.

Let me add this: Last time I saw Johnson, he was rolling around in a taxpayer-funded Cadillac Escallade with chrome wheels and tinted windows. That's not going to fly in Towson.

At the end of the day, I'd be extremely surprised if Johnson -- or anybody else -- mounts a serious challenge to O'Malley in the 2010 primary. Franchot would seem the most likely, but I expect he'll have his hands full fending off a challenge from Jim Smith (or someone else) in the primary for comptroller. Doug Gansler looks like he'd like to be governor someday, but he's more of a wait-your-turn kind of guy. Ken Ulman, likewise, has plenty of time before trying for statewide office, and most of the other ambitious folk in the state party seem more interested in Barbara Mikulski's office than O'Malley's.

Say what you will about O'Malley, but he hasn't done much to tick off his liberal base, and that's what counts in the primary.

Posted by Andy Green at 11:36 AM | | Comments (10)

GOP and the stimulus: What would Bob Ehrlich do?

The big political news over the weeked was that several GOP governors, led by Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Haley Barbour of Mississippi are rejecting part of the economic stimulus money coming from the Obama administration. In a move that could be genius or idiocy depending on how things turn out, they're sticking to a polition the conservative base loves in spite of current high poll ratings for the president and his handling of the economic crisis.

In particular, they've pledged to reject increased aid for unemployment benefits because taking the money would require the states to extend eligibility to part-time workers. They say they don't want to do that because they'd be stuck with the policy change after the federal money runs out. Gov. O'Malley was pushing for such a change in Maryland before the federal money kicked in, and many other states do this already anyway.

But it leads me to wonder, if Bob Ehrlich were governor, would he have rejected the money? I think he probably would have. GOP governors in other liberal states (notably, California) are taking pretty hard stands against their fellow Republicans who are rejecting the money. But I don't think that necessarily means Ehrlich in relatively liberal Maryland would have taken the cash.

One of his formative political experiences was as part of the group of freshmen Republican congressmen elected in the Gingrich revolution of 1994, and he was steeped in the take-no-prisoners ethos of the time. When he came back to Annapolis, his greatest strength or weakness, depending on what side you were on, was his stubbornness in sticking to a philosophical position even when it wasn't politically expedient. Note, for example, the case of the medical malpractice legislation in 2003; he called a special session to deal with a crisis he'd spent months discussing and then vetoed what the legislature came up with.

Did he stick to his principles? Yes. Did it help him politically? Probably not, particularly since the dire consequences he predicted as a result of the legislation the General Assembly enacted over his veto never came to pass. Quite the contrary, malpractice insurance rates have stabilized. That's the kind of risk Republican governors face now: If the stimulus works (or is at least perceived to work) they could look pretty foolish. But if it falls flat, they could look prescient. My hunch is, that's a bet Ehrlich would have been willing to make.

Posted by Andy Green at 10:12 AM | | Comments (18)

February 21, 2009

Obama Stimulus, Liberal Jitters

The audience at a “green jobs” forum in Annapolis the other night left little doubt about its liberal leanings.

There was spontaneous applause—twice—when speakers praised the local Democratic congressman, Frank Kratovil, for his vote in favor of the $787 billion stimulus package. About 100 people, seated on folding chairs in the Broadneck High School cafeteria, listened earnestly to lectures about climate change and about the hoped-for benefits, in new jobs and a less polluted environment, that would flow as a result of the new economic recovery law.

That made the private comments of audience members about what Washington is up to all the more striking.

In interviews, they confirmed that, yes, they look with great favor upon President Obama’s leadership. They also approve of his plan to use more government spending and individual tax cuts to reverse the downturn and revive economic growth.

At the same time, they’re conflicted. They see the package as a necessary evil. They aren’t convinced that it will do what it is supposed to do. And they worry that a sizable chunk of their tax money will be squandered in the process.

“It’s awfully expensive and the debt is awfully high,” says Anne Libis of Randallstown, “so I just hope the experts know what they’re doing.”

“It’s frightening,” interjects her husband, Claude Libis, a retired director of the United Methodist Board of Child Care. “I know of nothing any better, and I have faith in the present administration.” But if it were up to him, he says, “I’d have left the pork out.”

Ken Moore, a 70-year-old retired real estate facilities manager from Owings, also hopes it works, so he won’t be forced to go back to work to make ends meet.

Moore’s biggest concern is what he doesn’t know: whatever lies hidden between the lines of the stimulus law, factors that may determine exactly how the money—as much as $10 billion or more for Maryland and its citizens--gets spent as it filters down to state and local levels from federal agencies in Washington.

“I’m scared to death as to what it doesn’t say,” he says. “Hopefully, there’s no ‘highway to nowhere’ in there.”

Moore says he thinks that, in terms of the magnitude of the spending, the package “is certainly a good first step.”

“But we need it to produce jobs as quickly as possible,” he said. “And all along the way, the special interests are going to be grabbing for their share.”

Richard Montgomery, 55, of Elkton, a consultant for the Environmental Protection Agency, says that, as a Democrat, he supports the stimulus package.

“I haven’t looked at it a hundred percent, but there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s not going to be accounted for. So I’m worried about that,” he says. In particular, he’s troubled by the money Congress “is sticking into programs that are not going to help the economy.”

Tim Yarbrough, 57, of Arnold, an electrical engineer with defense contractor Northrup Grumman, is less concerned with the details of the stimulus law than with who is in charge, namely, Barack Obama.

“We voted for change in the fall, and I want it,” he says. “We don’t want Republicans to obstruct it. So let him lead.”

The latest economic forecast by the Federal Reserve seems to amplify the worries lurking just below the surface among Obama supporters.

The central bank now concludes that the U.S. economy will shrink even more sharply than it had estimated only a few months ago.

A gradual recovery could begin sometime in the second half of this year, in part as a result of the stimulus package, according to Fed economists. But it may be sometime in 2012—coincidentally, the year of the next presidential election—before the job picture returns to normal.

These factors raise the stakes for Obama, as he prepares to deliver his first speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night. In it, he will lay out his first-year agenda, including plans to overhaul the health care system, spur alternative energy and keep a worsening situation in Afghanistan from becoming a quagmire.

It’s the economy, of course, that will dominate his remarks. Through his words, he will be attempting to stave off any erosion in public support and buy time as his administration copes with the most serious downturn since World War II. Opinion surveys show that the president’s job approval rating remains relatively high. Even Congress got an uptick in popularity as it moved swiftly to provide economic relief.

How long the public’s patience will last is anyone’s guess, though. And that’s not merely a concern for insiders. Mass psychology, as economists keep reminding us, is a central element in any financial contagion.

Financial markets have plunged since Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced the administration’s bank rescue initiative and Obama unveiled a housing rescue plan. The comments of ordinary Marylanders only underscore the point: confidence remains, at best, shaky in Washington’s ability to cope with the country’s enormous problems and it’s not clear that anybody knows how to fix them.

Posted by Paul West at 8:00 AM | | Comments (2)

February 20, 2009

Cardin on Netanyahu: "Not Optimistic" About Shape of New Government

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who met recently in Israel with Benjamin Netanyahu, said today he was “very impressed” with what he heard from the man who’s been asked to form Israel’s next government.

At the same time, the senator is “not optimistic” about the likely configuration of Netanyahu’s coalition government.

“It’s going to be a right wing government, and I think Israel needs a centrist government,” said Cardin, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee.

Cardin was critical of the involvement of Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beiteinu, an extreme right-wing party, who has demanded that Israel’s Arab citizens sign a loyalty oath to Israel.

“It’s hard to figure out who Lieberman is,” said Cardin. “He borders on racism. It’s not healthy to have somebody like that in (Netanyahu’s) government.”

The Maryland Democrat said Netanyahu “clearly, in my view, undertands that he has an opportunity. He certainly was conciliatory from the point of view of trying to find a common thread in dealing with the Palestinians.”

Netanyahu’s strategy for dealing with the Palestinians is opposed by many in Israel, including Kadmia, the centrist party of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, which defeated Netanyahu’s right-of-center Likud party in elections earlier this month but failed to gain enough votes to form a government.

Livni’s party has been leading peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu, who led Israel in the late 1990s, wants to deal first with Palestinian economic development as a confidence-building measure before moving to more contentious issues.

Cardin said he thought that President Barack Obama’s administration will do everything it can to work with Netanyahu, even analysts have said Obama’s efforts to make progress on Middle East peace will be complicated by the rise of a conservative government in the Jewish state.

“The United States will play the cards that are dealt,” the senator said. “The United States will say that, at times, it’s the improbable that brings about things that people don’t expect . . So maybe Netanyahu will bring about peace with the Palestinians.”

He also thought that Obama’s special envoy for the Middle East, former Sen. George Mitchell, will try to achieve some early victories as he attempts to break a stalemate over the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians.

But Cardin also said that “the first issue is settlements, and I think that’s where they’ll have a problem,” Cardin said.

Cardin spoke by phone from Vienna, where he completed two days of meetings as head of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

In Vienna, he addressed members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly about Obama’s plan to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

“It is my hope that these measures will help restore faith in the United States as a friend, ally and leader in the global community. If the United States wants to lead, we must lead by example,” the senator said, according to a text of his remarks released by his office.

The senator and his wife Myrna were part of a taxpayer-funded trip that included a half-dozen members of Congress and staff aides. In addition to Jerusalem, the group visited the Palestinian terroritory on the West Bank and Syria. Cardin also visited Slovakia during the Austrian leg of his trip.

Posted by Paul West at 2:36 PM | | Comments (0)

Maryland's bond rating: In a word, coveted

Well, it happened again. We can't say we're surprised. Maryland is preparing to borrow money for roads, schools and other projects, and it's time for the Wall Street rating agencies to assign a grade to the debt.

Maryland's at the top of the class. State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp announced that all the rating agencies are giving the $515 million in bonds their highest grade: AAA.

And then Kopp (or her communications guru) couldn't help herself. "Naturally I am very pleased that Maryland has retained its coveted AAA rating, which testifies to the state’s prudent and
sound financial management," she said.

There it was. That word. Coveted. It seems to us journalists that there is no other way to describe Maryland's bond ratings. Legilsators in Annapolis never want to dip into the rainy day fund, or let unfunded retiree benefits get too large, lest the state lose its "coveted" AAA bond rating. (We're only one of seven states that have it; the other 43 must *really* be coveting.)

We decided to see just how ubiquitous (and cliched) the adjective has become.

A Google search of "coveted AAA bond rating" produces 733 hits. Add the word "Maryland," and the number becomes 675. In other words, 92 percent of the Google hits for "coveted AAA bond rating" are related to the Old Line State.

Time to find a new adjective?

Posted by David Nitkin at 7:45 AM | | Comments (0)

February 19, 2009

UPDATED: Dixon snubbed, unsnubbed and resnubbed

Many of the nation's mayors are going to the White House tomorrow, to talk to Barack Obama and Joe Biden about urban policy.

When the U.S. Conference of Mayors sent of the list of who would be attending, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon's name wasn't on it.

That left us wondering if this was another snub.

It was just this week that Dixon, indicted earlier this year on a dozen fraud and misuse of office charges, acknowledged that she was "bothered" that Obama didn't mention her by name when he swung through Baltimore on the weekend before his inauguration. She called it "a lonely part" of the day, in a televised interview that appeared on WJZ.

Dixon has been in Florida this week for a conference on homelessness. When her aides starting fielding questions from the Baltimore Sun's Annie Linskey and others about why Dixon was not going to the White House, apparently the schedulers started scrambling.

The mayor's office told Linskey this afternoon that Dixon indeed will be going to the White House tomorrow. So perhaps she has unsnubbed herself?

UPDATE: After we posted this item, the mayor was uninvited. We're doing some more reporting now. Full story in tomorrow's print edition of Baltimore Sun, and online at

Click on the link below to see the original list of mayors scheduled to be in Washington.



Washington, D.C. – The nation’s mayors have been invited by U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden to the White House for a meeting with The Conference of Mayors leadership on the morning of Friday, February 20, 2009. Led by U.S. Conference of Mayors President Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, over 60 mayors will also meet with Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and White House Senior Staff.

The mayors meeting with President Obama and Vice President Biden will take place from 10:30 a.m. to

11:15 a.m. in the East Room of the White House and will be OPEN to the press. The mayors will also hold a press availability at the White House at 11:30 a.m. immediately following the meeting (location is TBD).

Following the White House meeting, the mayors will gather at the Capitol Hilton in Washington, D.C. for a session with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, U.S. Department of Energy Weatherization Program Director Gil Sperling, and U.S. Department of Justice COPS Office Acting Director Tim Quinn. This meeting is CLOSED to the press.

The nation’s mayors commend President Obama and Congress for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which is in line with the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ priorities, and look forward to working with the Administration to implement this landmark legislation toward transforming our national economy for the 21st Century.

WHO (as of 2/19/09):







JOE RILEY, Charleston SC

JAMES BAKER, Wilmington DE
TERRY Michelle BELLAMY, Asheville NC
MARTY BLUM, Santa Barbara CA
MARTIN J. CHAVEZ, Albuquerque NM
JOY COOPER, Hallandale Beach FL

LOIS FRANKEL, West Palm Beach
ARLENE MULDER, Arlington Heights IL
RAY NAGIN, New Orleans LA
GAVIN NEWSOM, San Francisco CA

USCM CEO & Executive Director Tom Cochran

Posted by David Nitkin at 4:45 PM | | Comments (15)

Annapolis tattoo debate turns into abortion clash

An Annapolis dispatch from the Baltimore Sun's Julie Bykowicz:

A proposal to require parental consent for tattoos and body piercings morphed this morning on the House floor into a heated debate about abortion rights – causing an uproar among Republicans who said they were being unfairly silenced.

It started as an amendment. Del. Gail H. Bates, a Howard County Republican, wanted to expand a tattoo bill to include “other invasive surgical procedures.” Democrats groaned and some immediately stood to stamp out the amendment, calling it out of order because it changed the purpose of the bill, filed by Del. Sue Kullen, a Calvert County Democrat.

Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell, the minority leader, fired back: “Both carry at least some risk of infection.” He went on to argue that the broader subject of the tattoo bill was parental consent, paving the way for Republicans to add other surgical procedures, such as abortion.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, sided with parliamentarian, Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat, and prohibited the "other procedures" amendment.

But O’Donnell initiated a rare appeal to that ruling. During that process, an enraged Del. Michael D. Smigiel stood to call out Democrats.

“This is nothing more than a tyranny of the majority,” he said. “The minority will not have an opportunity to have our voice heard. To deny any voice is to do a disservice to ourselves. We must stand up against the tyranny of the majority”

The appeal died on a 103-35 vote, but Republicans successfully delayed passage of the tattoo bill. O’Donnell said he’d take another shot at writing “an amendment that’s not out of order.”

