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February 26, 2010

Andy Harris’ top staffer keeps her job

Last week it looked like Republican Sen. Andrew P. Harris would have to find a new chief of staff. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller had issued an ultimatum: Either get rid of Kathy Szeliga or tell her to stop running for office.

The Democratic senate president pointed out that Szeliga had a campaign website and was raising money – those activities, he said, put her in conflict with a rule that says no candidates for office can work for the General Assembly.

Harris, who is running for Congress and was asking uncomfortable questions on the Senate floor about lawmaker pensions, called the threat “Chicago-style” politics. Miller denied there was any connection between the two events.

Not so, said Szeliga. She pointed out that she has not yet filed for office. The employee guidelines say staffers must bow out only after filing for candidacy. And her lawyer, Dirk Haire, agreed.

Szeliga wrote a letter to Harris this week saying she will continue to work in Harris’ Senate office until she files her certificate of candidacy after session ends in April. At that point she’ll resign. Miller was copied on the correspondence.

However, concessions were made. She’s taking down the bulk of her campaign website, she’s not going to accept any money from lobbyists or political action committees and, aside from a fundraiser set for next week (featuring former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.), she said she won’t actively campaign.

Posted by Annie Linskey at 5:39 PM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Candidate Watch 2010

Signing bonus ... for employers

The state Senate today approved a plan to give businesses a $5,000 tax credit for each unemployed Marylander they hire. Lawmakers went beyond the $3,000 Gov. Martin O'Malley had proposed.

The tax credits are limited to $250,000 per employer, and the state will cut off the program at $20 million. The legislation also accounts for potential problems by requiring the new employee to be filling a new position or one that has been vacant at least six months.

O'Malley said in a statement the plan serves two purposes, "creating jobs and protecting the small and family owned businesses that are the backbone of our economy and the driving force for job creation."

The House of Delegates must vote on the proposal, but leaders there believe it has the support to pass.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 2:24 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: General Assembly 2010, Tax & Spend

Compromise forged on unemployment benefits

Business groups that have opposed the governor's plan to cut unemployment-benefits taxes at a time when many employers are struggling say they will announce Monday whether they've been won over by a compromise plan.

The groups had opposed Gov. Martin O'Malley's idea to tap into about $127 million in federal stimulus money -- which could have reduced employers' taxes this year -- in part because it meant a slight but permanent increase in the amount the pay into the state's unemployment insurance trust fund. For the state to get the federal money, it must extend benefits to more part-time workers and those in qualified job-training programs and by adjust a technical formula so that more people would qualify for benefits. Those changes amount to an extra $20 million employers would have to pay each year.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Democrat who has been in the thick of near-daily negotiations, says he's confident the parties have reached a compromise that will enable the state to go after the federal money but offsets the new costs to employers. But two large business groups, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and the Maryland Retailers Association, say they need time to present the plan to their members. They anticipate they'll have an answer Monday on whether they support it.

As we reported weeks ago, the new plan does not include unemployment-tax rate relief. Business groups said they'd prefer to use all $127 million to build up the depleted fund (so empty that the state may have to borrow $250 million to prop it up).

Most of the other changes involve decreasing certain benefits, including eliminating sick claims, increasing the minimum weekly claim to $50 (which knocks off a few of the lowest end claimants), increasing the penalties for misconduct and decreasing the amount of money an unemployed person can make while collecting benefits.

Aides to the Democratic governor helped design the compromise, and lawmakers could vote on it as soon as next week.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 1:47 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: General Assembly 2010

Chickens on the Senate floor

Republican Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus announced this morning that the state has issued a reprieve for Eastern Shore farmers – for the next 30 days they can burn their chicken houses. Senators applauded the development, causing us to scratch our head.

Turns out the recent two-punch snow storm caused 50 chicken houses to collapse in and around Stoltzfus’ district. Dragging the broken buildings to the dump could cost farmers $45K to $60K in fees, Stoltzfus said. The farmers would prefer to pour a few gallons of gas on the structures and light a match.

But, the Maryland Department of the Environment just promulgated new regs barring burning. Stoltzfus began complaining about those rules on the Senate floor earlier this week, and by today, he said the Department agreed to wait another month before implementing the new rule.

Stoltzfus is not sure if the extension permits all types of burning, or just the burning of chicken houses. If we get a minute later today we’ll ask.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 1:37 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: General Assembly 2010

Same-sex politics

In perhaps the opening salvo of the “sex wars” that observers say Attorney General Doug Gansler's controversial gay-union opinion could instigate, budding politician Justin M. Towles decided to make a public stand in support of the state's AG.

Hours after Gansler issued an opinion that Maryland should honor same-sex marriages perfromed out-of-state, Towles' foe, conservative Republican Del. Don Dwyer called for Gansler to be impeached.

Towles, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, criticized the incumbent saying Dwyer’s call for impeachment both “unstatesman-like” and “radical.”

“This is yet another example of how Delegate Dwyer's extremist views divert attention and crucial resources from the real problems facing Marylanders, and continue to isolate the 31st District from mainstream policy discussions,” wrote Towles.

Dwyer, who opposes gay unions, says that Gansler should not have issued a fresh opinion because the Attorney General’s office in 2004 wrote an advisory letter that said out-of-state same sex-marriages should not be accepted here. With no change in Maryland law since that date, Dwyer says, there should not have been a new opinion.

** UPDATE: Del. Dwyer responded, saying he'd like to debate Towles and the other two Democrats in the race. See comments below.  

Posted by Annie Linskey at 12:32 PM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Families, General Assembly 2010

February 25, 2010

Could 9/11 terror trials come to Maryland?

U.S. Department of Justice officials haven't said where where they intend to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other alleged terrorists suspected in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But Maryland Senate Republicans are eager to make sure the Free State isn't an option.

Senate minority party leaders today delivered a letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, urging him to tell federal officials to look elsewhere. "We urge you ... to address this issue by rejecting potential federal incentives and immediately notifying President Obama that Maryland will not be a venue for terrorist trials."

Sen. Allan H. Kittleman and Sen. Nancy Jacobs, who signed the letter, say they have no information that Maryland is under consideration as a a possible location. Both said their letter was more of a "preemptive strike," aimed at eliminating even the slimmest chance that terrorists could stand trial in either of the state's federal courthouses, in Greenbelt and Baltimore.

The senators say Maryland's close proximity to Washington and array of national buildings would complicate security for the high-profile criminal proceedings.

At this point, DOJ has not made it clear where the trial could take place -- and whether it would be at a federal courthouse or a military base or even inside a prison. New York officials strongly rejected the decision to try the case in lower Manhattan, and President Barack Obama said he will consult with local officials before selecting another venue.

In a recent Associated Press article, Attorney General Eric Holder was quoted as saying "all options remain open for the location of a 9/11 trial."

"His plan to transfer Mohammed and four of his alleged henchmen from the prison at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for trial in New York City has run into massive opposition and is under review," the article says.

Nina Ginsberg, an Alexandria, Va., attorney who represented one of the 9/11 suspects, said that although New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania were the obvious options, prosecutors could look elsewhere.

"They may be able to come up with some basis for venue in Maryland," she said. Possible reasons could include a 9/11 victim who resided in the state or conspiracy-related acts that occurred in the state. Wherever DOJ selects as the trial location, they'd have to convince a judge they have venue there, Ginsberg said.

O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec said the governor will not comment on the Republicans' letter.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 4:44 PM | | Comments (0)

February 24, 2010

Only One Maryland Voice at Health Care Summit

Insiders snorted derisively when candidate Barack Obama pledged to negotiate a sweeping overhaul of the health care system -- one-sixth of the American economy--in full public view. For good measure, he said, he'd televise the whole thing on C-SPAN.

That way, Obama contended during the 2008 campaign, "people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies."

Obama was eager to portray himself as a different kind of politician and offer a contrast with the back-room dealings of Republicans in Washington. It was part of the change he hoped voters would believe.

Many voters bought his argument (they burst into enthusiastic applause at campaign stops when he repeated the promise), perhaps without stopping to think that transparency may not always be the best way to get things done. What if the boss invited your co-workers into the room for that discussion you wanted to have about a promotion?

At any rate, Obama had to concede that he hadn't kept his promise to have "all the negotiations around a big table" on TV.

Not only were terms of the health care legislation hammered out in secret by congressional Democrats, but the White House itself cut back-room deals with key players, including the nation's hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry.

Thursday's bipartisan health care summit is a belated attempt to redeem the campaign pledge. Obama announced it not long after his Inner Harbor debate with House Republicans, which White House strategists regarded as a public-relations coup for the president.

Many see the day-long event, to be televised in full on a number of cable networks (though C-SPAN may have to carry it late, on tape, if the House and Senate are in session), as more show than substance.

Republicans, forced to participate to avoid being pegged as obstructionists, have let it be known that they aren't about to march into Obama's trap. They've appointed a "truth squad" to send out rebuttals as the summit is taking place.

Regardless of what does or doesn't get accomplished, the belated move toward transparency could have at least one unintended consequence: it may expose a number of congressmen and senators as much less powerful than they'd like their constituents to believe.

For more than a year, lawmakers from Maryland and around the country have boasted about the influential role they are playing in crafting health care legislation. But few of them will be sitting around that table at Blair House with Obama.

Nineteen senators (out of 100) were chosen by the Democratic and Republican leadership, none from Maryland. A total of 21 members of the House of Representatives (out of 435) were included.

That leaves nearly 500 congressmen and senators on the sidelines, forced to come up with an explanation if anyone asks why they weren't invited to the summit.

Only one Marylander made the cut: House Democratic Leader Steny H. Hoyer.

Posted by Paul West at 6:00 PM | | Comments (3)

Same-sex marriage opinion quickly draws fire, praise

The attorney general's opinion has been out just a few hours, but it's already generated strong political reaction, with one delegate even calling for Doug Gansler's impeachment. Here are the basics of the opinion, from a Baltimore Sun story this morning:

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler on Wednesday morning released a long-awaited opinion saying same-sex marriages performed in other states could be recognized by Maryland's legal system.

Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Democrat, asked in May asked if such marriages could be recognized. "The answer to that question is clearly 'yes,'" Gansler wrote in a 40-page document.

The opinion does not enable same-sex couples to wed here. It also does not carry the weight of law, but is meant to guide judges and state agencies.

"What we say in this opinion is a prediction, not a prescription" as to how a court would interpret the law, Gansler wrote.

We understand that Del. Don H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican, is so dismayed that he's seeking Gansler's impeachment. Other lawmakers say it's now more important than ever for the legislature to decisively weigh in on the matter.

Under state law, a marriage is defined as between a man and a woman, but five states and Washington, D.C., permit them, prompting the debate about how Maryland should treat same-sex unions if a couple moves here.

Del. Emmett Burns called the opinion "political" and confusing. Burns put in a bill, which was defeated earlier this session, that would have essentially negated Gansler's opinion.

But a similar bill by another Baltimore County Democrat, Sen. Norman Stone, is still alive. Stone said this morning that the General Assembly must make clear its position on recognizing same-sex unions.

Stone said he's concerned that with Washington, D.C., set to begin permitting the unions next month, Maryland couples will simply marry there and then continue living here. Stone believes that if people "strongly believe in same-sex marriages, they should go live in those states" that allow it. A hearing on his bill is set for next week.

Meanwhile, supporters of same-sex marriages are again pursuing legislation that would allow those unions to be performed in this state. The bill has broad support, particularly among members of the House Judiciary Committee, which will consider it March 12. But legislative leaders doubt the effort will make it through both chambers.

Many, including Equality Maryland, praised Gansler's opinion. Freedom to Marry also has kind words for Gansler.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, said he had not reviewed Gansler's opinion but reiterated his stance that same-sex couples should be permitted civil unions. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, said he personally believes that marriages should be between a man and a woman but said that as a lawyer, he understands the basis of Gansler's opinion.

"I believe the state must give full faith and credit to the laws of our sister states," Miller said.

Burns said he expetcs Maryland voters to one day decide for themselves whether the state should allow same-sex marriages.

"It is going to end up on referendum, and I am going to win," he said.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 11:29 AM | | Comments (33)
Categories: Families

Analyst: Count Maryland Out of GOP Senate Wave

The early line on the 2010 midterm elections continues to brighten for Republicans.

The latest race-by-race assessment of Senate contests by independent analyst Stu Rothenberg predicts a net Republican gain of five to seven seats, with eight Senate seats a possibility. Ten seats--the number Republicans would need to regain control of the chamber from the Democrats--seems out of reach, at least for now.

"The possibility of a GOP blockbuster year has increased noticeably," concludes Rothenberg.

Among the Democratic seats that appear likely to go to Republican are Vice President Joe Biden's former slot in Delaware, currently held by appointee Ted Kaufman, who isn't running, and the seat of retiring North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan.

Democratic incumbents picked to lose: Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and the most powerful of all, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Other Democratic incumbents on the endangered list include Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Michael Bennet of Colorado. Four seats held by retiring Republicans, in Ohio, New Hampshire, Missouri and Kentucky, are rated as tossups, along with Illinois and Indiana, which are being vacated by Democratic incumbents.

And what about the Senate race in Maryland, pitting Democratic veteran Barbara A. Mikulski against an opponent to be named later (in September's Republican primary)?

"Not even on the GOP's radar," reports Rothenberg.

Mikulski is rated one of eight "currently safe" Democratic senators.

A total of 36 Senate seats are being contested this year. With Republican gains all but assured, "Democrats are likely to retain control of the Senate," concludes Rothenberg, "but at a dramatically reduced level."

Posted by Paul West at 8:26 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Candidate Watch 2010

February 23, 2010

State-of-the-art fundraising by Maryland lawmakers, always in season

There's nothing particularly subtle about raising campaign money in Washington. No big surprise there.

Still, it can be eye-opening to see how blatant the appeals for cash are, especially when members of Congress solicit donations from lobbyists and special-interest groups.

To state the obvious, a basic goal of this type of fund-raising is to maximize a senator or congressman's take from those who want to influence Congress. And what better way to do that than to make sure a prospective donor knows where the senator or congressman has the most clout?

For a glimpse into how it's done, consider this invitation from Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore. The event, a fund-raising luncheon Tuesday at a fashionable Capitol Hill restaurant, is virtually identical to hundreds of such events that take place every month in Washington.

The Cummings invite lists, in detail, positions of importance or rank held by the Democratic congressman:

Senior member, House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
Chairman, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation
Senior Member, Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials
Senior Member, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
Senior Member, Subcommittee on Domestic Policy
Member, Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia
Senior Member, Joint Economic Committee
Senior Whip

The purpose here isn't necessarily to single Cummings out. What he's doing is standard operating procedure in Washington.

Instead, the point is to illustrate how transparent the appeals for money can be and, in particular, how baldly members of Congress advertise their proximity to specific centers of power.