Posted by David Nitkin at 4:03 PM | | Comments (3)

New twist to death penalty stalemate

Julie Bykowicz reports this morning that the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is contemplating the unusual step of sending the death penalty repeal to the Senate floor without a recommendation. Two anti-repeal votes on the committee -- Democrat Jim Brochin and Republican Alex Mooney -- indicated they might be willing to do that, which would provide enough votes to get it the proposal in front of the whole body for an up-or-down vote.

This prospect apparently has Mike Miller a little bit freaked out. He admonished the Senate members during yesterday's session not to vote something to the floor and then participate in a filibuster. He referred to the abortion filibuster in the early '90s and said he doesn't want to see something come to the floor only to bottle up all other senate business. He and others who were part of that filibuster treat it like it was their own personal 'nam.

But based on The Sun's recent survey of the Senate, this may not be an issue. As it stands, the anti-repeal side has a majority of the Senate, so there would be nothing to filibuster. I suppose the pro-repeal side could theoretically refuse to shut off debate, but I don't think I've ever heard of a filibuster aimed at passing legislation rather than stopping it. What, you talk until someone caves?

Posted by Andy Green at 11:03 AM | | Comments (1)

Social Security: The Plot Thickens

Attention real estate brokers: A wealthy "Uncle" with hundreds of millions of dollars to spend is looking for at least 13.2 acres of developable property within 40 miles of Baltimore. If you have a suitable plot of land you'd like to move in this dreary economic climate, please contact the General Services Administration, the federal government's agent.

As The Sun reported in today's print edition, the Social Security Administration is in the market for a site for a new National Computer Center. The five-year, $750 million project is just getting off the ground, thanks to a $500 million downpayment in the stimulus law that was enacted this week.

During an interview yesterday with The Sun, the commissioner of Social Security, Michael J. Astrue, confirmed the land search but declined to reveal exactly how much property the agency was in the market for.

However, a recent letter to Astrue from Baltimore Congressman Elijah E. Cummings puts the figure at a minimum of 13.22 acres. Cummings cited a feasibility study conducted last year for Social Security by Lockheed Martin, which the agency has been using to guide its computer center development plans.

In the letter, Cummings urges Astrue to keep the National Computer Center in Maryland, "specifically, in Maryland's Seventh Congressional District, which I represent." Therefore, Cummings added, "I am requesting that you strongly consider building a new data center on the SSA campus, leasing an existing facility near the SSA Woodlawn, MD campus or building a new data center near the SSA Woodlawn, MD campus."

According to Cummings' office, the Democratic congressman has not yet received a response to his Jan. 23 letter. Astrue told The Sun that it is highly unlikely, for reasons of "national security," among others, that the Woodlawn campus would be a suitable site.

Posted by Paul West at 10:47 AM | | Comments (0)

Leopold story gets new legs

Looks like the prediction of one astute commenter on this site had it right: With four term limited Republican Anne Arundel County Councilmen, somebody was going to push for more answers in the bizarre case of John Leopold and the 911 call.

Tyeesha Dixon and Julie Scharper report this morning that several officials, led by County Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks, want Police Chief James Teare Sr. to explain how the department handles incidents like this one, apparently to get at the question of whether Leopold got special treatment. It's hard to imagine the chief, who works for Leopold, revealing anything that would make his boss look bad, but it certainly does suggest that the county exec isn't going to see this one fade away as quickly as he might like.

Posted by Andy Green at 10:46 AM | | Comments (0)

February 18, 2009

Miller tries to avoid death penalty filibuster

It occurred almost two decades ago. But an infamous 1990 Maryland Senate filibuster over abortion left seared such an impression on the memory of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller that he's trying to avoid a repeat at all costs.

As the death penalty debate intensifies in Annapolis with a key committee hearing today, some senators are talking about a procedural move that would remove the matter from a committee that has killed it for two straight years, and bringing it to the floor of the Senate for a vote. Gov. Martin O'Malley, a death penalty opponent, supports the move.

As The Baltimore Sun's Julie Bykowicz reports, Miller issues a stern warning today to lawmakers considering moving forward with the procedure. If they allow the bill to come to the floor without a committee vote, he said, they better be prepared to vote to end a fillibuster. Twenty-nine votes are needed for cloture, and right now, Bykowicz's reporting has showed, there are fewer than 20 votes for a death penalty repeal.

Delivering a short, unprompted speech from his lectern, Miller asked any senators who want capital punishment debated on the Senate floor to commit to voting for cloture, a process that ends debate.

"If you decide you want the body to vote on this … then you have got to give them that right to decide" by avoiding a filibuster, he said.

Miller, a staunch death penalty proponent, said he would vote for cloture and urged others to do so also.

Senate filibusters usually take place over social issues. In recent years, stem cell research funding has led to threats of filibusters. Click the link below to read a gripping account of the 1990 Senate filibuster written by then-Sun reporter Sumathi Reddy during a 2005 stem cell debate.

By Sumathi Reddy

Eight blurry days and nights of hell.

That's how Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller remembers the eight-day filibuster waged in 1990 by senators opposed to an abortion-rights bill.Now, with the threat of a filibuster looming over a bill to fund embryonic stem cell research, Miller says he won't put the measure on the floor until he is assured that there are the 29 votes needed to shut off debate.

"It was ugly," Miller said yesterday. "People were talking about the Holocaust. I don't want to see that ever again."

With little over a week left in the session, senators on both sides of the issue hope they won't have to descend into the poisoned atmosphere of a filibuster, a legislative tactic used to extend debate and either quash or amend a bill.

It was a messy scene in 1990, with bleary-eyed senators dozing on sofas in the lounge and emotional debaters invoking Nazi Germany in making their arguments against abortion.

"It was pretty rough," recalled Sen. Ida G. Ruben of the 1990 filibuster. "Some people just get carried away when it comes to an emotional issue. We just don't have time for this."

At issue this time is legislation that would funnel state funds to embryonic stem cell research, now restricted on the federal level. A bill to provide $23 million a year from the state's cigarette restitution fund starting in 2007 cleared the House of Delegates on Monday.

The Senate bill was amended in committee Tuesday, leaving the amount undetermined and making adult stem cell research also eligible for grants. That amended bill, which goes back to the original committee for approval, could reach the Senate floor as early as tomorrow.

Opponents vow to call for extended debate. Neither side will say how many votes they have.

"We're just about there," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, sponsor of the bill, about whether supporters have the 29 votes to end a filibuster. "I lived through an eight-day filibuster, I'm not interested in that again."

But Sen. Andrew P. Harris, the minority whip, said he continues to see strong bipartisan opposition to the bill.

"For the people for whom this is a life issue, it doesn't make any difference," said Harris, linking embryonic stem cell research to abortion, euthanasia and the Terri Schiavo case.

Harris said he wasn't sure that the bill would even make it to the floor, given the fact that the 90-day session is inching toward an end.

"I'm not sure that the Senate is willing to bottle up hundreds of bills to spend days on this issue," said Harris. "But I think this issue rises to the significance where it could be a very extended debate. ... We'll do it all day and all night."

Though prohibited in the House of Delegates, filibustering is allowed in the Senate, where the president sets the rules. That includes when quorum or cloture votes are held, and when or if those engaging in the filibuster may break for a few hours.

Cloture - a vote to end debate and the filibuster - once required a two-thirds vote, or 32 of 47 senators. That number was lowered to 29 last year.

Filibusters have had a mixed history in the Senate. The 1990 filibuster over abortion ended with the Senate passing two contradictory bills, only to see them killed by a House committee. But the filibuster cost four senators their seats later that year. A year later, the Senate passed the same abortion bill that sparked the filibuster.

In addition to the abortion filibuster, senators engaged in an eight-day filibuster over a Baltimore subway in 1976 and one over building a stadium in 1987.

Since 1990, two shorter filibusters have occurred over tobacco issues. In 1998, a filibuster lasting less than a day failed to kill a bill to lower fees to the law firm handling a suit against tobacco companies. A successful three-day filibuster in 1999 reduced a proposed cigarette tax.

As number-crunching continues over the stem cell research bill, senators are hoping for the best but bracing for the worst.

Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who is staunchly opposed to the stem cell research bill, was one of the senators who participated in the 1990 filibuster. To him, a vote for cloture is a vote in support of the bill.

"Relationships were damaged," Jimeno said of the 1990 debate. "Some senators lost their seat over that. It was a very emotional and spiritual time for us. But I don't think any of us that participated in the 1990 filibuster regretted what we did or why we did it."

Former Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who sponsored the 1990 abortion bill with Hollinger, described the filibuster as "the worst experience of my life."

"The attacks became personal, the whole atmosphere was poisoned," she said. "I find it hard to believe that anything could rise to the horrible experience of the abortion filibuster."

Posted by David Nitkin at 2:12 PM | | Comments (2)

O'Malley outlines first wave of stimulus spending

Gov. Martin O'Malley's office just sent out the prelminary list of transportation projects that will be funded by the federal stimulus package President Obama signed yesterday. The plan calls for about $223 million in spending on highway projects (mostly on maintenance/system preservation) and $412 million on transit (much of it for repairs and renovations to rail stations). The biggest single expenditure is the purchase of 100 hybrid buses, which the administration already announced last week. Details are below.



Cost ($M)

Est. Jobs





Baltimore Region

Purchase of 100 Hybrid




Buses and equipment







Baltimore Region

Light Rail System Renewal




And Improvements







AA County

MARC BWI Station Renovation







Prince George’s Co.

MARC Laurel Station Rehabilitation




(as outlined during visit by Vice




President Biden)







Baltimore County

MARC Martin Yard Improvements







Baltimore City

MARC Penn Station Improvements




(Canopies, windows)







Baltimore City/Co

Metro Fastener and Bolt Replacement







Baltimore City/Co

Metro Public Address System







Baltimore City/Co

Metro Station Restoration







Baltimore City

Metro Tunnel and Underground




Station Repairs







Baltimore City/Co

Metro Bridge and Elevated Structure











Baltimore City/Co

Metro Rail Truck Overhaul







Annapolis, AA Co.,

Local Transit Vehicles/Facilities Urban



How Co., Mont Co.,




Prince George’s Co.








Alleg. Co., Ch Co.,

Local Transit Vehicles/Facilities



Fred Co., Harf Co.,

Small Urban



Wico Co., Wash Co.








All Counties

Local Transit Vehicles/Facilities Rural























Prince George’s




How Co., Upper Shore















Prince George’s

Bridge Rehabilitation



Baltimore City




Cecil Co.

Congestion Management











Posted by Andy Green at 11:03 AM | | Comments (4)

Dixon and O'Malley: Partners in progress?

I wonder how this quote from Sheila Dixon's WJZ interview last night went over in Government House: "In the past two years, I've done more than my predecessors have in 12 or seven years," Dixon said.

That would be the tenures of Kurt L. Schmoke (12 years) and Martin O'Malley (7 years). You may recall that O'Malley fellow has moved on to another job...what was it? Oh yes. Governor. You know, the guy who's responsible for putting about $1.1 billion in direct aid to Baltimore City in the state budget.

Posted by Andy Green at 10:08 AM | | Comments (2)

February 17, 2009

O'Malley's national stature grows

The Democratic Governors Association announced today that Martin O'Malley has been elevated to vice chairman of the group.

The move was expected; O'Malley had been finance chairman, and governors typically follow a progression, from finance to vice chairman to chairman. "In 2008, the DGA burst all previous fundraising records, reaching $23 million," the group said in a release.

When the current chairman, Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, completes his term, O'Malley should take over the top spot. The position provides decent visibility for O'Malley, who is presumably looking to build a national stature, and who, after the 2010 gubernatorial election, will begin looking for other jobs (presuming he is re-elected).

Former Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening was head of both the DGA and the bipartisan corollary, the National Governors Association.

In 2010m the DGA will attempt to defend 21 Governorships held by Democrats, with 38 races on the ballot, the group said in its release.

Posted by David Nitkin at 4:49 PM | | Comments (6)

The value of Annapolis lobbyists

Laura Smitherman in the Baltimore Sun's State House bureau passes on this gem making the rounds in Annapolis, based on the slots foibles of Magna Entertainment, the parent of the Laurel and Pimlico tracks:


Having the Rifkin firm lobbying to legalize slots for 5 years ……………………………………. $5,000,000

Donation of $2,000,000 to pass slots referendum and having Rifkin firm prepare bid …………………………... $3,000,000

Commission rejects MAGNA’s bid ……………………… Priceless!!!

Posted by David Nitkin at 12:39 PM | | Comments (0)

Death penalty repeal: Will any senators change their minds?

Julie Bykowicz, Laura Smitherman and Gadi Dechter have polled the Senate and found a slim majority opposed to Gov. O'Malley's plan to abolish the death penalty. As it stands, O'Malley would need to get all four undecided votes and flip one of the people currently in the anti-repeal camp. Here's the list, as it stands:

Question: Would you be inclined to vote in favor of a full repeal of the death penalty?

YES (19)

Joan Carter Conway, Baltimore City (D)
Ulysses Currie, Prince George's (D)
James "Ed" DeGrange Sr., Anne Arundel (D)
Nathaniel Exum, Prince George's (D)
Jennie M. Forehand, Montgomery County (D)
Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery (D)
Lisa A. Gladden, Baltimore City (D)
David C. Harrington, Prince George's (D)
Verna L. Jones, Baltimore City (D)
Delores G. Kelley, Baltimore County (D)
Nancy J. King, Montgomery (D)
Mike Lenett, Montgomery (D)
Richard Madaleno, Montgomery (D)
Nathaniel J. McFadden, Baltimore City (D)
C. Anthony Muse, Prince George's (D)
Douglas J.J. Peters, Prince George's (D)
Paul G. Pinsky, Prince George's (D)
Catherine E. Pugh, Baltimore City (D)
Jamie Raskin, Montgomery (D)

NO (24)

David R. Brinkley, Frederick and Carroll (R)
James Brochin, Baltimore County (D)
Richard F. Colburn, Eastern Shore (R)
George W. Della Jr., Baltimore City (D)
Roy P. Dyson, Southern Maryland (D)
George C. Edwards, Western Maryland (R)
Rob Garagiola, Montgomery (D)
Barry Glassman, Harford (R)
Janet Greenip, Anne Arundel (R)
Larry E. Haines, Carroll and Baltimore counties (R)
Andy Harris, Baltimore and Harford counties (R)
Nancy Jacobs, Harford and Cecil (R)
Edward J. Kasemeyer, Howard and Baltimore counties (D)
Allan H. Kittleman, Howard and Carroll (R)
Katherine A. Klausmeier, Baltimore County (D)
Thomas "Mac" Middleton, Charles (D)
Thomas V. Mike Miller, Calvert and Prince George's (D)
Alex X. Mooney, Frederick and Washington (R)
Donald F. Munson, Washington (R)
E.J. Pipkin, Eastern Shore (R)
James N. Robey, Howard (D)
J. Lowell Stoltzfus, Eastern Shore (R)
Norman R. Stone Jr., Baltimore County (D)
Bobby A. Zirkin, Baltimore County (D)


John C. Astle, Anne Arundel (D)
Rona E. Kramer, Montgomery (D)
Jim Rosapepe, Prince George's and Anne Arundel (D)
Bryan W. Simonaire, Anne Arundel (R)

Simonaire is a big question mark, since he could be the vote that decides whether the bill gets out of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. Still, he said in the paper this morning that his baseline is that he's pro-death penalty but is worried about whether innocent people could be executed. That sounds like someone who's leaning against the repeal but is trying to keep an open mind, not the other way around.