Tickets to the Cummings luncheon at Bistro Bis run from $1,000 for individuals to $2,500 for PACs. The price schedule is the same for another Cummings fund-raiser, a dinner at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in Baltimore, originally scheduled for Monday night. (The event was postponed to April 19, same location, same price, because the House held a make-up session Monday for a snow day taken earlier this month.) A Cummings campaign fund-raising aide said she couldn't estimate what the congressman would net from the events.

Another local example of the same phenomenon: On Tuesday evening, at a townhouse conveniently located near House office buildings, Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr., a Democrat from Maryland's Eastern Shore, will stage his latest campaign fund-raising reception (contributions: $500 to $2,500).

The invitation advertises Kratovil's membership on the Armed Forces, Agriculture and Natural Resources committees. Not coincidentally, the freshman congressman has already benefited from contributions made by those with business before the panels, and Congress in general; many of those special-interest donors only started giving to Kratovil after he won election to the House in 2008.

An added lure: Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking officer of the House, invites prospective donors to join him at the Kratovil event, implying that those who give will get to rub elbows with one of the most powerful men in Washington.

A non-partisan watchdog on campaign money, the Center for Responsive Politics, explains that the political money chase "is never-ending for members of Congress -- and social events from breakfasts to barbeques, sporting events to concerts, are held to help fill the coffers. Often hosted by lobbyists or other well-healed insiders, these events provide opportunities for attendees to support politicians and establish a connection and access to the member.”

In contrast to limits placed on members of the Maryland General Assembly, who aren't allowed to raise money for their state campaigns while the legislature is in session, every day is, legally, a money-raising day for senators and congressman.

With elections approaching this year, Marylanders in Congress have stepped up the fund-raising pace.

Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards collected re-election money with a breakfast Monday at the National Democratic Club townhouse in Washington. The event had a serious-minded twist: a discussion on jobs and the economy. But the bottom line was the same ("Requested contribution--Sponsor: $2,500, PAC: $1,000, Individual: $500").

Democratic Rep. C. A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger will host an evening reception in a couple weeks at Bobby Van's restaurant in Washington ($500-$5,000). For those who prefer to wait, he's got a fund-raiser at Oriole Park on June 8, when the Yankees are in town (Price per ticket: $750 for an individual, $1,500 for a PAC).

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, dean of Democratic women in the Senate, has a big fund-raising event planned for March 15, with her female colleagues as the draw.

Hoyer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who occupy leadership positions--Van Hollen heads his party's congressional campaign committee--are drumming up money for other Democratic candidates. As a result, they are among the state's most active fund-raisers.

The practice of spreading the wealth isn't limited to those near the top of the leadership chain. Officeholders who aspire to greater power also take an interest in helping others.

Like many rank-and-file members in both major parties, Cummings began transferring money last year to candidates in competitive 2010 contests around the country. Yet, when the year began, he still had three quarters of a million dollars in his campaign account, with more is on the way.

Cummings, re-elected last time with 80 percent of the vote, has one of the safest House seats in the nation. In fact, no Marylander in Congress, with the notable exception of Kratovil, is currently regarded vulnerable by independent analysts.

Still, one of the best ways to keep a seat safe is to continue putting money in the bank. The larger the stockpile, the harder it becomes for a challenger to launch a campaign spending war.

That may help explain why Sen. Benjamin Cardin, the sole member of the Maryland delegation who won't be facing voters this year, isn't sitting on the sidelines.

The Democratic senator--whose next election is in 2012--has invited prospective donors to a Capitol Hill townhouse one morning next week for "bagels with Ben." Suggested contribution: $1,000. Cream cheese and lox, no extra charge.

Posted by Paul West at 9:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Candidate Watch 2010

February 22, 2010

It's Monday morning. Does Kathy Szeliga have a job?

UPDATE: Szeliga did work today and will be back in Annapolis on Tuesday. My understanding is that she, Harris and Miller are still deciding how to proceed.

Fallout from one of the more interesting flare-ups last week -- a spat between Democratic Senate President Mike Miller and Republican Sen. Andy Harris -- should be clear today.

At the center of the disagreement is Harris' chief of staff, Kathy Szeliga, who is running for a Baltimore County House of Delegates seat this fall. Miller and an attorney general say she can't keep her state legislature job while she's a candidate. Harris and his lawyer say that the legislature's own ethics rules make it clear that she can keep working right up until she files with the election board, which she has not done.

Last week, Miller said Harris must fire Szeliga unless she stops running for office. Harris said he believes Miller is retaliating because Harris recently raised some uncomfortable proposals regarding lawmaker pay and pensions -- a notion Miller called ridiculous.

Last we left it, Miller had asked that Harris and Szeliga resolve the situation by Friday. Harris sent a letter to Miller at the end of the week saying he simply would not fire Szeliga and that lawyers are involved.

So does she have a job this morning? Word is, Miller has asked to meet with Szeliga one last time today. We'll let you know what happened.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 7:20 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Candidate Watch 2010

February 18, 2010

Bob Ehrlich to you: Friend me

* Updated to reflect new friends.

The former governor of Maryland wants to be friends with you on Facebook. Actually, he wants you to be his "fan," but close enough.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. might be waiting another month to announce whether he'll challenge Gov. Martin O'Malley to a rematch, but already he is assembling an online army of support.

This message from Team Ehrlich arrived last night:

Thank you for being a strong supporter of Governor Bob Ehrlich over the years.

We have a simple request: Will you join the "Bob Ehrlich" page on Facebook?

It's the best way to hear directly from Governor Ehrlich about what it will take to make Maryland strong and prosperous again. Bob has been busy meeting with folks like you across Maryland, but Facebook is an easy way to get his take on current events and to learn about his upcoming appearances.

Thanks again for your leadership and support. Governor Ehrlich looks forward to connecting with you on Facebook soon.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, says the former governor's campaign has maintained that page for about a year and a half.

"He thinks it’s a great way to connect with friends and supporters," Fawell said by email. "He’s used it in the past to talk about everything from politics to the Super Bowl. We’ve seen great response to it even prior to this message."

*A quick review of Facebook reveals numerous support pages for the Republican former governor. The Bob Ehrlich page his Team points us to had almost *9,000 fans by the end of Thursday, meaning he picked up almost 2,000 friends in a single day. A Bob Ehrlich for Maryland page has another 3,000-plus fans. Add to those several "reelect Bob Ehrlich" and "bring back Ehrlich" pages.

O'Malley, a Democrat, has also embraced social media in recent years. O'Malley's personal Facebook page boats 5,001 friends, which appears to be Facebook's official limit. His group page, similar to what Ehrlich was promoting, lists more than 3,000 fans. Those kinds of Facebook pages can holds countless fans or members, as you may know from requests to join groups such as "If 100,000 people join then my dad will quit smoking!"

Keep in mind that not all of these "friends" and "fans" are supporters. Reporters, campaign snoops and perhaps even the candidates themselves join Facebook pages to keep track of each other.

O'Malley, it appears, isn't on any of those "reelect Bob Ehrlich" pages. But he's also not one of the five people on the "Keep Bob Ehrlich at Home" page.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 8:44 AM | | Comments (20)
Categories: Candidate Watch 2010

February 17, 2010

Mikulski To Formally Announce Re-Election Run This Spring

For the past year, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski has been running a very successful, though unannounced, campaign for re-election in 2010.

She's traveled the state, raised money, hired a campaign manager and stashed away more than $2 million in campaign cash. That isn't a huge pile of money, but it's big enough for now--with no significant opponent in sight and no apparent prospect that one will materialize.