Are there any surprises in the "no" camp? No major ones, anyway. Rob Garagiola is the only MoCo Democrat publicly on the anti-repeal side, but he's probably also among the most conservative members of that delegation. George Della is someone I could see going either way on the issue, but most of the other Dems on the "no" list seem like solid votes. All the Baltimore County senators, for example, seem unlikely to change their minds. After all, they come from a county that happily elected and re-elected Sandy O'Connor as state's attorney, and she put more people on death row than anybody in modern Maryland legal history.

Shoot, if Jim Rosapepe isn't in the repeal camp, O'Malley's facing an uphill climb.

Posted by Andy Green at 12:01 PM | | Comments (1)

Franchot: Maryland revenues continue to sink

Comptroller Peter Franchot released January's tax receipt estimates and warned other top leaders in Annapolis of the likelihood of "substantial downward revision of general fund revenues next month." Translated, that means things are getting worse than we expected even two months ago.

Revenues this January are 8.2 percent lower than they were for January 2008. Individual income tax led the way with a 12.2 percent drop, which translates to about $102 million. Sales tax receipts were up, but only because of last year's rate increase. The state is still in positive ground in the year to date figures, but only just barely -- we're about 0.5 percent over where we were at this time last year. Estimated payments for fourth quarter income taxes are way down -- 25.9 percent.

So what's the upshot? My guess is the billions in federal aid that Maryland is due to get under the stimulus plan won't make anybody on appropriations or budget and tax feel very comfortable over the next couple of months. Legislators started debate on O'Malley's budget by saying they needed to cut more to give the state a bigger cushion, and I'm betting that operating logic remains despite the stimulus.

Posted by Andy Green at 10:50 AM | | Comments (0)

February 16, 2009

Doug Duncan sounds off

The words "Martin O'Malley" appear nowhere in Doug Duncan's op-ed in the Sunday Post, but you could certainly be forgiven for seeing some between-the-lines crticism of the former MoCo Exec's one-time Democratic primary rival. He mentions a few Montgomery-specific issues and none on the state level, but the critique he levies about government officials' response to the economic crisis certainly seems aimed at Annapolis as much as Rockville.

Pity the poor Maryland state or local elected officials facing reelection in 2010. Their response to the fiscal crisis has been reactive and uninspired, and voters are getting angrier by the day.


Trust and confidence in government need to be restored, and it has to start with an honest accounting about the challenges we face along with a vision of where we want to go. It's time to be truthful to the public and acknowledge that government's capabilities must be reshaped for some time to come. Can state and local elected officials get back to basics by adopting zero-based budgeting and conducting a healthy review of government's core missions and competencies? Can they decide a program is no longer affordable and then cut it entirely out of the budget? Can they get ahead of the revenue forecasts and stop changing budgets every few months? Can they redesign services to face a new economic reality?

For their reelection's sake, they better hope they can, because if they can't, the voters will replace them with others who will.

It would be tough to take out a sitting governor in a primary election, and it would naturally be reading way too much into this to infer that Doug is dipping his toe in the water, but it's not exactly a full-throated endorsement of the top Maryland Democrat either.

Posted by Andy Green at 2:20 PM | | Comments (4)

Slots at BWI

Del. Eric Bromwell has a bill in that would call for BWI-Marshall airport to be included as a possible slots site, with up to 3,000 machines, a la the airport in Vegas.

Does this have a chance in hell? No. But it does dredge up a point from the 2007 debate over the slots constitutional amendment that may look different to people now. Bromwell's bill would require a constitutional amendment because the locations specified for slots sites are now enshried in the state constitution. At the time, those squeamish about slots counted that as a virtue because it would limit the potential for gambling to creep into other areas and gave all voters in the state a say in whether casinos would end up in their backyards.

But given the lackluster response to the bidding for slots licenses, it's a fair question to wonder whether granting more flexibility in the locations might have been a good thing. There are other protections in the legislation that would help keep slots out of undesireable locations (local zoning control still applies, no more than one parlor can be in one jurisdiction, and the licensing commission has the ultimate say on whether a bid is accepted).

A lot has changed since November 2007 -- the collapse of the economy, the renewal of Maryland's budget crisis, etc. -- that could have changed attitudes about where slots can and can't go, and who knows what the future may bring? I have a hard time imagining people being willing to change the constitution again so soon, but I wonder how many lawmakers, if they had to do it over again, would have adovcated putting the locations in the state code, not the constitution.

Update: Laura Smitherman reports

Gov says no way: O'Malley called it a "bad idea" and said that even though the bidding was not as robust as state officials had hoped, the slots commission should be allowed to do its job. "I am not in favor of slots at the airport, but it is one of those ideas that sometimes comes bouncing across the floor here."

Like I said, ain't gonna happen.

Posted by Andy Green at 11:42 AM | | Comments (8)

Sheila Dixon: Maryland's first black governor?

Mayor Sheila Dixon is walking a treacherous path in Annapolis. As the Baltimore Sun’s Julie Bykowicz reports today, Dixon has encountered some critics among the city delegation in the state capitol, who say that on certain issues, she doesn’t communicate enough with them.

As Bykowicz reports, the mayor’s role in Annapolis is important. Working with legislators, she must make sure the city doesn’t get rolled by interests from other parts of the state who are concerned that Baltimore gets too much assistance.

That’s particularly important this year, when a budget crisis is forcing deep cuts, and programs that Baltimore residents rely on could face the ax. Her effectiveness during the 2009 session is almost certainly hampered by the criminal corruption charges hanging over her.

The most influential local leaders appear to be those who have an eye on higher office. Before Dixon, two of the last three mayors of Baltimore went on to become governor. Other ambitious county executives such as Jim Smith in Baltimore County and Doug Duncan and Ike Leggett in Montgomery County have skillfully worked the corridors of the State House to make themselves players.

But if Dixon aspires to higher office, she doesn’t show it. And she doesn’t seem to approach her Annapolis visits as a statewide coalition-building opportunity.

Her role in the state capitol raises an interesting question. If Maryland is to have its first black governor, will that leader come from Baltimore? Can a mayor of Baltimore who is black get elected statewide? Is there any way Dixon could be that person? The answer to that last question, right now, appears to be no.

Posted by David Nitkin at 11:37 AM | | Comments (19)

February 14, 2009

Obama Stimulus Will Rain Billions on State

Maryland is an island of relative prosperity in a sea of economic gloom. That, at least, is how economist Mark Zandi of Moody’s depicts it.

In a recent map of the coast-to-coast recession, he ranked the state as one of the few not in recession, though still “at risk.” In December, the state’s unemployment rate was the 14th lowest in the country, significantly below the national average.

What’s helped keep Maryland from sinking deeper has been spending by the federal government, which is about to start pumping a whole lot more money in.. Billions in new spending could help cushion the pain over the next year or two, though perhaps not quickly enough to keep the state from falling into the national recession that began well over a year ago.

Private economists say the stimulus package will help save jobs across the country, but they criticize White House officials for being overly optimistic about the impact.

When it comes to Maryland, though, the administration’s predictions may not be optimistic enough.

According to President Barack Obama’s economic advisers, a total of 66,000 jobs will be created or saved in Maryland over the next two years. The figure is only a rough guess, however. It was based on economic models and population statistics, not the nitty gritty details of the $787 billion deal Congress and the administration hammered out.

For example, there could be as much as $3 billion—and possibly even more--in new construction work in or near Maryland, once money from the stimulus package starts to flow, according to congressional sources and documents released by Congress late last week.

That government spending alone could generate as many as 85,000 jobs, largely in the construction industry. An industry lobby, the Associated General Contractors, estimates that each $1 billion in spending creates 32,800 jobs.

Additional jobs will be saved or created from the roughly $814 million the state government receives in direct financial aid, which could prevent planned layoffs at the state or local level.

There will be new grants, too, for local governments to hire police officers (which, in reality, may end up being used to keep existing cops on the job). A total of $3 billion worth of research money will go to the National Science Foundation, some of which will filter into Maryland labs. The National Institutes of Health, based in Maryland, will be getting another $9 billion. Most of that is for research, but $500 million is for construction work at the Bethesda campus.

There is new money to lay rural broadband lines, some $400 million for bridge and highway repair, $240 million for improving mass transit, $27 million for drinking water projects, and so on.

Nationwide, the government will have $4.5 billion to help make federal buildings more energy efficient. It will be up to agency officials to target the funds, but a significant amount of the money will be spent in this region. The Food and Drug Administration facility at White Oak is already on the list, according to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski’s office.

Mikulski, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, had a direct hand in providing additional funding for NASA, some of which will go to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. Industry officials credit her with single-handedly getting $400 million to speed development of the space shuttle. NASA’s mid-Atlantic regional spaceport at Wallops Island, just across the Virginia line from Worcester County, will be a shuttle resupply center.

Mikulski describes the various federal facilities in the state—the military bases, labs and office complexes--as a “cornucopia.”

"Every time the federal government spends a dollar, a lot of it is being administered in Maryland," the Democratic senator said.

Recently, the state has become a “real world” backdrop for senior Obama administration officials, who have used the area between Baltimore and Washington to highlight new spending during the debate over the stimulus measure.

Vice President Joe Biden stood in the sub-freezing chill outside an ancient MARC train station
in Laurel to promote an $2.9 million repair project. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar toured the Patuxent Research Refuge, which is getting $15 million for restoration and repair work.

But those figures are dwarfed by major area projects in the package: a new $500 million National Computer Center for the Social Security Administration at Woodlawn, for example. Social Security will receive $1 billion in all, with $500 million going to reduce the agency’s processing backlog.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg will get much of the 360 million allotted for construction and maintenance work at the agency, which also has facilities in Colorado. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, headquartered at Camp Springs, will get $230 million, some of which will go to operations in the state.

A total of $650 million is earmarked for initial construction of a new $3.4 billion Department of Homeland Security headquarters in Washington, the largest building project since the Pentagon was erected more than 60 years ago. Construction work will employ 32,800 people in the capital region, the government estimates.

Add to these figures the hundreds of millions in direct aid to citizens in the form of tax cuts, help for those who have lost their jobs or fallen deeper into poverty across the country.

Obama will open that spigot when he signs the largest single slug of new federal spending and tax cuts in history into law this week. At the same time, he may well offer soothing words about how things will begin turning around soon across America.

The sad truth, however, is that nobody knows how much spark those billions will give the beaten-down national economy.

The impact of any government spending and tax-cut plan is “very uncertain,” Douglas Elmendorf, director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, advised the other day.

Private economists, including Zandi, forecast that the stimulus package will generate or preserve about 2.2 million jobs. That would be barely half of Obama’s rosier target of 4 million.]

But Maryland, once again, may stand out as an exception.

Posted by Paul West at 8:00 AM | | Comments (1)

February 13, 2009

Kratovil Changes Sides, Supports Stimulus Package; Bartlett Only "No" Vote

Rep. Frank Kratovil joined Maryland's six other Democratic congressman in voting in favor of the $787 billion stimulus package, which has just been approved by the House of Representatives.

The freshman from the Eastern Shore was one of five Democrats who switched sides and voted for the measure after having opposed it last month, when the House first approved it.

Once again, none of the Republicans in the House voted in favor of the package, and Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, the state's lone Republican, was the only "no" vote from Maryland.

The final House vote on the measure was 246-183, with seven Democrats and 176 Republicans opposed.

In a statement, Kratovil said that “although this bill is still far from perfect, in a crisis of this magnitude we can’t afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the necessary. Economists all over the country believe, and I ultimately agreed that some action needed to be taken to deal with this crisis."

He said the final package had cut billions in spending while increasing funding for rural broadband and other projects that will help his district, which takes in the entire Eastern Shore and portions of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties.

"It is estimated that this bipartisan compromise will create or save 8,200 jobs here in the First District," he said. "I was proud to work with the Blue Dog Coalition and other colleagues to advocate for a leaner, more focused, and more effective stimulus package.

Kratovil initially opposed the measure, which had a price tag of $819 billion, because, he said, the more stimulative elements of the package had been watered down by other federal spending.

A new Congressional Budget Office analysis shows that direct federal spending in the final package will be $308 billion, a reduction of $47 billion from the initial House version.

Bartlett, the only Maryland opponent of the measure, called it "a job killing, not a job-making bill."

In a statement the Frederick Republican said he hoped the plan would work "but it would be the first time in history that a government could borrow and spend an economy out of a recession. The word will get out that this ‘stimulus’ is just a diverting headline for a big government grow bill. This fulfills the wish of liberals to expand government spending and control over Americans’ lives and their hard-earned money.”

Posted by Paul West at 2:45 PM | | Comments (8)

O'Malley vs. the lottery drawing

Looks like Gov. O'Malley has finally found a sure-fire winning political issue: Getting rid of the annoying split-screen lottery drawings.

Laura Vozzella reports today that O'Malley called up his chief of staff in the middle of the Superbowl halftime show furious that the lottery drawing had bumped Bruce Springsteen into a teensy corner in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. That was annoying, but in some ways an improvement; the lottery usually manages to cut in at the most crucial third-and-inches sorts of moments. The guv wants the live drawing banished to a crawl at the bottom of the screen.

With 2010 just around the corner, looks like O'Malley could have a new campaign slogan on his hands. OK, so he raised your taxes, and so what if that "stop the BGE rate hike" business didn't quite work out. Killing the lottery drawing -- now that's change we all can believe in.

Posted by Andy Green at 1:32 PM | | Comments (2)

Michael Steele's leftover money: He's not the only one

The allegations against RNC chairman Michael S. Steele from his former campaign finance chairman (who is serving a prison term for fraud) draw attention to a little discussed question: What happens to campaign funds left over when a race concludes?