Independent analysts and strategists in both major parties have consistently rated Mikulski a safe bet for re-election, increasingly rare for a Democratic incumbent this year. As noted before, she is more popular in Maryland than any other elected official, including President Barack Obama, who carried the state in a landslide.

Like any politician, she'd prefer that constituents view her as a public servant, rather than as a candidate. Once voters recognize that she's running, it tends to make everything she does look more political.

Mikulski said in an interview Wednesday that she intends to wait a few more months before formally announcing her re-election try. An announcement would be just that: a formality. As far as the Federal Election Commission is concerned, she's already a candidate.

Of course, politicians can tiptoe to the edge and veer away, like Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who proclaimed himself weary of Washington's partisan wars and announced his retirement this week.

Mikulski, who prizes her reputation as a fighter, won't be taking that route.

She said she will make a "declaration of positive intent" in mid-spring, "when we're beyond both the snow and the melt."

In the meantime, she'll continue to ramp up her re-election effort. She's scheduled a major fundraising event in Maryland on March 15.

The lawmaker from Baltimore, elected to the Senate in 1986 and that body's senior woman, has invited her Democratic female colleagues--a dozen in all--to attend the Ides of March event.

Mikulski, 73, appears fully recovered from a serious ankle injury that limited her mobility for months last year.

That hasn't prevent health-related rumors from circulating, though.

On Monday, shortly after Bayh surprised Democrats by announcing that he was quitting, an obscure right-wing blogger posted a report that Mikulski, too, would be announcing in the next few days that she will step down. The groundless report was picked up by other blogs--including some that clear the very low bar for respectability in this realm--without bothering to check its validity.

"I'm not shy," Mikulski declared, "and I'm not retiring."

Posted by Paul West at 5:05 PM | | Comments (26)

Republican senator says Senate president is bullying him

* Updated Thursday morning with better campaign contribution numbers and a link.

Republican Sen. Andrew P. Harris received a letter yesterday from the Democratic Senate president asking him to fire his chief of staff by Friday -- a directive that Harris called "Chicago-style" bare-knuckles politics.

Miller's stated reason for requesting the termination of Kathy Szeliga is that she is a candidate for the House of Delegates this fall and therefore cannot continue to work for the state legislature.

Harris believes Miller's move is a nothing more than a political power play. The outspoken Baltimore County representative, who is running for Frank Kratovil's congressional seat this fall, is pushing a number of measures aimed at scaling back state lawmaker pensions. The Senate this morning refused to give Harris an extra day to make technical fixes to an amendment he hoped to offer that would put lawmakers into a 401k-style pension system.

"The coincidence is stunning," Harris said of the timing of Miller's request. "This has come completely out of the blue."

Miller this morning disputed that the allegation that his request of Harris was about politics. "He's politicizing a personnel matter that I have absolutely nothing to do with," Miller said. He called Szeliga a "good friend" whom he had once asked to work for him.

The Senate president also said he'd received a complaint about the Szeliga situation weeks ago, long before the pension debate emerged. The complaint came from the Democratic Central Committees of Baltimore and Harford counties.

Miller's letter to Harris, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun, states that Harris must terminate Szeliga because she is "in violation of the personnel policy's prohibition against employees of the legislature running for State legislative office." Miller refers to an attorney general's opinion he obtained.

Harris and Szeliga said ethics and human resources officials told them weeks ago that she could keep her chief of staff position until actually filing as a candidate, which she has not done.

From the Maryland General Assembly personnel policy:

"While employed by the Maryland General Assembly an employee may not run for an office in the Maryland General Assembly. Once the employee has filed with the Election Board to run for a state legislative office, the employee must resign his or her position in the General Assembly."

Harris calls the attorney general's opinion bogus and say he is talking with attorneys about his options. He says he won't fire Szeliga.

Although she has not filed with the State Board of Elections, Szeliga has made a number of moves that affirm she is a candidate. She has an official campaign web site and registered a campaign committee last May so that she could begin accepting donations. She'd raised $13,000* as of January.

Harris says there are "different standards for different people" in the state legislature.

A similar situation arose last summer, when Lisa Baugher, a legislative aide for Delegate Rick Weldon, a Frederick County Independent, sought a waiver of the personnel policy.

Baugher, a Democrat, had announced she would challenge Republican Sen. Alex Mooney of Frederick for his seat. Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch sought guidance from the attorney general and, after receiving it, told her she wouldn't be granted a waiver.

Weldon has since left his seat. Baugher dropped out of the race, according to the Frederick News-Post, choosing instead to stay on as legislative aide to Weldon's replacement, Del. Charles Jenkins, a Republican.

* Szeliga's campaign account stands at about $43,000 after totaling not only contributions, but loans and ticket sales. A blog for the Maryland Democratic Party has an assessment of what it sees as other problems with Szeliga working for the legislature while running for office.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 10:10 AM | | Comments (24)
Categories: General Assembly 2010

February 16, 2010

Fighting foreclosures could pack political punch

UPDATED. See below.

Today, Gov. Martin O'Malley will personally urge lawmakers to pass a measure that would increase the options for homeowners on the verge of foreclosure. This will be his first appearance of the year before legislative committees. Political observers call it a savvy move for a Democratic governor who faces reelection in a year that comes amid a prolonged economic downturn. See our story in this morning's Baltimore Sun.

We'll watch the hearings today to see how lawmakers feel about the proposal and gauge its chances of becoming law.

Some key points in the legislation:
* Before a foreclosure action can be filed in court, lenders are required to submit proof that they tried to modify the loan.
* If the borrower believes that he or she was wrongly denied loan modification, the lender must agree to a mediation session, which the court will organize.
The proposal also imposes a $100 fee to be paid by lenders whenever they file for foreclosure.

One potential problem: The court system, which would contend with a potential flood of foreclosure mediation sessions, isn't supportive of O'Malley's proposal as written. They cite the legislation's costs and lack of clarity as some of the reasons why. Court officials also point out that the proposal is "inherently unfair" in that it forces borrowers to show up in person for mediation but allows lenders to phone in.

A fiscal and policy analysis that became available this morning further explores costs.

Revenues could increase by about $200,000* next year, thanks to the $100 fee. But the analysis also speculates that court expenses could go up by $800,000 or more to establish a mediation program. (The analyst notes that he's just guessing because the court system failed to supply him with any real numbers.)

We aren't expecting to hear from the court system today. An official told us yesterday that they'd simply be submitting written testimony in opposition to the bill, not testifying at the hearings.

* Aides to the governor believe the legislative analyst grossly underestimated the potential revenue, saying it is likely to be $1.6 million or more per year. The analyst appears to have wrongly calculated revenue based on anticipated mediation sessions. However, the governor's proposal calls for the $100 fee to be assessed on ALL foreclosure filings, regardless of mediation.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 10:54 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: General Assembly 2010

February 15, 2010

Constituent services Sen. Conway style

A seemingly minor bill introduced by Sen. Joan Carter Conway dominated debate in the Senate Monday night. 

The measure would have expanded insurance coverage of costly in vitro fertilization in one very specific instance: when the man can’t produce sperm because of a condition called non obstructive azoospermia AND the woman has ovarian hyper stimulation syndrome.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, was skeptical. A doctor by training, Harris told his colleagues the medical conditions outlined in the legislation are so narrowly crafted that the bill most likely “only covers one person.”

Conway (D-Baltimore City) argued that the analyst who wrote the fiscal note attached to her bill (SB 27) estimates one percent of Maryland couples could suffer from the combination of symptoms required to trigger coverage. But Conway said she introduced the measure after receiving a request from one couple who lives in her district.