Part of the charges stem from money in Michael Steele’s state campaign account that was raised largely by supporters of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. In Maryland, governors and lieutenant governors run as a ticket, and it is common for each candidate to have his or her own account. That way, top donors can give the maximum $4,000 contribution to each – effectively doubling the amount of help they can provide the ticket.

When Steele decided to break up the team and run for U.S. Senate, the roughly $600,000 in his state account was put on ice. Federal and state campaign finance rules are very different, and money raised for a state account is not easily shifted into a federal race. While some Ehrlich backers may have wanted Steele to find a way to get the money back into the governor’s race, Steele didn’t do so.

One of the allegations from former Steele chairman Alan B. Fabian – first reported by the Washington Post last week – was that Steele broke some rules in taking control of the money, because he did not have “signatory authority” even though the money was transferred from one bank account to another. Steele’s control of the money caused some tension among Ehrlich allies, the Post reported.

What started out as $626,000 in the Michael Steele for Maryland Committee in 2007 has shrunk to $367,000 at the beginning of the year. The decline includes more than $112,000 in transfers to other accounts last December, a Christmas gift of sorts to Republicans in the Maryland General Assembly. Steele gave $2,000 to each Republican elected state official, putting his money where his mouth was as chairman of GOPAC, which recruits state-level Republican candidates.

That was smart politics for Steele, particularly in hindsight. Now that he’s RNC chairman, there’s virtually no chance he will run for Maryland governor in 2010. So he doesn’t need the state fund for himself. Why not spread some money within his home state, building support among those who may have been troubled that he was casting his eye on a national stage and forgetting the little people he left behind?

As the Baltimore Sun’s Michael Dresser has discovered, Steele isn’t the only former elected official with leftover campaign money. Dresser has found thousands more tucked away in dormant accounts. To read more about them, follow this link.

For some Maryland politicians, the campaign kitty lives on long after the career in public life is seemingly over.

Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, former Montgomery County Executive and gubernatorial hopeful Douglas M. Duncan, and federal prisoner and former state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell are among the political luminaries who have kept "zombie" campaign accounts open long after leaving the political arena.

In some cases, the former elected officials keep their political committees active with little money to show for the effort in spite of the hassle of preparing and filing periodic reports with the State Board of Elections. In others, the for-now-retired politicos are sitting on substantial sums with which to fund a potential comeback.

Most notable in the latter category is Duncan, who cut short his 2006 Democratic primary race against Martin O’Malley to seek treatment for depression. Though out of politics, his Jan. 21 campaign finance report shows that he’s still sitting on $331,545 he could put toward a future race for state or county office.

Less prepared to make a comeback is Glendening, who has shown no inclination to re-enter elective politics after ending two terms as governor in 2003. Yet the former chief executive has faithfully filed reports on his dwindling political war chest ever since. His 2009 annual report shows $7,931 in his account, with his largest expenditure being the $250 he gave the Democrats representing the 21st Legislative District.

Other politicians have been less diligent about filing their reports on time. Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer’s campaign treasurer, for instance, had not filed his report due Jan. 21 as of today, but last year’s report showed that he had donated the last remaining funds to charity. With the former governor and comptroller firmly ensconced in retirement, the fact his account technically remains open could be put down as an oversight.

Bromwell, has $34,131, the same amount as last year.

The failure to meet campaign filing deadliens carries a fine of $30, which could go could increase with further delays. In arrears is a former statewide Republican candidate, 2006 GOP attorney general nominee Scott Rolle. Since his defeat by Democrat Douglas Gansler, election board records show, the former Frederick County state’s attorney has failed to file six reports by their due dates and is now on the hook for $1,280 in fines for a campaign account that was down to $2,036 the last time Rolle did report.

Other politicians who continue to maintain accounts though they have been out of the political arena since 2006 include former Baltimore County Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, who’s sitting on $57,457 after an unsuccessful congressional race that year; retired Montgomery County state Sen. P. J. Hogan, $37,834; retired Baltimore state Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, $25,800; defeated Montgomery County Sen. Ida Ruben, $13,876; and defeated Howard County state Sen. Sandy Schrader, $9,202.

Former Montgomery County Del. Cheryl Kagan has $44,224 in the bank even though she hasn’t been listed on a ballot since 1998. She's long pondered a state Senate run. Former House Minority Leader Al Redmer Jr., is still holding on to $15,911.00 though he last faced the voters in 2002. Redmer has considered running for Baltimore County executive.

Also maintaining an active campaign account is former Anne Arundel County executive and 2006 comptroller candidate Janet Owens. In her case, however, the outstanding issue appears to be a stubborn $130,000 in debt rather than the paltry $2,036 she has in cash.

Politicians who wish to close out their campaign accounts are not permitted to convert the money to personal use. However, they have several options to spend down the remaining sums. They include giving the money to charity, donating it to like-minded candidates and party committees, contributing it to Maryland colleges or boards of education or returning it to contributors.

-- Michael Dresser

Posted by David Nitkin at 12:53 PM | | Comments (1)

February 12, 2009

Slots bids head to court

No surprise, the fight over who gets Maryland's slot machine gambling licenses is headed to court.

This was bound to happen, but may have come somewhat more quickly than many would have predicted. How this will play out is impossible to know, but it sure makes David Cordish's promise to break ground on a casino by the end of the year look a lot less likely.

House Minority Leader Tony O'Donnell said yesterday that Gov. Martin O'Malley needs to get involved and "go back to the drawing board" on the bidding process. Republicans have been in I-told-you-so mode of late, saying the lackluster bidding for Maryland's five slots licenses is proof that O'Malley and the Democrats crafted a lousy slots program with a tax rate too high to be attractive to any decent gambling operators. They may well be right that Maryland's 67 percent tax rate -- among the highest in the nation -- discouraged bidders. Ditto Baltimore City's effort to get $32 million a year in rent for its slots site.

But I'm not sure there's anything Maryland could have done that would have prevented this from winding up in court. Look at Pennsylvania -- even with a lower tax rate and a much better economy, the Keystone State's slots program took years to get off the ground amid legal wrangling, political maneuvering and a few indictments for good measure. There's just too much money at stake.

Posted by Andy Green at 2:13 PM | | Comments (6)

Obama Stimulus Plan Worth 66,000 Jobs In Maryland, White House Says

The White House has just issued a new state-by-state estimate on the number of jobs that will be saved or created over the next two years under the $789.5 billion economic stimulus package now nearing final approval in Congress.

The figure for Maryland is 66,000, which represents a slight decline from an earlier administration estimate. That figure, based on the House stimulus bill, which also had a higher price tag than the final package, was 70,000 jobs.

These figures are extremely rough estimates, however. The actual impact on Maryland employment could well be higher, since overall federal spending ripples out from the District of Columbia and is more concentrated in the surrounding region than in the rest of the country.

According to the White House, the estimates were derived from an analysis of the overall employment impact of the stimulus package, conducted by Christina Romer, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Jared Bernstein, Chief Economist for the Vice President.

They came up with a figure of 3.5 million jobs that would be created or saved over the next two years. Of course, how one defines a "saved" job is open to wide interpretation, since it basically means a job that would have been cut and now would be preserved.

The White House then took those numbers and divided them up, using detailed estimates of the working age population, employment, and industrial composition of each state.

But the construction projects in the stimulus package, for example, are not spread evenly around the country. And other stimulative aspects of the plan may also disproportionately help Maryland.

As Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski remarked this week at a meeting between the state's congressional delegation and Gov. Martin O'Malley and his staff: "Every time the federal government spends a dollar, a lot of it is being administered in Maryland."

Posted by Paul West at 1:39 PM | | Comments (2)

Obama Expected to Sign Mikulksi Car Tax Break Into Law

The $789.5 billion economic stimulus package that President Barack Obama is expected to sign into law next week will contain a slimmed down version of the new car tax break authored by Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland.

Under the stimulus deal that Congress is likely to approve over the next few days, buyers of new cars, light trucks, recreational vehicles and motorcyles will be able to deduct the state sales and excise taxes from the purchase on their federal returns next year.

“Everyone wants to save auto manufacturers, but no matter how much government aid we give to the Big Three auto makers, they can’t survive if consumers don’t start buying cars. My proposal stimulates demand in the automobile industry so that people go to showrooms and buy cars. At the same time, it lends a helping hand to struggling families who need to buy a car to get to work and take their kids to school,” Mikulski said today in a prepared statement.

The tax break, which will cost $1.684 billion, no longer includes deductions for interest payments on car loans, a feature of Mikulski's original plan.

Leaders of the Senate Finance Committee, who were negotiators on the final package, strongly opposed Mikulski's idea, which would have cost $11 billion over ten years.

Her original plan was reduced in scope as part of a broader effort to lower the final price tag on the stimulus package and provide more money for infrastructure spending and education.

But Mikulski scored a major legislative victory by getting her provision into the final deal at all. It was one of only two so-called rifle-shot tax breaks supported by industry lobbies and approved by the Senate; the other was for homebuyers.

The Mikulski amendment, which gained Senate approval earlier this month, was strongly supported by the National Automobile Dealers Association. The industry lobby had urged car dealers from around the country to pressure their representatives in Congress to support the plan.

Critics of the measure call it an inefficient way to stimulate the economy. Many of those who will purchase new cars this year would have done so anyway, they argue.

Mikulski contends that her amendment will attract more buyers into car showrooms and benefit the environment by replacing older, less fuel-efficient models with new ones.

The provision will apply only to new vehicles purchased between the date that the bill is signed into law, presumably next week, and the end of this year. Originally, it would have covered new cars bought as early as last November.

By eliminating the interest deduction provisions in the original Mikulski plan, the tax savings for the average car buyer are also reduced substantially.

According to Mikulksi's office, a family that takes advantage of the new car tax break will pay between $300 and $600 less in federal taxes next year. Originally, those savings were projected at $1,500 for buyers of a $25,000 car and $2,500 on a $35,000 car.

Families earning up to $250,000 a year and individuals who earn up to $125,000 are eligible for the tax break.

It is an "above-the-line" deduction, which means it can be taken by anyone who owes federal income tax. The break applies only to the first $49,500 of the vehicle's purchase price.

Posted by Paul West at 11:43 AM | | Comments (6)

Democratic Leader: Obama Stimulus Package "Not Scientific but Political"

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said today that the size of the $789.5 billion stimulus plan expected to gain final approval in Congress this week was dictated more by politics than economic science.

The comment by the Maryland Democrat, at a conference this morning sponsored by Georgetown University and Politico, appeared to reflect the resentment of many in the House over the veto power wielded by a trio of Senate Republicans in the drafting of the final package.

Referring to the estimated $789.5 billion in new spending and tax cuts in the measure, Hoyer called it "a figure that was not scientific but political. Three Republicans decided that was the figure they would vote on, and that's the context in which we were operating."

He was referring to Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the Republicans whose votes were critical to assuring Senate approval of the measure, expected Saturday.

Hoyer said it would be tomorrow, at the earliest, before the House would vote on the package.
Approval by the heavily Democratic chamber is a virtual certainty, with the main question revolving around the number of conservative Democrats and Republicans who decide to support the revised measure.

Every House Republican, 173 in all, and 11 Democrats, including freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil of Maryland, opposed the initial version, which had an $819 billion price tag. Through a spokesman, Kratovil would not say which way he will vote on the revised plan.

Hoyer noted that the compromise measure provides less assistance to financially pressed states than the original House plan but has more money for infrastructure projects, such as roads and bridges, than either house of Congress initially approved.

"We hope that this package has the effect that most economists believe it will have," said Hoyer. "Some economists say, of course, that it ought to be perhaps double in size, and they may be right. But this is the size that we could get through the Congress."

He pointed out that no sitting member of Congress had ever voted on a measure as expensive as the one being considered this week.

"It is a very large sum of money to meet a crisis," he said, to "right our economy, stop the hemorrhaging of jobs and start coming out of this recession."

Posted by Paul West at 10:07 AM | | Comments (2)

O'Malley taps new state Democratic Party head

Laura Smitherman reports that Gov. Martin O'Malley has tapped a new head for the state Democratic Party. She writes:

Gov. Martin O’Malley has nominated Susan Turnbull to chair the Maryland Democratic Party. Turnbull, of Montgomery County, has been on the national stage as vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, and she returns to lead the state party at a crucial time as O’Malley seeks re-election next year and Democrats hope to hold on to gains they have made in recent elections.

The governor "seriously contemplated" whom to nominate, knowing the stakes, said Quincey Gamble, the party’s executive director. Turnbull, who would succeed Michael Cryor after he stepped down last month, will get a vote before the party’s executive committee next week. O’Malley e-mailed central committee members around the state about his choice last night, and Gamble predicted she’ll easily get the nod.

"2010 is going to be a big year for Democrats in Maryland, and Susie is going to be a great leader," Gamble said. "It’s a home run."

When Democrats didn't control the governor's mansion, the party leadership vote was a real contest, but as a matter of course, the chief executive of the state gets to select the leader of his party, so the vote this time is considered a formality.

Posted by Andy Green at 9:48 AM | | Comments (0)

Leopold 911 call: What's the fallout?

It's pretty clear that John Leopold and the Anne Arundel County Police Department have no interest in divulging furhter details of the bizarre incident in which an officer responding to a 911 call from a person complaining of possible sexual activity in a car in the Annapolis mall parking lot found said car to be occupied by the county executive himself. The Sun's Julie Scharper reports this morning that Leopold isn't talking beyond a one-paragraph statement saying the police found nothing improper, and the police aren't saying whether Leopold was alone or what he and the officer said to each other.

So now what? Will that be the end of it, or will Leopold face pressure to say more? What we may actually get answers about in the next few days could be how strong a challenge Leopold can expect to face in the 2010 election. He faced strong opponents in both the primary and general elections in 2006, and it would certainly help a challenger this time if Leopold were weakened by some sort of scandal. So far, the Arundel political establishment is snickering about this behind their sleeves. If you see a politician making a stink about this, perhaps arguing that the public deserves more answers, take that as a sign that somebody's got the state's only Republican county executive (apologies to David Craig; it was early when I wrote this) one of the state's most prominent Republican elected officials in his or her sights for 2010.

Posted by Andy Green at 7:22 AM | | Comments (12)

Slots bid decisions could come today

Maryland's slots licensing commission meets today and could decide whether to reject the bids for casinos at Rocky Gap and Laurel Park that were not accompanied by required licensing fees. But even if they do throw out those bids, that's surely not the end of the road, at least not for Magna Entertainment Corp.'s proposed racino at Laurel.

Gadi Dechter reports today that lawyers for the Maryland Jockey Club (a Magna subsidiary) have filed a protest arguing that the bid specs written into the slots law are unconstitutional. As they read it, the law doesn't allow for a refund of the licensing fees -- some $28 million in the case of the Laurel bid -- if the casino is blocked by a local zoning law. And they say the state constitution doesn't allow non-refundable bids.

It's an intersting argument, but apparently worries about the refundability of the licensing fee didn't faze the Cordish Cos. in its bid for a competing slots site at Arundel Mills Mall. And it didn't stop bidders for the Baltimore, Cecil County or Worcester County sites.

But what it means, almost for sure, is that somebody is going to take this to court, and that would delay -- for weeks, months, years? -- the day when the first quarters get dropped into the first Maryland slot machines, something the cash-strapped state can ill afford right now.

It might not be so good for Magna, either; as the owner of two racetracks in the state, the company stands to benefit (indirectly) from tens of millions in purse subsidies funded by the slots bill and (directly) from millions more in racetrack improvement funds written into the legislation. Maryland may need some quick cash from slots, but Magna's not exactly rolling in profits either, so if it pushes a lawsuit, it better be sure it can win.

Posted by Andy Green at 6:53 AM | | Comments (0)

February 11, 2009

O'Malley opposes Miller teacher pension shift plan

Gov. Martin O'Malley said on a radio show today he wants the state continue to pay all of the costs for teacher pensions, the Associated Press reports.

“It has been my position and remains my position that these are things that should be covered by the state,” O'Malley said on WTOP-FM's “Ask The Governor” radio program.

The governor's position puts him at odds with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who is proposing that future pension costs be picked up by counties, not the state.

Maryland is one of the few states that shoulders all the cost of teacher pensions, an expense that has gone up 22 percent, or about $135 million, in the fiscal year 2010 budget. The total cost is about $770 million, a big price tag during difficult financial times.

Miller is sponsoring a bill that would make counties responsible for pension costs for new school employees, a measure he has described as a “compromise” proposal.

The Senate president said he wants to begin a discussion on the issue, which always makes its way onto the table during a time of budget crises.

Posted by David Nitkin at 6:16 PM | | Comments (0)

Crisis averted: Beer pong to remain legal in Baltimore

Baltimore state Sen. George W. Della Jr. has caved on an effort to outlaw beer pong and related drinking games in Baltimore bars before the fight even got started.

Email exchanges encouraged beer pong fans to contact Della, who was responding to neighborhood groups concerned about the outflow from bars in Federal Hill and elsewhere in his South Baltimore-based district after long nights of drinking games. Della’s proposed beer pong ban was to have its first legislative hearing on Thursday, but he told the Baltimore Sun’s Sam Sessa today that his is abandoning the push. The pressure is already too great, he said, and he doesn’t need the headache.

Some of the reaction is predictable. Many will ask why this is a topic the General Assembly needs to consider at all. With budget deficits, a health care crisis and global warming, why should lawmakers use any time during their 90 day session to talk about beer pong?

Well, the Assembly considers hundreds of bills a year. Some are broad. Some are narrow. Many are put in the hopper at the request of a constituent. Sessa told me that Della was unaware that many players use water in beer pong cups, rather than alcohol. The senator was open to compromise. Several other states have banned drinking games. Della would not be reinventing the wheel here.

But there seem to be two lessons. First, as Sessa notes, there’s a new political force to be reckoned with in Annapolis, in the beer pong aficionado. And second, heaven help the legislator who gets between a pong player and his (or her) balls.

Posted by David Nitkin at 1:16 PM | | Comments (6)

Why are Michael Steele documents redacted?

The Washington Post broke a story last week about a federal investigation into Michael Steele’s 2006 Senate campaign finances, based in part on a confidential legal document the newspaper said it was inadvertently provided by federal prosecutors based in Baltimore.

The document was prepared by lawyers for Alan B. Fabian, who had been Steele’s Senate campaign finance chairman, as Fabian sought a reduced sentence after pleading guilty to unrelated fraud charges. It was intended to show, in part, that Fabian was willing to cooperate in other inquiries, and had knowledge of alleged wrongdoing that he believed was valuable.The Post reported that the judge did not give Fabian credit for agreeing to participate in any investigation that involved Steele. Fabian was sentenced to a nine-year term.

The Post said it was given the confidential document by federal officials after it requested a different one. The newspaper posted what it is calling “excerpts” of the document online.

But the online version has been electronically redacted. The Post has made available two pages of a document that appears to be more than 30 pages long (the Steele information is on pages 30 and 31). The condition of the document raises some questions:

a) Who did the redacting? If it was the U.S. Attorney’s Office, that raises serious doubts about whether the disclosure was “accidental.” If the feds wrongly included the document in response to a records request in error, one would imagine they would have given the whole thing.

b) Did the newspaper itself do the redacting? That’s hard to believe. The Post wants more information out there, not less. But if the paper redacted, it raises the possibility that newspaper managers and the U.S. Attorney’s Office had some kind of negotiations about what could be published, and what couldn’t.

c) What else does the document contain? If Fabian wanted to cut a deal, what other information did he provide?

To call up a PDF version of excerpts from the Post's site, click here.

Posted by David Nitkin at 12:53 PM | | Comments (1)

All you need is Love in the General Assembly

It was the House of Delegate's 15th annual self-love day this morning, as the legislative chamber's alumni society handed out an appreciation award for Del. Mary Ann Love, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, for her 17 years of service. The presentation was made by former Speaker Casper Taylor Jr., a registered lobbyist whose emeritus status apparently allows for him to skirt rules against lobbyists in the law-making chambers.

Before presenting Love with the prize, Taylor told his former colleagues: "I hope you take a moment today to think about how vital you are."

There was little danger that important message was lost on the delegates. Preceding Taylor was Chesapeake Bay Foundation head William Baker, who -- after receiving his own award from the House alumni group -- told the lawmakers that "the Maryland House of Delegates is the finest body of elected officials ... anywhere in the United States."

Bipartisan rapturous applause ensued.

-- Gadi Dechter

Posted by David Nitkin at 11:27 AM | | Comments (0)

Facebook is back!

After some technical analysis, the General Assembly's head tech guru, Mike Gaudiello, has decided that the legislature, like every other governmental entity known to man, can handle allowing its members to access Facebook, The Post's Roz Helderman reports this morning. Curiously, Gaudiello has concluded that Facebook is OK but Myspace is not. Sadly enough for Myspace, nobody seems to care.

Posted by Andy Green at 9:50 AM | | Comments (9)

Ban on cell phones while driving: About time, or nanny state gone amok?

Michael Dresser reports this morning that momentum seems to be gathering in Annapolis for some legislation this year to deal with the use of cell phones or text messaging while driving. Maryland was certinaly on the cutting edge in discussing the issue -- former Del. John Arnick put in a cell phone use while driving ban bill every year for more than a decade, dating back to the early '90s -- but so far the General Assembly has been unwilling to enact any kind of ban for adults.

That may be about to change. A ban on cell use while driving passed the Senate last year (albeit with loopholes) but failed in the House of Delegates. This year, Del. Maggie McIntosh says she wants to see some kind of distracted driving legislation pass, and what Maggie wants, Maggie gets.

The range of possibilities seems to include a ban on texting while driving, a ban on hand-held cell phone use while driving, a total ban on cell use while driving, and some sort of broader restriction on distracted driving that could include everything from putting on makeup to eating behind the wheel. Any law could be a primary offense (meaning the cops can pull you over for that alone) or a secondary offense (meaning they'd need to catch you for something else, like speeding, first).

Has the time come for some sort of restriction, or should the state of Maryland butt out?

Posted by Andy Green at 6:00 AM | | Comments (13)

February 10, 2009

John Leopold and the 911 call

Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold is at the center of what will surely rank as one of the stranger political stories of 2009. The Sun's Julie Scharper reports in Wednesday's paper that Arundel police plan to release a 911 tape in which a caller complains of seeing someone engaging in sexual acts in a car outside of a county mall. Police responded to the scene and found the black Chevy in question, which, it turned out, was Leopold's county car.

A Leopold spokesman says police found the complaint to be unwarranted, and no charges were filed.

Leopold was in the car, but no word on whether anybody else was there, or what he was doing hanging out in the parking lot. Rumors about the 911 call have been spreading like wildfire in the state's political community, so this surely won't be the last we hear of it. Check back for updates as we get them.

Update: Leopold just released a statement via spokesman Dave Abrams:

"As a public official it is unfortunate to have to respond to rumors and gossip. I have been asked to respond to an allegation from an anonymous caller that was found to have no merit. The police acted within minutes and found absolutely nothing improper. I will not dignify this matter with further comment."

Update II: Julie Scharper has more from the police, but not much more. Here's what they're saying:

According to the recording and records supplied by police, the call was placed at 5:37 p.m. Jan. 30. An officer arrived in the area two minutes later, drove past the black Chevrolet and was directed to turn around. The officer stopped by the county executive's car seven minutes after the call was received.

The officer tells the dispatcher that the county executive was in the back seat of the car, but does not mention whether another person was present.

[Police spokesman Justin] Mulcahy declined to say if there had been another person in the car with Leopold, but said, "Our officers only made contact with the county executive."

I'm sure they want that to be the end of it, but I suspect they're going to face pressure to answer more questions, like was Leopold alone, and what was he doing hanging out in the back seat of his car in the Nordstrom parking lot at 5:37 in the afternoon? I imagine it's not unusual for Leopold to be in the back seat -- county executives usually have drivers/security guards. But if that's the explanation, where was the driver?

More new details: The Annapolis Capital got Leopold on the phone and has a few new bits of information. (Note: Their story has some information attributed to anonymous sources that we can't vouch for.) The paper reports:

Leopold, who is unmarried, said that he was in the Nordstrom parking lot because he's a frequent patron of the department store and buys his suits, shoes and sweaters there. He wasn't doing anything improper when the police arrived, he said.

"I was just sitting there. I don't know the exact duration," he said.

He declined to answer questions about whether anyone was with him or if he talked to the police officer. Nor would he answer questions about what he was doing moments before police arrived.

"I don't want to talk about this. I'll answer your questions later at another time. If I think it's necessary," he said before hanging up the phone.

The Capital also quotes Leopold as saying that he did not try to influence the police in its handling of the matter.

Posted by Andy Green at 9:45 PM | | Comments (15)

Marylanders want to make tax increases tougher to adopt, Republicans say

Republicans in Annapolis say there is strong sentiment among Maryland voters to make it tougher to raise taxes.

The GOP caucus today released poll numbers showing that two of three Maryland voters say that a supermajority in the Assembly, not just a simple majority, should be required to raise taxes.

The poll question was commissioned by state Sen. Andy Harris, who is considering a rematch for the 1st Congressional District seat barely claimed by Democrat Frank Kratovil last year. The polling results, gathered by Gonzales Research & Marketing, show that Democrats and Republican alike favor the idea of requiring a 3/5th vote for tax increases.

Republicans hope the issue demonstrates their fiscally prudent bonafides, and shows they are in touch with the will of taxpayers. But with Democrats controlling both chambers in Annapolis, a straight party line vote could still muscle through tax increases. Republicans are backing legislation to require a super-majority vote on taxes, but its chances of passage are slim.

It’s worth noting, however, that neither of the Assembly’s major recent tax balls – a package in November 2007 that among other things raised the sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent and increased the real estate recordation fee – was adopted with a supermajority.

Posted by David Nitkin at 5:02 PM | | Comments (0)

Mikulski Fighting To Save Car Tax Break

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said she is worried that a tax break for new car buyers could be watered down or eliminated from the massive stimulus measure that cleared another hurdle today in Congress.

The Maryland Democrat is urging voters to call House members and the White House to demand that Congress preserve the tax break, which could be worth $1,500 to the buyer of a $25,000 car.

In a brief interview this afternoon, shortly before the Senate approved its version of President Barack Obama's $800 billion spending and tax-cut plan, Mikulski expressed concern about the fate of the new car tax break, which she authored.

She pointed out that two of the five senators who will take part in negotiations to craft a final package oppose her idea. Key lawmakers from the House and Senate have been given responsibility to mesh the different stimulus packages approved by the two houses of Congress.

The Senate approved Mikulski's new car tax break last week. However, the House-passed version of the stimulus package contains no such provision.

That could make Mikulski's proposal vulnerable to being weakened or eliminated as negotiators from the two chambers work to produce a compromise that will win enough votes for the measure to be sent to Obama for his signature.

Several moderate Republican senators whose votes are key to winning final approval of the stimulus measure have said they will withdraw their support if the overall size of the package increases. One way to keep the cost in check would be to remove Senate provisions, such as Mikulski's, which has a price tag of $11 billion over ten years, to make room for House-passed provisions that were not included in the Senate-approved version.

Mikulski pointed out that her tax-cut plan is vulnerable because two key Senate negotiators, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democat, and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Finance panel, oppose her plan. Both unsuccessfully advocated its defeat when it was being considered by the Senate.

Mikulski contends that her plan would spur sales of new cars and have the added benefit of helping the environment, since newer cars are typically cleaner-burning than the older models they replace.

Critics argue that the tax break is not the most efficient use of federal money, because many of those who will buy new cars this year would do so anyway.

This morning, Mikulski took to the Senate floor in an effort to generate popular sentiment for preserving her proposal.

"If you want a car in your house, call the White House or call the House of Representatives," she said, standing beside an easel displaying the relevant phone numbers.

"The problem now is not the idea, but it is the politics," Mikulski added. "Let's get the White House on our side. Let's get the House of Representatives on this side."

Referring to recent water-main breaks in Baltimore and Montgomery County, she pleaded with the public to "flood them with phone calls. . . Let's get America rolling again."

If Mikulski's provision is not cut, it could be limited, either by changing the time period that car buyers would have to qualify for the provision, reducing the size of the tax reduction or lowering the income cap for eligible buyers.

As currently drafted, the tax break would apply to new cars purchased from November 2008 until the end of this year. Couples with incomes up to $250,000 and individuals earning up to $125,000 would be eligible to deduct interest payments and sales taxes, regardless of whether they itemize deductions.

According to Mikulski's office, someone in Maryland buying a $35,000 car could save $2,500. Car buyers would get the savings when they file their 2009 taxes next year. Savings would be lower in states with no sales taxes.

For luxury cars, the sales tax deduction would apply only to the first $49,500 of the price. The interest deduction would also apply only to interest on the first $49,500 borrowed.

Her measure was supported by the National Automobile Dealers Association, which said it would attract more buyers to car showrooms and increase sales.