“It is a constituent who had a problem,” Conway said after the floor debate. “I wrote it for that one person who brought it to my attention.” Conway won’t name the couple – at least for now. She promised to get back to us after checking with them.

The bill failed final passage on a 23-23 vote with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller abstaining. But it could still re-emerge. Sen. George Della (D-Baltimore City) asked that the bill be reconsidered on Thursday. 

It’s unclear what will change between now and then. After the session Miller said that he abstained because he was unfamiliar with the legislation, but he also seemed wary based on the floor debate. “My personal belief is that if somebody is going to receive sperm from somebody else, then they can pay for it,” Miller said.

We’d like to add here that Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore County) expressed an overall distaste for mandating insurance coverage for procedures that are not medically necessary. He pointed to a 2002 column by the Sun’s Jay Hancock that outlines how such mandates can drive up health care costs.

We’ve added the Hancock column after the jump.

** UPDATE: Several have noted in the comments that Sen. Conway opposes efforts to allow direct wine shipping in Maryland, an issue recently covered by Julie Bykowicz.

Legislated health benefits cause loss of essential care The Baltimore Sun March 20, 2002 Wednesday

Copyright 2002 The Baltimore Sun Company
All Rights Reserved  
The Baltimore Sun

March 20, 2002 Wednesday FINAL Edition


LENGTH: 896 words

HEADLINE: Legislated health benefits cause loss of essential care

BYLINE: Jay Hancock

APPARENTLY deciding Maryland needs more people without health insurance, the legislature forced medical plans last year to cover colon cancer tests and children's hearing aids, as well as slimming surgery for fat people.

This term, the General Assembly is thinking about compelling payment for meningitis vaccines and mental health "crisis" care at home, as well as expanding obligatory coverage of in-vitro fertilization and podiatry.

Other items added to the mandatory medical buffet in recent years include wigs for cancer patients, bone-density and prostate-cancer screening, contraceptives, alcoholism treatment and surgical breast reconstruction.

Maryland leads the nation in this kind of duress, which is well-intentioned but swells the legions of the uninsured as certainly as water flows downhill.

Imagine if the General Assembly allowed sales of only one kind of car: a buffed, loaded, eight-cylinder Cadillac, to use an analogy loved by the enemies of mandates. Fewer people could afford to drive.

By forcing insurers to offer only Cadillac health plans, the legislature makes medical care similarly pricey and out of reach.

About 800,000 Marylanders lack health care coverage, and the legislature at least pretends to care. So why does Annapolis keep making it harder for people to get insurance?

When it comes to heating bills and telephone tolls, the Assembly is fussily sensitive about consumer costs. So how come legislators willfully keep cranking up the price of medical coverage?

The requirement for prostate cancer screening accounts for $38 of the yearly cost of a typical policy that is subject to the Maryland rules, according to a study last year for state regulators by the consultant William M. Mercer Inc.

Contraceptives cost $10. Insurance payments for "morbid obesity" surgery amount to $26 a year of the typical policy's cost. In-vitro fertilization comes to $17, and mental health and drug- and alcohol-abuse treatments account for $265 per year, according to the Mercer study.

Maryland has about 40 legislatively mandated health insurance benefits, more than any other state. Pennsylvania and Delaware have fewer than 20. Add up Maryland's mandates and they comprise $814 of the cost of a typical non-HMO group plan, says the Mercer study.

That's 14 percent of the cost of an average policy, Mercer calculated, and it could be even higher. A few years ago, the General Accounting Office figured health insurance requirements accounted for up to 22 percent of Maryland's medical claims costs, and the menu of required coverage is even longer now.

However measured, these expensive decrees price people out of the market. Extrapolating from Congressional Budget Office research on the relationship between medical costs and the uninsured, we can figure that the elimination of medical mandates would add at least 12,000 - and probably a lot more - uncovered Marylanders to the insurance club.

You can imagine how the insurance commandments are handed down by Annapolis. Doctors, hospitals and other practitioners form the core constituencies. Patients supply compelling stories. Legislators figure a few more dollars paid by business, which finances most medical care and whose pockets are known to be bottomless, won't hurt anybody.

And so the mandates menu grows.

In the real world, the higher premiums generated by mandates cause many companies to stop offering health insurance altogether. Instead of being insured for cancer wigs and morbid obesity surgery, their workers aren't covered for anything. Is that an improvement?

The most perverse aspect of Maryland's mandate mania is this: Mandates drive up the cost of health insurance precisely for the companies that can least afford it. Large employers that are self-insured - those that bear their own risk for medical claims and could best afford the mandates - are exempt because they are regulated federally, not by the state.

The medium-sized and smaller companies are left to bear the mandate burden.

"The people who are damaged by this don't appear in the halls of the state legislature," says Robert Moffit, a Heritage Foundation analyst who testified last week in favor of a Maryland bill that would enable the sale of a few no-frills, no-mandate health insurance policies. Moffitcalls Annapolis' mandates mongering "a kind of raw training in special-interest group politics."

All of the Maryland-required procedures help people and sometimes save lives. But that doesn't mean they should be required by law. Are they cost-effective? Subject to abuse? It doesn't seem to matter.

Many mandates are luxuries in a state with 800,000 uninsured people. It is embarrassing to lose your hair to chemotherapy, but when you have cancer it's not your biggest problem. Deaf children should be helped, but it is not too much to expect the parents who love them and brought them into the world to scrimp and sacrifice for a hearing aid.

If workers demand certain medical coverage in sufficient numbers, then employers will offer them without being forced. If disease-screening tests save more than they cost by catching early illnesses, insurers will cover them voluntarily.

If not, maybe patients should pay. Let's worry first about covering everybody for appendicitis and broken legs. We can worry about in-vitro fertilization later.

LOAD-DATE: March 20, 2002

Posted by Annie Linskey at 10:15 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: General Assembly 2010

Obama Back in Maryland on Tuesday

President Barack Obama, who made a lightning fast Valentine's Day trip to Camp David (he arrived Sunday afternoon and left right after dinner to avoid Monday's snow), will be back in Maryland on Tuesday.

He is to visit a business-labor training center in Lanham, site of a scheduled event last month that got canceled after the Haitian earthquake hit.

Obama will tour a jobs training center at IBEW Local 26 Headquarters. Afterward, he will promote administration efforts to create jobs in the energy field and help America transition to a low carbon economy, according to the White House.

The events are closed to the public.

Here's the original Maryland Politics posting about the president's visit last month:

President Barack Obama figures to get a friendly greeting when he tours a business-labor training center in Maryland this afternoon.

But the visit to the Lanham facility, which will serve as a platform for Obama to pitch his green-energy jobs initiatives, comes against a backdrop of simmering union anger over the president's agenda and performance during his first year in office.

Our "patience is wearing thin," Chuck Graham, business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 26, writes in the new magazine published by the labor unit, which serves Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

In the piece, Graham describes himself as angry, disappointed and frustrated over being "strung along" by Obama.

"Where is the relief middle-class Americans were promised by the Obama campaign and our members of Congress leading up to the last elections? Where is the stimulus money that was supposed to create jobs and put Americans, especially our Local 26 members, to work?"

In a telephone interview, Graham said that about 1,500 of the local's 8,500 members are out of work. That translates into 17 percent unemployment, more than twice the Maryland jobless rate.

Graham is critical of Obama's "focus, perhaps obsession, with health care reform when American jobs are becoming extinct." He urges Democrats in Washington to concentrate first on finding decent jobs for those who want to work.