Posted by Paul West at 2:55 PM | | Comments (0)

More news on Harford coup

Tensions among members of the Harford delegation in Annapolis are growing, following last week’s coup that replaced the chairman and vice-chairman.

One member of the delegation at the center of the flap, Richard K. Impallaria, called for another emergency meeting of Harford lawmakers yesterday, exactly a week after the uprising. According to a fun-to-read story on the Dagger web site, Impallaria – outsed last week as vice-chairman – was effectively calling for a re-coup. He wanted to install in two other people as co-vice chairmen. His move failed. Even one of the lawmakers he nominated as vice chairman, Dan Riley, voted against the proposal.

The meeting was held as an apparent robo-call began hitting telephones in Harford. The text of the call is also on the Dagger site. It appears to be an attack on Del. Wayne Norman, by Del. Susan McComas, who was toppled as chairman last week. McComas said she knew nothing of the calls, and finds them dispicable.

If you’re a resident of Harford County, you better hope there are no legislative issues that require the full force of the delegation to muscle through the Assembly. (In Annapolis, local delegations decide on matters pertaining to their home counties.) These folks, it seems, won’t be getting on the same page any time soon.

Posted by David Nitkin at 1:36 PM | | Comments (0)

Kratovil Headed for White House

Frank Kratovil, the freshman congressman from Maryland's Eastern Shore, will be among a group of fiscally conservative House Democrats that will get wooed at the White House tonight by President Barack Obama.

The private reception is part of the president's outreach to various parts of Congress at the start of his term, as he attempts to establish relationships that he hopes will help him gain approval of a dauntingly ambitious domestic agenda that includes overhauling the nation's health care system and reducing America's dependence on imported energy.

Obama has already held one-on-one sessions with key lawmakers from both parties, along with group meetings with House and Senate Republicans at the Capitol and visits to House and Senate Democrats at off-site strategy retreats over the last week or so.

Tonight's gathering is for members of the Blue Dog Coalition, a moderate to conservative bunch that Kratovil joined when he got to Congress. He is believed to be the first Marylander in the organization, which numbers about 50 congressmen, mostly from the South and Midwest.

The group's name is a play on an old expression, "Yellow Dog Democrat" -- as in, someone so devoted to the party that he would vote for whomever the Democrats ran as a candidate, even if it was a yellow dog. The Blue Dogs are Yellow Dog Democrats who feel they have been "choked blue" by the party's most liberal elements.

For Kratovil, the trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will be his first since Obama took up residence there last month.

Posted by Paul West at 10:28 AM | | Comments (0)

Currie gets a legal defense fund

With the indictments of local officials here in Baltimore, focus on the feds' investigation into Sen. Ulysses Currie has flagged a bit of late. Nonetheless, his legal expenses apparently remain. The Post's Roz Helderman reports this morning that Currie backers, led by lawyer and pastor Bobby G. Henry Jr., are raising money to help him out.

The state Ethics Commission has established some groundrules for such things: Currie himself cannot solicit the funds, people with a special interest in legislation can't donate, and neither can lobbyists. And the creators of the fund promise to regularly publish the list of contributors.

Currie worked as a consultant for the Shoppers supermarket chain for years without reporting it, earned more than $200,000 from the company without putting it on his financial disclosure forms, and repeatedly contacted state officials to advocate Shoppers' position on various matters without mentioning to anyone that he was on the payroll.

That said, he has not been convicted (or even charged) with any crime, and top lawyers bill the same whether you're innocent or guilty.

But the effort could be problematic no matter how you cut it. The question of who has an interest in the legislature is in the eyes of the beholder (and in any case, would take months for the Ethics Commission to adjudicate). Meanwhile, people can give to this fund during the legislative session, something that's forbidden for regular campaign contributions. And although Currie won't be soliciting the donations himself, the regular publishing of the names ensures that he'll know who's helped and who hasn't. Of course, not publishing the names would be even worse. It's a bit of a no-win situation.

Posted by Andy Green at 10:00 AM | | Comments (2)

February 9, 2009

Magna's slots bid: Where's Joe DeFrancis?

As the slots bid by the biggest horse racing interest in Maryland crumbled last week, one key player in the last decade's fight over expanded gambling was noticeably absent: Joe DeFrancis. The former owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico and the former head of the Maryland Jockey Club, was for years the face of the slots fight here. But he has been slowly pushed out of the racing industry over the last several years by Magna Entertainment Corp., which bought the tracks seven years ago.

But apparently Magna couldn't push him out entirely. He secured a deal with Magna that guaranteed him a hefty percentage of the proceeds from any slots at the tracks for years without requiring him to put up any of the required investment in return. Gadi Dechter and Laura Smitherman reported Sunday:

According to people familiar with the situation, Magna continued to negotiate to the 11th hour with DeFrancis, a contentious figure in Annapolis who secured a hefty cut of any eventual proceeds when he sold his stake in the Maryland Jockey Club, owner of Pimlico and Laurel.

DeFrancis hails from a storied family in the horse racing industry and has been a major player in Annapolis on the slots issue. As the debate was heating up in 2002 and 2003, he contributed $225,000 to a national group, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, controlled by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, an aggressive slots proponent.

Maryland's slots legislation imposes one of the highest tax rates in the country. So if Magna could not renegotiate DeFrancis' share of slots proceeds, the company would be left with a slim profit margin - if any. "It's common knowledge that that agreement needed to be reworked; it was a significant impediment," Foreman said, adding that Magna Chairman Frank "Stronach wasn't going to do a deal that made DeFrancis a rich man and left nothing for him."

So after all these years, what does DeFrancis have to say? A deal that gives him and his sister a big chunk of the slots proceeds, as if it's the family's birthright, seems now like a pretty dumb thing for Magna to agree to. On the other hand, the fact that DeFrancis hung onto it to the end may well mean he gets nothing -- and the tracks that were his family's legacy could well be shut out of the gambling expansion that he's pitched as their savior for years.

Posted by Andy Green at 7:27 AM | | Comments (2)

February 8, 2009

Steele Will Offer Documents to FBI, Denounces "Gotcha" Politics

Republican National Chairman Michael S. Steele said today that he will provide records from his 2006 Maryland Senate campaign to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in an effort to speed an apparent federal investigation into allegations of improper campaign spending.

Steele confirmed that his sister, Monica Turner of Potomac, was recently contacted by FBI agents looking into allegations that his campaign paid a company she owned more than $37,000 in 2007 for campaign work that was never performed. The allegations were made by Steele's former campaign finance chairman in an unsuccessful attempt to gain a more lenient prison sentence after his fraud conviction in an unrelated case.

In his first public comments on the issue, Steele described the transfer of records to the FBI as voluntary.

“I’m not going to wait for them to come to me. I’m going to take it to them and give them everything that they think they need. And if that’s not enough, we’ll give them more,” Steele told ABC’s “This Week” in an interview scheduled before the allegations became public.

Steele repeated denials issued by his spokesman earlier in the weekend in response to news reports, first detailed by the Washington Post.

“It’s all false,” Steele said. “We're being very proactive about this because I’m sick and tired of this ‘gotcha’ business that the Washington Post and others in the media attempt to engage in.”

Steele expressed frustration that the allegations had surfaced barely a week after his election as the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee. In that position, he is responsible for raising and spending hundreds of millions of dollars.

“I want to clear up my good name. This is not the way I intend to run the RNC, with this over my head. We’re going to dispense with it immediately,” he said.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Baltimore has refused to comment on whether Steele or his sister are under investigation. However, a spokeswoman has confirmed that a document outlining the allegations against Steele was unintentionally provided to a Post reporter.

Last March, Alan B. Fabian, who had been finance chairman of Steele’s 2006 campaign in Maryland, made the allegations in an unsuccessful effort to get a reduced sentence for his part in a $40 million fraud scheme.

Steele said Fabian's inability to cut a deal with prosecutors showed there was “no credibility” to the allegations. But Fabian’s defense lawyer, in the sentencing document, claimed that Fabian got no credit for cooperating with prosecutors “presumably because its investigation is ongoing.”

Steele said that $37,000 paid to a company owned by his sister was “a legitimate reimbursement of expenses.” The payment, for "catering and web services," was made in December, 2007, more than 11 months after his sister folded the company.

“At the time when the checks were written back to her to reimburse her, she just said, ‘Go ahead and write the checks to the company,’ because the company had, you know, done the services that were provided,” said Steele, an attorney who practiced corporate law during the 1990s. “There are many companies out there that dissolve and still receive payment for services that are rendered, and so forth.”

Among the unanswered questions surrounding the incident is why an investigation into Steele’s finances might have become more active at about the same time that his political career was getting a huge boost with his election to head the RNC.

The former lieutenant governor said federal agents recently contacted his sister “for purposes of closing out this matter. . . . The FBI is now in the position of winding this thing” up.

Steele contended that “if there were any funny business” involved with his 2006 Senate campaign it would have been caught by other federal agencies before now. He said he has not been contacted personally by the FBI.

Posted by Paul West at 12:57 PM | | Comments (2)

February 7, 2009

Kratovil A Prime Target for GOP


Frank Kratovil, shown (at left) in a Baghdad street with Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County, in the red vest, might want to keep that flak jacket handy as he tries to protect his seat in his Republican-leaning Maryland district.

Frank Kratovil left the country nine days ago, immediately after casting the first big vote of his Washington career.

The new congressman from Maryland wasn’t fleeing exactly—though he ducked reporters who wanted to ask why he’d just opposed the president’s stimulus plan. He was flying out on his first official trip, to the Middle East, which conveniently put him beyond easy reach and allowed passions to cool.

Kratovil was one of 11 House Democrats who bucked their party’s president on his first major initiative. The number of defectors wasn’t particularly high, and more than a few conservative Democrats supported the $800 billion package.

But the “no” votes of Democratic renegades allowed the House Republican leader to deliver a somewhat cynical boast: that the “bipartisan position” on the stimulus measure was the one against it, since Barack Obama’s plan got no Republican votes.

Kratovil, a new member of the fiscally conservative House Blue Dog Coalition, defended his action by saying that the stimulus package had been watered down by too much other spending.

Liberals called the vote a betrayal.

“I guess those eleven Democrats who joined the Republicans also come from districts that are just booming right along,” huffed a Huffington Post blogger.

While Kratovil was hitting a series of Middle East hot spots, the phones were ringing off the hook back home. Not every caller was pleased, but Kratovil says he’s had no second thoughts.

Overall, the response to his position on the stimulus “has been very good,” he says in an interview at his House office, “if for no other reason than that folks think it demonstrates an independence.”

He’s hopeful the final stimulus package will provide more bang for the buck, he says. That view should be popular with constituents in his conservative district, which takes in the entire Eastern Shore, plus a chunk of mostly Republican parts of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties.

Of course, his position can also be viewed as a classic Washington ploy, designed to generate maximum political benefit back home and minimal impact anyplace else. After all, Obama’s package got through the House with a 56-vote cushion, and party leaders very much want to see their members survive in tough districts like Kratovil’s.

If his handling of the stimulus issue is any indication, Kratovil could become a case study in how a freshman successfully defends a marginal House seat. Next year’s election will severely test his political skills, and the contest will almost certainly be rated a tossup until the very end.

Last fall, the former Queen Anne’s County prosecutor was the surprise winner of one of the closest House races in the nation. He is the first Democrat in 18 years to represent the state’s eastern-most district, redrawn at the start of this decade to enhance a decidedly Republican tilt.

He benefited from a rare Republican split. In the primary, conservative State Sen. Andrew Harris of Baltimore County ended the career of moderate Republican Congressman Wayne Gilchrest (who went on to endorse Kratovil) in the primary. Strong turnout for Obama also helped Kratovil, even though Republican John McCain carried the district.

History teaches that Republicans will recapture a number of House seats now held by Democratic freshmen. Some who rode the Obama tide into office will likely get swept out in 2010 as their districts revert to Republican form.

Running as an outsider, Kratovil won by campaigning against Washington. Now, as an incumbent, he’s benefiting from business as usual.

Even before he was sworn in, he attracted more than $20,000 in post-election campaign donations from political action committees. They represent some of the nation’s most powerful interests: the banking industry, pharmaceutical manufacturers, broadcasters, Realtors, dairy farmers (he landed a seat on the Agriculture committee) and companies such as Verizon, Microsoft and Walt Disney.

Democratic leaders also rewarded Kratovil with a spot on the House Armed Services Committee, a magnet for lucrative contributions from defense contractors.

His 2008 Republican rival, Harris, says he’s “looking very seriously” at a rematch and met recently in Washington with officials of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

A committee spokesman, Paul Lindsay, in a carefully worded statement, praised Harris as “an experienced campaigner and proven vote-getter”and said party strategists were “interested” to hear about his plans. The spokesman said his party “will mount a formidable campaign” against Kratovil, “regardless of whom Republicans in Maryland choose as their candidate.”

National Republican and conservative groups have made Kratovil a target for attacks from his first day in office.

It reminds him, he jokes, of a famous Far Side cartoon.

Two white-tail deer are standing alone in a forest. One has a red bull’s-eye on his chest and looks doleful. “Bummer of a birthmark, Hal,” remarks the other.

“Maybe I’m naïve,” says Kratovil, “but what I’ve found in my life is that if you work hard, you can make a difference and you can prevail.” He says that if he asks enough questions, stays independent and provides good constituent service, then “I think I’ll be successful again.”

Posted by Paul West at 8:00 AM | | Comments (4)

February 6, 2009

Battle of Annapolis titans over teacher pensions

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is diving head-first into one of the most contentious issues in Annapolis this year: teacher pensions.

With the Maryland facing a $2 billion budget deficit, some state officials have been rethinking the system by which the state pays all teacher pension costs. Gov. Martin O'Malley floated the idea recently of shifting teacher pension costs from the state to local governments. But when he submitted his budget proposal, he kept the current plan intact. The governor's budget includes more than $600 million for teacher pensions, an increase of more the $130 million.

But Miller wants to rethink things. He's prepared legislation to freeze the state contribution to teacher pensions at the level after this year's budget is adopted. Future additional pension costs -- driven by new hires and salary increases -- would be the responsibility of counties and Baltimore. He said today he plans to introduce the bill on Monday.

It's unusual for one of the General Assembly's presiding officers to put their name on such a controversial and substantive piece of legislation -- especially one that will enrage a crucial constituency of Miller's Democratic Party.

"The object of being a leader is to bring issues to the forefront, and I am going to put it out there and let them discuss it and see where it goes," Miller told reporters today.

Miller's argument: the state has no control over how many teachers school districts hire or how large pay increases are. The pension contribution is basically a local government subsidy, he says, not money for education.

Still, the influential president is acknowledging that his plan may not have much of chance. "It might not pass," he said, "but it is going to let people know what the truth is."

There's no way local government leaders or the state's influential teachers unions will sit still, however. Union leaders have already let it be known that they plan to aggressively come after anyone who backs the plan. Teachers are arguably the most influential lobbying corps in the capital of a state whose schools recently received the top ranking in the nation.

Forget Miller versus Busch. The real battle of the titans in Annapolis this year could be Miller versus teachers.

Posted by David Nitkin at 1:23 PM | | Comments (8)

Dwyer proposes "personhood" amendment

In case debates this session over the death penalty and gay rights weren't enough for you, we could see some abortion politics creep into the General Assembly this year, too. Del. Don Dwyer, a socially conservative Anne Arundel County Republican, is proposing a "personhood amendment" that would define anything from a fertilized egg through a full-term fetus as a person, which some advocates have taken up as a strategy for effectively outlawing abortion.

"I believe that as we approach nearly 40 years since the court ruled on Roe v. Wade, we must once again open the public debate to review when each human being's life begins," Dwyer said in a news release. "There is no doubt today the human being in the womb is a person. In the end, my goal would be that not only Maryland, but every state, would grant the protections of the state and U.S. Constitutions to all persons, born and preborn."

Dwyer says there are similar efforts in 15 states, but so far, none of them have succeeded. The closest anyone has come so far has been in Colorado, where advocates got a similar amendment on the ballot. It failed 75-25.

Given that Maryland is a significantly more liberal state, that most legislators here have considered debate over abortion settled since a referendum in the early '90s, and that there's no citizen initiative process here, I'd rate the odds of this hitting the ballot as about as close to zero as you can get.

But Dwyer will get a committee hearing, and that will give anti-abortion activists a chance to make their case, loudly, passionately and, if experience is any guide, at great length. Dwyer knows he's got no chance, but give him some credit: he believes what he believes, and he never stops trying.

Posted by Andy Green at 9:59 AM | | Comments (0)

No more Facebooking in the legislature

The Legum's New Line blog reports this morning on a memo from the Department of Legislative Services banning access to MySpace and Facebook from General Assembly computers. The memo says there's been a spike in virus activity since the start of the legislative session, which the DLS IT department says is traceable to those sites.

Without Facebook to occupy their time, the state of Maryland is faced with the prospect of lawmakers actually paying attention to floor debates. The public policy implications are hard to fathom. Needless to say, we will be monitoring the situation closely.

Update: I'm hearing rumblings from the GOP that they think there may be more to the story than the threat of viruses. Republicans see the social networking sites as a good way to spread the word about their point of view, often hard to do in a Democrat-dominated legislature, and they think they're getting shut down because they're getting too much traction with it. How successful their efforts are, I don't know, but I can say I've gotten friended by a lot more people in the GOP caucus than by Dems.

Posted by Andy Green at 9:29 AM | | Comments (5)

Miller: Throw out the slots bids

It's not too suprising that MIke Miller, the most dedicated slot machine gambling advocate Maryland has ever known, would be pretty upset this week by the way things are going. Not only did the bidding for slots licenses bring tepid results, it looks like his long-standing allies at the Maryland Jockey Club (and corporate owner Magna Entertainment Corp.) could find themselves shut out of the action based on their largely inexplicable failure to include the licensing fee with their slots bid. His call to throw out the bids and start over has brought us back to the old familiar Mike Busch vs. Mike Miller (with Gov. O'Malley somewhere in the middle) fight that we've been seeing for years.

But a closer look at Miller's comments gives a sense of what might be going on beneath the surface. MIller is blaming Busch for including the site Magna's competitor has picked, Arundel Mills Mall, in the slots bill in the first place. But he's also blasting Magna's advisers, saying the company "needs a new set of lawyers. ... Whoever advised them to handle the matter the way they did in my opinion adversely affected their ability to obtain a license."

Magna's advisers in Maryland are from the Rifkin firm, one of the highest (if not the highest) of high-powered Annapolis lobbying firms. They simply do not bungle things like this.

(Clarification: Rifkin represents the Maryland Jockey Club, a subsidiary of Magna, and not Magna itself. Nonetheless, I suspect the fine folks at that firm may have mentioned to corporate HQ that the strategy was problematic.)

Rather, what seems more likely is that we're seeing a split between the Toronto executives at Magna and the long-standing horseracing set in Maryland, specifically Miller's closest ally in the industry, Joe DeFrancis. Miller and DeFrancis have worked hand-in-hand over the years, and DeFrancis has funneled untold thousands of dollars to Miller's various campaign funds, which have helped cement the senator's longstanding hold on power.

But DeFrancis is a polarizing figure, with many others in Annapolis blaming him for failing to keep horseracing viable as a business on its own. He and Busch, for example, aren't exactly close. DeFrancis and Magna haven't seen eye-to-eye of late either. Magna bought out DeFrancis and his sister, Karen, for $18 million in 2007 and replaced him as head of the Jockey club. Later, the company forced him off its board and replaced the well-respected Lou Raffetto as president of the jockey club.

That didn't mean DeFrancis was out of the slots business, though. Far from it. He and Karin still have a deal that would give them a large slice of any slots profits at Magna's Maryland tracks for years into the future. That's millions that Magna would have to give away to the DeFrancises without them putting up any money in return.

Prospective slots bidders who didn't have that kind of arrangement are already wary of the high tax rates and investments Maryland is requiring, given the economic climate. You could see how Magna would be ambivalent about Maryland under the circumstances. And you could also see why Miller would be upset to see his long-time partner in the slots fight shut out of the action in the end.

Posted by Andy Green at 6:57 AM | | Comments (12)

February 5, 2009

Harford County delegation coup

A nasty battle erupted this week among Harford County lawmakers, resulting in a coup ousting the delegation chairwoman and vice-chairman, and the installation of a new leader -- Republican J.B. Jennings -- whose district includes more Baltimore County voters than Harford.

At the center of the flap is Del. Richard K. Impallaria, a rough-edged and sometimes emotional lawmaker who got into a shouting match with a colleague, Del. Donna Stifler. Both are Republicans.

Impallaria and Stifler argued last week over payment for snacks at delegation events. Impallaria hurled invectives at Stifler, a former Christian school teacher, who told The Aegis newspaper that "I have never been spoken to like that in my life."

Impallaria has a history of outbursts, some of which have prompted police investigations. When he was running for office for the first time in 2002, some Republicans urged him to drop out of the race when his police record came to light.

As the Baltimore Sun reported at the time: "Impallaria's record shows nine cases involving 27 charges, most of which were not prosecuted for unrecorded reasons or dismissed, according to Maryland District Court documents. The charges include bribing a public employee and four counts of assault with intent to murder stemming from allegations that he tried to run down four people, including his mother and brother, with a car after an argument at his home in Joppatowne in Harford County in 1982."

In 2004, police investigated an incident in a House of Delegates building during which Impallaria and Del. Pat McDonough, staunch opponents of illegal immigration, got into a shoving match with immigration activists.

After the Friday argument over snack payments, some members of the Harford delegation hastily convened a meeting Monday night, after the House of Delegates gathered for its evening session. At the meeting, Impallaria was voted out as vice-chairman of the delegation. Also ousted was the chairwoman, Del. Susan McComas. Jennings replaces McComas, and Del. Wayne Norman takes the vice-chairman's spot.

McComas and Impallaria did not attend the meeting and are claiming the vote was improper. They're circulating a letter, available on the blog of Judd Legum, who brought the whole issue to our attention, outlining why the coup was improper.

But there's not much they can stand on. Quickly called delegation meetings are fairly frequent in Annapolis, and the delegations get to pick their own leaders. The leadership positions are important because General Assembly bills affecting just one county need the vote of the delegation, and the chairman controls that legislation.

It looks like Impallaria's temper may have gotten the better of him again, depriving him and an ally of a leadership foothold.

Posted by David Nitkin at 4:50 PM | | Comments (3)

Slots disarray continues

The quest to bring slots to Maryland is becoming more of a mess.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller today suggested that the commission awarding slots licenses toss out all bids received this week and start again.

While Miller is one of the most powerful figures in Annapolis, it's unclear whether his suggestion will be followed. The slots commission contains appointees of Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, but a majority of members were selected by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Busch, responding to Miller's remarks, said the process needs to work itself out, and tossing bids would send a wrong message to private businesses, according the The Baltimore Sun's Gadi Dechter and Laura Smitherman.

Miller is a supporter of slots at tracks, and an ally of Magna Entertainment Corp., whose bid for a slots license at Laurel Park did not initially include a required $28.5 million deposit and may be ruled non-responsive. The state received six bids for five slots licenses this week, but the Laurel and Rocky Gap bids do not meet requirements. That means that only about a third of the 15,000 machines authorized in a November referendum could be authorized in this round of bidding.

Posted by David Nitkin at 12:33 PM | | Comments (3)

Peter Franchot's staff likes beer

Maryland State Comptroller Peter Franchot leaves no political marketing opportunity unturned.

He tours Baltimore County schools and argues against slots, poking rivals Jim Smith and Martin O'Malley in the process.

And like Louis Goldstein and William Donald Schaefer before him, he has learned that he has to make the most out of the basically routine stuff his office does: collecting taxes, handing out rebates and cracking down on cigarette smuggling.

With tax season approaching (an an election year not far away), his office is shifting into high gear. One of their main points recently has been encouraging Maryland taxpayers to file returns online, to avoid the expense and time of hand-processing. As part of that effort, his staff today put up a pretty darn funny video on YouTube to make their point. It's worth a watch. It's a spoof of a spoof, based on the funny Bud Light "Real American Heroes" series. You know -- like the salute to the Foam Finger Maker or the Bowling Shoe Sprayer. This one salutes the Electronic Tax Filer.

Perhaps we like it because we like beer. We also smell Len Foxwell's hand behind the scenes. Bonus points to those who correctly identify the "actors" in the video. They must all be comptroller office employees, right?

Posted by David Nitkin at 11:46 AM | | Comments (1)

Sheila Dixon and the politics of raises

Sometimes you wonder what Sheila Dixon is thinking. For someone who's been in office as long as she has, she seems awfully tone-deaf sometimes on the politics of her job. Yesterday, the Board of Estimates approved 5 percent raises for the two guys who accompany her to events -- they don't actually drive her or provide security; they're sort of like Charlie on the West Wing, only they're retired cops instead of a college student. The city now pays them more than $60,000 a year, on top of whatever they already get in police pensions.

"Are they deserving of it? Yes. Just like everyone else who got theirs," Dixon said.

Like, who exactly? Who's getting 5 percent raises these days?

Certainly not the mayor herself. She had to settle for miserly 2.5 percent raise, and after getting whacked by public outrage, she had to drop her initial defense of it and give the money to charity.

Even if that little object lesson wasn't in the back of her mind as she was answering questions about the raises for Howard Dixon (no relation) and Bobby Potts yesterday, you'd think the political radar would be tipped off to the sensitivity of the issue by the question a reporter asked her immediately before bringing it up yesterday.

According to Annie Linskey, here's how the press conference went down:

Reporter: Will there be layoffs of city employees?

Dixon: "Definitely."

Reporter: So what about the pay raises for these guys?

Dixon: They deserve it.

Now, does a few thousand dollars for these two guys make much difference in the city's multi-billion dollar budget? Not really. But on top of the pay raises snuck through the Board of Estimates for the mayor and other city elected officials, and on top of the city's abortive effort to set a policy that could have led to taxpayers picking up Dixon's legal fees, and at a time when lots of people are being forced to take pay cuts or lose their jobs altogether, it seems like the kind of thing any half-competent political advisor would tell you is a dumb move.

Posted by Andy Green at 7:44 AM | | Comments (5)

February 4, 2009

Slots: Now it's about to get interesting

Boy, you've got to feel sorry for Don Fry right about now.

He's got two bids for slots licenses that failed to include the fee required by law. One of them is saying its bid is contingent on changes in the state's tax structure for slots, and the other one -- from the politically-connected-up-the-wazoo Magna Entertainment Corp. -- is saying it didn't pony up the cash because it wasn't sure what would happen to the money if the site fails to get zoning approval but still expects its proposal to be considered. The other bidder for the Anne Arundel license Magna wants, The Cordish Cos., is apoplectic about the notion that Magna's bid wouldn't be tossed out right away.

That leaves Fry, the chairman of the slots licensing commission, in the middle of some extremely powerful business and political figures who are poised to raise hell almost no matter what he does. If he tosses out the Magna bid, he could face the wrath of Senate President Mike Miller, a huge supporter of horse racing (and a huge recipient of campaign contributions from the industry) and possibly Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has always expressed a preference for slots at tracks.

But Cordish is a major casino developer and is certain to push hard for its proposal. It's easy to imagine lawsuits in the offing no matter what the slots commission does. The same sort of thing (and worse) happened when Pennsylvania legalized slots, delaying a gambling expansion there for years. Cash strapped Maryland can't afford to see that happen.

Posted by Andy Green at 12:25 PM | | Comments (19)

February 3, 2009

Obama HHS pick: Mikulski?

Unconfirmed rumors began seeping out of Capitol Hill late today that Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is under consideration for the suddenly vacant position of Secretary of Health and Human Services.

A spokeswoman for Mikulski did not immediately return email and cellphone messages, which only added to the mystery. The White House had no comment, but it does not typically respond to reports about prospective appointments unless they are about to be made public.

Former Sen. Tom Daschle withdrew abruptly as President Barack Obama's nominee for the position, which oversees an enormous swath of the federal establishment, including Medicare, the largest government-run health program.

Mikulski, who is up for re-election in 2010, has already begun raising funds for a re-election bid, though she has not formally announced her intention to run. She was first elected to the Senate in 1986.

She would turn 80 in the final year of her next term, if she were to be re-elected, which she almost certainly would if she ran. Mikulski regularly ranks as the most popular elected official in the state and no serious Republican candidate is likely to take her on.

Her image as a feisty spokeswoman for working-class voters could be an asset at HHS, particularly as the Obama administration attempts to sell its health care overhaul plan to the nation. She is also well-versed in the details of Medicare and of Social Security, an independent agency that works closely with HHS.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which administer those programs and the State Children's Health Insurance Program, are headquartered in Baltimore. So is the central office of the Social Security Administration.

Mikulski could also be in line to become the chairman of a major committee for the first time in her Senate career. Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, has been treated for a brain tumor and Mikulski is the most senior member of the panel who does not currently chair a major committee.

She is also a high-ranking member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

Others who have been mentioned as possible choices for the HHS job include Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and former Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean, a former governor and a physician by training.