"President Obama and Congress, it's time that you start supporting those who supported you," Graham concludes.

Graham said he hopes that plans to build a third nuclear reactor at Calvert Cliffs in southern Maryland become a reality. That would mean over 500 jobs for members of his union and thousands for those in the building trades.

"I do need jobs for my members," he said. "That my job."

So, will Graham give Obama a piece of his mind and let him know exactly what he thinks when he meets him during the president's visit to the apprenticeship center for electricians in Prince George's County?

Uh, apparently not.

"I'm going to tell him he's doing a great job," said Graham.

He explained that Obama inherited a boatload of problems after eight years of Republican President George W. Bush.

Obama "was handed a job that--I wouldn't want to have to do it," said Graham. "He knows we need jobs. He's trying to create jobs."

Posted by Paul West at 4:46 PM | | Comments (0)

Harris picks up pension reform in Senate

State Senator Andy Harris (R-Baltimore County), is busy this afternoon drafting a pair of amendments that make changes to lawmaker pension plans. He plans to offer them tonight if they are ready.

**UPDATE** Harris said Monday night the amendments will be ready Wednesday.

The first would create a so-called “bad boy clause" in the lawmakers' pension eligibility code. This means state lawmakers would not get pensions payouts if convicted of crimes related. Harris said he drafted the bill in part because of voter outrage after former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon kept her $83,000-a-year city pension despite a jury conviction on a theft charge. 

The Dixon drama, however, is not the greatest example because the proposal Harris described for us Monday is actually weaker than the Baltimore’s clause. Harris’ provision would only apply to lawmakers found guilty of felonies related to their public duties. In the city, lawmakers found guilty of any felony or any misdemeanor related to duties can't collect pensions.

(Here is a Sun story describing a protest outside of Baltimore's City Hall over the Dixon pension, and explaining why she gets to keep it.)

Harris also wants to move all lawmakers into a defined contribution (401K-type) pension plan. Currently retired lawmakers receive a defined benefit, meaning they can count on a set amount each month. Harris believes the change will save taxpayers $750,000 a year. Del. William J. Frank (R-Baltimore County) tried and failed to offer a similar amendment in the House last week.


Posted by Annie Linskey at 3:42 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: General Assembly 2010

February 12, 2010

No Miller

We'd hoped to get some reaction from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller on a story in today's Baltimore Sun about Sen. Currie's (D-Prince George's) decision to use campaign funds to pay legal fees. (Currie's payment to lawfirm questioned.)

Maryland's AG has opined that elected officials can only use campaign funds to pay legal bills connected with investigations relating to their campaign. The federal probe into Currie appears to center on his failure to promptly disclose consulting fees he received from Shopper's Food Warehouse while he was pushing legislation to help the company.

But Miller said in the Sun story that there's a different, newer letter from the AG's office which permits Currie to use $40K of his campaign money for defense lawyers.

But after session today, Miller left the floor without doing his usual press gaggle. We'll ask on Monday.

We caught up with Miller after session Monday night and asked again if he would release the newer letter from the AG's office.

This is what he said:
"What I have is a letter. You know I have a letter. And it is a confidential letter. It is protected by attorney client privilege.

"I shouldn’t have commented as much as I did before.  In fact I was reprimanded by the assistant attorney general and other attorneys for commenting on a case that was in a play so I shouldn’t have commented at all."

Posted by Annie Linskey at 2:12 PM | | Comments (3)

Mayor SRB goes to Annapolis

Baltimore’s new mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake made her first appearance before the city’s Annapolis delegation this morning. Here are some highlights.

Rawlings-Blake said city plowing was made more difficult by some city residents “just leaving their cars in the middle of the road.”

She wants delegates to come and visit the snow emergency center on Calvert street.

SRB identified 17 “attack zones.” These are city neighborhoods the never got plowed during Part A of the snowstorm and will be cleared by contractors. (We will ask for list.)

Delegates want some “statistics” and “talking points” to highlight the city’s need for state motor vehicle funds. They said the city’s comparatively untouched pot of transportation money is creating a tempting target for other cash strapped jurisdictions.

City delegates said they are under pressure from Del. Turner (D-Howard) to sign on to his table games bill.

Members wanted to know 'Where does SRB stand?'

SRB said: “If we can get Indy Racing, I think we can get table games.”

“This has been the craziest week ever,” says SRB. 

(Also, she wore heels! We were impressed because we slipped twice on the icy Annapolis sidewalks, in one instance landing on hip and spilling coffee. We were unhurt because we are swaddled in heavy winter gear.)
Posted by Annie Linskey at 11:03 AM | | Comments (2)

February 11, 2010

Senate wants drivers to move over for cyclists

The Maryland Senate this morning unanimously approved a measure requiring drivers to give bicycles, scooters and other personal transportation devices, such as Segways, at least three feet of space when possible.

Drivers now are required to exercise "due care" when passing cyclists, but the Senate wants to get specific on what exactly that means. A House of Delegates committee is scheduled to hear the proposal next week.

Also included in the measure is a directive that drivers are to yield right-of-way at intersections when a cyclist is in a designated bike lane or lawfully riding on the shoulder.

Violating these new provisions would be a misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $500.

The Baltimore City Paper pointed out in a recent commentary on its news blog that the measures come too late for cyclist Jack Yates, who was killed last summer at the intersection of Maryland and Lafayette avenues in Baltimore. From Michael Byrne's entry:

He was riding to the right of the right lane of Maryland as a truck passed him, also in the right lane. That is, both vehicles were smooshed into the right lane as the truck instigated a right turn onto Lafayette. The accident that resulted is a classic "right hook," one of the most dreaded occurrences in urban bicycling—and one of the most common.

Maryland lawmakers are also considering several "move over" measures that would require drivers to pull away from emergency vehicles that are stopped on shoulders to investigate traffic accidents or infractions.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 1:15 PM | | Comments (57)
Categories: General Assembly 2010

No 'warm Senate welcome' for Annapolis snow

The blizzards of 2010 have buried the state capital at a time when legislators are trying to plow through hundreds of proposed laws by April 12.

After taking a rare day off Monday because of hazardous driving conditions, many of the 188 senators and delegates made it to work Tuesday morning. More than 70 percent were here yesterday, possibly the worst day of the snow storms. (A majority of them take up quarters in Annapolis for the 90-day session.)

Public hearings have been canceled for several days; most were called off again today. Fear not: House Speaker Michael E. Busch says that because the snow came early in the session, he doesn't believe it will hinder the legislative work.

But for two full days now, all anyone can talk about is snow. From a story in The Baltimore Sun this morning:

Maryland lawmakers attempted, on the 29th day of the 427th legislative session, to keep their usual daily rituals and workloads. But Wednesday's storm quickly whited out those plans.

Even the morning prayer in the House of Delegates, delivered by Del. Pamela G. Beidle, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, contained a desperate plea: "While we have your attention, please stop the snow. We are ready for spring."

On Tuesday, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller hurled a verbal snowball at the city of Annapolis, criticizing what he called the municipality's "disgraceful" efforts to clear icy and slippery roads.

Annapolitans, he said, "should have better treatment from their elected officials."

"This is a high-end city," he said. "It is a very wealthy city. What was good in the 1700s is not acceptable."

We'll see if today's sunshine melts away the snow talk. Lawmakers convene as a group at 11 a.m. Almost all public hearings are off, except in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. With most reporters returning to Annapolis today, it could be a very well-covered hearing. We just need to come up with a way to make estate and trust laws seem exciting.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 10:14 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: General Assembly 2010

February 10, 2010

Andy Harris Gets NRCC Upgrade, No Endorsement

The National Republican Congressional Committee has upgraded Maryland State Sen. Andy Harris, putting him in the first group of ten "Young Guns" in 2010 House races.

NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions, a Texas congressman, said that the committee is not endorsing Harris or any others in the group at this point.

Harris, from Baltimore County, is shooting for a rematch against freshman Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil of Queen Anne's County. Harris could still face a primary contest this fall with fellow Maryland state Sen. E. J. Pipkin, who has not yet announced his 2010 election plans.

The NRCC "Young Gun" program provides advice and counseling to Republican congressional candidates. The party committee has also run TV ads against Kratovil, and its support for Harris is a tacit endorsement.

Party strategists in Washington are hoping to avoid a divisive primary fight in the First District, which covers the entire Eastern Shore and portions of Harford, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. A bitter 2008 primary battle, which knocked out moderate Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest and made the more conservative Harris the nominee, is widely blamed for the party's loss of that seat.

Kratovil has out-raised Harris, but the Republican has been narrowing the gap. He is rated a slight favorite by independent analysts to retake the seat for the Republicans, who had held it since 1990.

However, a contested primary would complicate Harris' task. Importantly, from the standpoint of national Republican leaders in Washington, it would likely force the party to spend more money in Maryland--and correspondingly less in other, more marginal races in other states. That, in turn, could make it tougher to achieve the overriding Republican goal: retaking majority control of the House from the Democrats.

Republicans lost control in 2006, an election that bears more than superficial similarity to the one taking shape in 2010.

The latest ABC News-Washington Post poll echoes what others have been reporting for months: A restive electorate, battered by a deep recession, is dissatisfied with the job Congress has been doing and looking to make a change.

That has made Republicans increasingly optimistic that the voters will remove incumbent Democrats and turn to Republican candidates in contests for seats being vacated by Democrats who are retiring or running for higher office.

"This year's going to be a national campaign," Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, head of the NRCC's Young Gun effort, told reporters on a conference call Wednesday.

He announced the first 10 Republican hopefuls to qualify for the program. Harris was mentioned sixth.

The ABC-Post poll showed that the Republicans' image has improved, but most Americans still view the party unfavorably.

At the same time, almost half of those questioned in the survey described their mood as generally "anti-incumbent."

Independent voters, who are key in districts like Maryland One, favor Republican candidates when asked which party's candidate in November they would favor if the mid-term election were held today.

Posted by Paul West at 11:56 AM | | Comments (6)

Cummings Makes Historic White House Music Scene

Senators and congressmen, including Baltimore Rep. Elijah Cummings, were among 225 people who heeded the call for last night's White House concert honoring the music of the civil rights movement.

The East Room event, livestreamed on a snowy night by the White House and soon to be broadcast by PBS, featured what has been described as the most stirring concert of President Barack Obama's administration.

Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Smokey Robinson, Natalie Cole, John Mellencamp, Yolanda Adams and Jennifer Hudson were among the performers. The show concluded with the nation's first African-American president taking the stage to join most of the singers for "Lift Every Voice and Sing," aka the Black National Anthem.

Dylan's performance was the first of his long career at the White House. An audio version is available here.

According to the White House, the concert will be televised Thursday, February 11, at 8:00 p.m. ET on public broadcasting stations nationwide as part of WETA Washington, D.C.’s “In Performance at the White House” series. NPR will also produce a one-hour concert special from this event for broadcast nationwide on NPR Member stations throughout the month of February, beginning February 12th.

Posted by Paul West at 8:50 AM | | Comments (0)

February 9, 2010

Bonds between lawmakers

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller railed against so-called “bond bills” this morning saying, “I’d prefer we don’t do them quite frankly” and “In past years when we had tough times we didn’t have the bond bills.”

The bond bills are essentially the state-level version of federal earmarks. The state legislature gets to dole out $15 million to favorite projects. Each chamber allocates $7.5 million.

Miller, a Democrat, blamed the House for initiating the bond bills this year, saying the members of that body are “newer” and “younger” and “they want to be able to deliver for their districts.”

“I think the [state] senators are more comfortable in their skins," Miller said. "They tend to look at the budget from a longer point of view.”

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, had a different take. He stopped by our office and explained that during the first two weeks of the session he considered not having any bond bills at all.

“We had a discussion,” he said. “It was split.” His staff found that roughly 60 bond bills had already been introduced – including requests from both parties.

Then he noticed there was one in from Miller.

“We saw that Miller put on in personally,” Busch said. “We took our lead from the Senate.”

A quick bill search reveals Miller wants $250,000 to renovate a field in Chesapeake Beach and $500,000 for a community center in Prince George’s County.

To be fair, Busch also has a bond bill. He wants $200,000 to repair the William Paca House in Annapolis.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 6:22 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: General Assembly 2010

Hoyer: Ernest Morgan Can Meet "Hellacious" Task of Plowing Maryland Snow

House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer offered praise today for the efforts of Maryland road crews in clearing highways in and around his southern Maryland district.

Speaking with reporters at his Capitol office, after meeting with President Barack Obama, Hoyer said that Congress would consider providing federal disaster assistance to the District of Columbia, which isn't a state and thus cannot apply for aid like Maryland can.

He defended the decision of his former aide, John Berry, now director of the Office of Personnel Management, to close the federal bureaucracy in the D.C. area, which could draw criticism from taxpayers, in other parts of the country, unhappy about the cost of a shutdown--$100 million a day, and counting.

And the congressman also recommended Ernest Morgan, a farmer who lives across from Hoyer's house in Mechanicsville, as a guy who can do the job of clearing snow, which Hoyer called a "hellacious challenge" for local, county and state governments.

A transcript of the exchange, after the jump:

Question: The Federal Government has been closed now for 2 days, probably about to be closed for another 2 days because of this storm. It costs about $100 million every time the Federal Government closes. What do you think about that? I know that there are going to be a lot of people outside of Washington who think Federal workers, you know, they get these nice cushy days off whenever the weather gets bad. What do you say to the folks like that?

Mr. Hoyer. This isn't a storm of 1 or 2 inches. The problem is not so much when you get out to a main road moving in and out. The problem is getting out. It is not -- as a matter of fact I live in a rural area. I have a driveway that is a little over a thousand feet along and I have a wonderful guy named Ernest Morgan who lives across the street from me who is a farmer. And he has a wonderful tractor with a blade on the front and a blade on the back and he really takes care of me.

Everybody doesn't have that. And nobody is parked on my driveway. So he gets in and out and it takes him 15 or 20 minutes to do that. If you will talk to me after the (press conference), I'll get a whole itinerary of what Ernest can do for all of you at a reasonable price, I'm sure. We have a number of avenues now that he is going to be on.

You know, as I said, this is a historic -- this is not a a little storm. This is not just deciding that oh, gee there is a little bit of slippery weather out there. It is a major -- if you are just driving down the secondary streets here, there may be a lane, but some cars are buried.

Some cars have dug themselves out and having trouble getting back into parking. It is a hellacious challenge for municipal -- for anybody who is charged with the responsibility of clearing these roads.

I think they have done an excellent job in southern Maryland on the main roads. I think they have done a decent job -- one of the problems the further north you get the more traffic you get and the more difficult it is and you get more snow. So yes, it is costly. I think probably John Berry (a former Hoyer aide who runs the U.S. Office of Personnel Management) made the correct decision in terms of safety.