Posted by Paul West at 7:45 PM | | Comments (5)

Globetrotting Marylanders Back from Mideast...Updated

Democratic Reps. C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Frank M. Kratovil Jr. are returning today from a six-day trip to a half-dozen Middle East and European countries including Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

The official trip, for at least six members of the House Armed Services and Intelligence committees and staff aides, included talks with government leaders in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel; Beirut, Lebanon; Damascus, Syria; Baghdad, Iraq; and Brussels, Belgium.
Leading the delegation was Democratic Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, who chairs the Terrorism and Unconventional Threats and Capabilities subcommitee (or TAUTAC, as we like to call it).

Ruppersberger, of Baltimore County, is a member of the House Intelligence committee. He recently started his seventh year in Congress.

Kratovil, from Queen Anne's County on the Eastern Shore, is a member of the House Armed Services committee. He is beginning his fifth week in Congress, after winning one of the closest House elections in the nation last fall.

According to Kratovil's office, the delegation met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel as well as opposition party leader, a possible future prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
They met in Beirut with President Michael Suleiman and other top officials and in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

In Baghdad, they met with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Gen. Ray Odierno, the top force commander and with Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and other Iraqi officials.
After a stop at NATO headquarters in Belgium, they returned to Washington this afternoon.

Posted by Paul West at 7:24 PM | | Comments (1)

Paulson takes a state job

Laura Smitherman reports that David Paulson, the spokesman and happy warrior of the Maryland Democratic Party for the last two election cycles, is taking a job starting tomorrow as communicaions director at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"I can't stay at the party forever," he said He noted that Dems have had successful election results in the last two cycles. "I've done pretty much all I can do."

Paulson isn't exactly an apolitical choice for a generally apolitical agency. But not a lot of people in the state can boast his list of contacts among the state's media. He certainly leaves big shoes to fill at the state party.

Posted by Andy Green at 6:43 PM | | Comments (3)

Obama Plan Worth 70,000 Jobs To Maryland, White House Says

A total of 70,000 Maryland jobs will be saved or created by President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan, according to a new White House estimate.

The White House figure, released this afternoon, is the state's projected share of the three to four million jobs that could be created or saved nationally over the next two years if the $884 billion measure becomes law.

Actually, the size of the package is still in flux, as are the job estimates, which the White House calls "tentative."

The $884 billion figure is the starting point for the measure in the Senate, which is now considering the plan.

House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who joined other congressional leaders at a White House meeting with Obama yesterday afternoon, said he believes the total package should be kept under $900 billion.

Posted by Paul West at 2:40 PM | | Comments (0)

More Gansler/Brown rumors

O'Malleywatch is up with renewed speculation about the possibility that Attorney General Doug Gansler might be leaving for a job in the Obama administration. That rumor has been kicking around for a while because Gansler was a big and early Obama supporter in Maryland and is a former federal prosecutor.

It wouldn't be all that surprising to see him take a job in the justice department, particularly if he got something big in enviornmental law or one of the other issues he focuses on the most. On the other hand, Gansler has been raising a lot of money for a re-election bid -- enough to scare off competitors and set himself up as a front-runner for governor in 2014. Going to the federal government would definitely take him out of that mix.

The O'Malleywatch rumor goes on with more details: Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown would then become attorney general (the governor gets to make an appointment in the case of a vacancy) and then maybe HoCo Exec Ken Ulman (a close O'Malley ally) becomes Lt. Gov. Sort of plausible, though I'm not sure what Ulman would do to solidify or expand O'Malley's base, which is, of course, the chief qualification of any lieutenant governor.

It would definitely make sense for Brown (given that the attorney general has actual job responsibilities, which the lieutenant governorhip lacks) and possibly for Ulman (who would get much more statewide exposure).

Brown -- who was at Harvard Law School at the same time as Obama -- has been rumored for an administration position as well. But he was passed over for Veterans Affairs secretary. And today, the White House announced that Illinois veterans chief Tammy Duckworth has been tapped as assistant veterans affairs secretary for intergovernmental affairs, another job that Brown was said to be in the running for. (To see the White House announcement, click the "read more" link below)

Like I said, this kind of speculation seems to flare up every now and then and doesn't necessarily mean anything. If anybody else out there is hearing rumblings along these lines, let us know.

Update: Brown spokesman Mike Raia says he has "no reason to believe" Brown was a candidate for the assistant secretary job.


Office of the Press Secretary


For Immediate Release February 3, 2009

Duckworth Tapped for VA Assistant Secretary

WASHINGTON (Feb. 3, 2009) – President Barack Obama has announced his intent to nominate L. Tammy Duckworth, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, to be the Assistant Secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

“Effective communications with Veterans and VA’s stakeholders is key to improving our services and ensuring Veterans receive the benefits they deserve,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. “Tammy Duckworth brings significant talent, leadership and personal experience to this important work.”

As assistant secretary, Duckworth will direct VA’s public affairs, internal communications and intergovernmental relations. She also will oversee programs for homeless Veterans, consumer affairs and special rehabilitative events.

Duckworth was appointed director of the state Veterans office in Illinois in 2006. In previous testimony before Congress, she expressed her commitment to Veterans and the need for transformation of the Department. “The VA system faces new challenges as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” She also noted “the patient profile is changing. More wounded soldiers are surviving very serious injuries.”

She is serving as a major in the Illinois National Guard and was previously deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom where, as a captain, she was assistant operations officer for a 500-soldier aviation task force. She also served as a logistics officer and company commander. As a helicopter pilot flying combat missions in 2004, she suffered grave injuries when her helicopter was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, losing both legs and partial use of one arm.

Her previous managerial experience includes coordinating the Center for Nursing Research at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, and working for Rotary International’s Asia-Pacific region from 2002 to 2004.

Duckworth earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Hawaii and a master’s degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Born in Thailand, she is the daughter of a U.S. Marine who fought in Vietnam. She is married to Iraq war Veteran and National Guard officer, Major Bryan Bowlsbey.

For more information, please contact the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Public Affairs 202-461-7600.

Posted by Andy Green at 12:31 PM | | Comments (1)

More bad news on slots bids

Maryland didn't get much competition for its slot machine gambling licenses and didn't even get proposals for all 15,000 slot machines the state authorized. Now The Post is reporting on its politics blog that the lone bidder for the Rocky Gap site is making its bid contingent on a legal change that would reduce the tax rate for that site. According to Roz Helderman's post, the company is proposing a graduated tax rate wherein it would keep 75 percent of the first $50 million in profits, half of the next $50 million and 25 percent of any additional profits. The company also failed to submit a licensing fee as required by Maryland's law.

All that adds up to an increasing likelihood that the legislature will re-examine Maryland's 67 percent tax rate on slots profits -- one of the highest rates in the nation. Members of the slot machine licensing commission have already said they are interested in examining the issue and making recommendations to the legislature, and leaders in the General Assembly seem amenable to the idea.

As with anything when it comes to slots, getting the votes together in the legislature, particularly in the House of Delegates, could be difficult. But I wouldn't be surprised if changing the tax rate didn't turn out to be nearly as difficult as people might assume. We already decided to have slots. The voters clearly supported them. And we're in a heap of financial trouble. All that tends to focus the legislators' minds.

Posted by Andy Green at 10:50 AM | | Comments (3)

Dixon arraigned? Not exactly

What if they held an arraignment and no one came?

That’s what happened in court this morning, when Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon was to be arraigned on charges of theft, perjury and misuse of office resulting from a state prosecutor’s probe of City Hall corruption.

Dixon wasn’t at the Baltimore court house. Neither were her lawyers. Nor were developer Ron Lipscomb or City Councilwoman Helen Holton, indicted as a result of the same probe. Their attorney? Not there. The prosecutors? Not there.

Today’s hearing was a technical affair. It seems defense attorneys, as well as the prosecutors, want to consolidate the three cases so that they are heard by the same judge, although separate trials would still be held. Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge John Philip Miller is considering the request, and is to decide in about a week.

Dixon, Holton and Lipscomb won’t enter their pleas until the consolidation takes place.

So after last month’s sensational headlines about indictments and gift cards and relationships and bribery, now comes the grind of the legal system.

Here's video from WJZ:


Posted by David Nitkin at 10:16 AM | | Comments (1)

February 2, 2009

Lottery ads during the Super Bowl

Our friend(s) over at O'Malleywatch posted today with a critique of the Maryland lottery ads that ran during the Superbowl last night. Not only is he/she questioning the state's decision to buy such pricey airtime but also the decision to pitch the lottery as a way to turn your life around:

Martin O’Malley talks about check cashing schemes stealing from the poor, or Wells Fargo targeting homeowners but makes no mention of the advertising campaign of the Maryland lottery that is targeting the poorest among us.

I’m all for people making their own choices and being responsible for the decisions that we make, but this commercial made it seem like the only way someone can get ahead is by winning the lottery. It’s one thing for private companies to be deceptive, but for the government to do so is another thing entirely.

That's certainly an interesting point, given that O'Malley has expressed some real qualms about the idea that gambling proceeds should fund state government. (Recall the reference from mayor O'Malley to slots as "a pretty morally bankrupt" way to fund education.) There has always been controversy about the extent to which state-sponsored gambling is really a tax on the poor, and last year, majorities of the General Assembly and the public voted to accept slots notwithstanding. But does the current economic climate put that decision in a different light?

Posted by Andy Green at 3:57 PM | | Comments (5)

Replacement senators should be elected, not appointed, state lawmaker says

The change of administrations in Washington has created a lot of change in the U.S. Senate.

With the election of former senators Barack Obama of Illinois and Joe Biden of Delaware, and the selection of former senators Hillary Clinton of New York and Ken Salazar of Colorado to the Cabinet, heavy turnover is occurring in the Senate. But none of the new senators have been endorsed by voters at the ballot box.

In each case, the governor of the state where the vacancy was picked the replacement. Each selection has provoked criticism.

In Colorado, Democrat Gov. Bill Ritter selected Michael Bennet, the 44-year-old Denver schools superintendent, for the Salazar vacancy. The Washington Post called Bennett the “greenest and least well-known member of the Senate.” In Delaware, former Gov. Ruth Ann Minner named longtime Biden staffer Edward E. Kaufman to the seat. Kaufman has said he will not run, and most observers believe that Beau Biden, the vice-president’s son who is serving in Iraq, is the leading contender. In New York, Gov. David Paterson danced around the Caroline Kennedy issue and finally selected Kirsten Gillibrand, an upstate congresswoman who is sure to face a challenge from her party’s liberal wing.

And the Illinois situation, where former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached after being recorded effectively trying to sell the Senate seat, is the most bizarre of all.

Another example could be on the way. If New Hampshire Republican Sen. Judd Gregg accepts Obama’s expected offer to be commerce secretary, the Democratic governor of New Hampshire will get to pick a replacement senator, bringing the number of Senate Democrats to 60 – enough to block a filibuster.

None of this sits well with Del. Saqib Ali of Montgomery County. He wants Maryland to be one of the states (there are currently nine, he says) to mandate a special election to fill Senate vacancies. He’s prepared a bill that would do that.

Ali’s bill has the backing of Common Cause of Maryland and picks up on an idea offered by Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who has called for direct election of Senate replacements. Ali’s bill would make Feingold’s suggestion a reality, at least in Maryland.

It’s a populist idea, but I don’t see the Assembly following the trail on this one. What’s your view? Is Ali’s proposal a good idea?

***Note to readers: This blog posting has been modified to reflect that fact that several states currently allow direct election of Senate replacements. Thanks to those who pointed out the need for this alteration.***

Posted by David Nitkin at 1:51 PM | | Comments (6)

Slots bids due today

It could be a crucial day both for Maryland's finances and for the long debate over legalizing slot machines in Maryland. Today, the state's slots licensing commission is opening bids for the five potential slots sites in Maryland, and we may get some indication of how much competition there is for each of them.

At the top of the list is the Anne Arundel County site -- designed to be a license for Laurel Park and, in the minds of many, destined for Magna Entertainment Corp, the Canadian company that owns that track and Pimlico. But the language in the slots law doesn't guarantee that the slots casino would go at that location, and if it did, it's no sure thing that Magna, which has been losing money like crazy in recent years, would get the license. Among the possible competitors is Baltimore's Cordish Co., and Halsey Minor, a wealthy entrepreneur, has also expressed interest in bidding.

Another big question is whether anyone at all bids on the potential slots license at Rocky Gap, the long struggling resort in Western Maryland. It may be too far in the middle of nowhere for anyone to express interest, given Maryland's high 67 percent tax rate on slots proceeds. If no one bids, expect momentum in the legislature to add flexibility to the bid requirements so that an operator at that site could pay less to the government.

Other locations seem pretty clear cut: Penn National, one of the nation's biggest gambling companies, has expressed interest in the Cecil County location, just off of I-95 on the east side of the Susquehanna. And a site just outside of Ocean City seems destined for William Rickman, a Montgomery County developer who owns the Ocean Downs harness track and a racino in Delaware.

Baltimore City's potential slots site is also a big question mark. Its location in a developing area of the city's waterfront has potential, but Baltimore's demands for millions in rent from a casino's rent on city-owned land may dampen interest. If that's the case, the city may have to scale back its ambitions for how much property tax relief or school funding a slots site could produce.

And undergirding all of this is the question of how much money Maryland might reap from its plunge into expanded gambling. With the state scrambling to fill a $2 billion budget hole this year, the question of how realistic the slots revenue projections are at a time of economic uncertainty is becoming a crucial one. Gadi Dechter reports today that other states have had trouble finding bidders for their slots site recently, and problems like that here could be a severe blow to Maryland's long-term fiscal plans.

Posted by Andy Green at 10:55 AM | | Comments (0)
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About the bloggers
Annie Linskey covers state politics and government for The Baltimore Sun. Previously, as a City Hall reporter, she wrote about the corruption trial of Mayor Sheila Dixon and kept a close eye on city spending. Originally from Connecticut, Annie has also lived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where she reported on war crimes tribunals and landmines. She lives in Canton.

John Fritze has covered politics and government at the local, state and federal levels for more than a decade and is now The Baltimore Sun’s Washington correspondent. He previously wrote about Congress for USA TODAY, where he led coverage of the health care overhaul debate and the 2010 election. A native of Albany, N.Y., he currently lives in Montgomery County.

Julie Scharper covers City Hall and Baltimore politics. A native of Baltimore County, she graduated from The Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and spent two years teaching in Honduras before joining The Baltimore Sun. She has followed the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa., in the year after a schoolhouse massacre, reported on courts and crime in Anne Arundel County, and chronicled the unique personalities and places of Baltimore City and its surrounding counties.
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