You know traffic, this is the second worst traffic in the United States here. And you can imagine when it rains we have a tough time because people slow down and they are worried about skidding and stuff like that. And that's when all the lanes are open.

Now in many of these areas you have one lane where there were three or two lanes where there were four or maybe three, it is a real challenge. It is easy to second guess people.

Schools are obviously closed down because they are very concerned about safety of kids getting on buses and getting to the buses. But pretty soon, everybody is going to be stir crazy and they are going to be -- maybe they are now.

Q I've got to ask --

Mr. Hoyer. You had a question.

Q Why can't we sleigh ride down the Hill in back of the Capitol? The cops came out there and stopped the sledders in the back of the Capitol. We have always been able to sleigh ride.

Mr. Hoyer. I don't know the answer to that question. I know there was a resolution to use the Hill for the soap box derby. But who knows?

Posted by Paul West at 5:10 PM | | Comments (0)

Cardin and Co. on Tour--Round up the Usual Suspects

As promised, here's the identity of the Maryland lawmaker who won't be suffering through the Great Digout of 2010: Ben Cardin.

The Democratic senator from Baltimore will soon be winging his way to Europe and the Mediterranean on a nine-day official mission.

Cardin chairs an international commission on security and cooperation in Europe, which holds hearings and issues reports about human rights and other issues related to the 1975 Helsinki Accords.

The Maryland Democrat is a serious legislator, so we seriously doubt he'll be enjoying himself extra-curricularly on the journey, which includes stops in Spain and Morocco, in addition to Vienna, where the organization has its main office.

A total of 18 senators and congressman are members of the group, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Informally, it's the Helsinki Commission, named for the site of the Cold War-era meeting in Finland, which the group grew out of in 1976.

Seven American commissioners are scheduled to make the trip, including the non-voting delegate from American Samoa, Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, who owes his seat on the plane to the Speaker of the House, Baltimore's own Nancy Pelosi.

Cardin's sidekick on the commission, and at the trip's main stop, in Austria, is co-chairman Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat better known for his inglorious past.

As a federal judge, Hastings was impeached by the House in 1989 and convicted by the Senate for conspiring to extort a $150,000 bribe in a case that he was hearing, lying about the matter under oath and falsifying evidence at his trial.

His response to losing his lifetime seat on the federal bench was to run for, and win, a lifetime seat in the House that impeached him. Hastings' lengthy bio on his official website
points out that many people still call him "Judge," but for some reason that stuff about getting impeached doesn't get mentioned.

Three other members of Congress who apparently have no worries about re-election in a tough election year--a pair of southern Republicans and a California Democrat--will also be in they traveling party. Plus the delegate from American Samoa.

Again, we know that Cardin is all business, but just in case he even owns a bathing suit, the weather in Morocco at this time of year runs in the 60s during the day and the 50s at night, so it might be a bit chilly for a swim in an unheated pool. But like we real chance of that happening.

Here the official release from the commission:

Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission) will lead a Congressional delegation Feb. 11-20 to the Winter Meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly in Austria, with stops for business meetings in Morocco and Spain.

The delegation will hold bilateral meetings in Morocco and Spain promoting increased cooperation in the fields of security, counter-terrorism and Mediterranean engagement and trade.

In Vienna, the U.S. delegation will join about 240 parliamentarians at the Winter Meeting, the second-largest gathering of the year for the 56-country organization. This year’s meeting will put a special focus on Afghanistan. The delegation will meet with senior OSCE officials and parliamentary counterparts from Russia.

Senator Cardin is vice president of the Parliamentary Assembly. Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), who serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs will join the delegation in Vienna. Congressman Robert B. Aderholt (R-AL) is vice chair of the Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions-- one of the Assembly’s three general committees at which members will participate.

The U.S. delegation includes:

Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD),
Commissioner Senator Roger F. Wicker (R-MS),
Commissioner Representative Robert B. Aderholt (R-AL),
Delegate Eni F.H. Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa)
Representative Laura Richardson (D-CA)

Posted by Paul West at 4:36 PM | | Comments (0)

Updated: Your Congress at work (barely)

Congress has basically checked out for the week. Make that two.

There will be no roll-call votes in the House this week, and then, of course, there's the all-important President's Day holiday week (er, "district work period," for those who aren't junketing abroad).

The Senate did hold a session, and 85 senators were on hand to vote, including both Marylanders (the scheduled 5 p.m. roll call was moved up an hour because of the weather). Prospects for further Senate action this week, however, appear dim.

Over the House, it's all over but the shouting (to the staffer whose job it is to drive the congressman or woman to National Airport for that all-important flight out of town) .

Here's the word, from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland:

"As a result of the inclement weather affecting Members’ ability to travel to Washington, DC this week, there will be no votes in the House for the remainder of the week. The change this week means that we will add two days to the schedule as we look to take action on a jobs bill and other critical measures. Therefore, the House will reconvene on Monday, February 22, one day earlier than previously scheduled."

Typical of the business that did get conducted (as opposed to the stuff that got postponed, which was almost everything) was Tuesday's morning's hearing of the Senate Budget committee.

Sen. Kent Conrad, the chairman, was there. He's from North Dakota, so he's no stranger to tough winter weather. Unlike many senators, he's on the job in D.C. (Updated: Earlier version erroneously confused Conrad with fellow North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan).

The Republican side was represented by Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who isn't up for re-election until 2014, so he doesn't have to scurry home every weekend to protect his seat. Among those who didn't manage to show up: snowhardy Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire (a lame duck, so why bother?).

Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island were also present. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, who sits on the panel, was bouncing back and forth between the Environment & Public Works Committee and the Budget Committee hearings today, his staff said.

Among the witnesses: Dr. Carmen Reinhart, an economist at the University of Maryland, who didn't have to travel too far to get to Capitol Hill.

The topic at hand is the daunting long-term deficit crisis facing the United States. "Truly dire," said Conrad.

But never far from everyone's mind was the snow.

Alabama's Sessions, interrupting the proceedings to recognize some visiting Alabama students, one of whom was wearing a University of Alabama hat ("That's the number one football team in America," the senator reminded the largely empty hearing room), and pointing out that they were having to deal with the snow during their class visit to Washington.

One of the expert witnesses, economist Donald Marron, reached for a timely metaphor in warning the sparse representation of senators about the danger that Washington's failure to stanch the flow of red ink would lead to bigger problems in the future.

A "snowballing effect," said the former member of President George W. Bush's Council of Economic Advisers.

Over on the other side of the Capitol, Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland is in the House. Literally. As the presiding order--conveniently, on a potential snow day, from nearby Prince George's County--she gaveled the House to order shortly after noon. A few minutes of blah blah ensued, and the House recessed until 2 p.m. for more of its pro forma session. No legislative business will be transacted for the next 13 days.

Posted by Paul West at 1:52 PM | | Comments (0)

Attn. Snowbound Shut-ins--Major online concert tonite: Bob Dylan, Jennifer Hudson, Natalie Cole and more

At 8 p.m. tonight, the White House website will live-stream a concert from the East Room, featuring major musical performers and top-drawer celebs. The Black History Month concert, a tribute to America's civil rights movement, was scheduled for later this week but moved up to this evening because of the impending snow storm.

Here's the lineup, according to the White House (it wouldn't be a shock if some performers don't appear, since they weren't originally supposed to be in Washington today).

They are, in alphabetical order: Yolanda Adams, Joan Baez, Natalie Cole, Bob Dylan, Jennifer Hudson, John Legend, John Mellencamp, Smokey Robinson, Seal, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Howard University Choir, and The Freedom Singers, featuring Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, Rutha Harris, Charles Neblett and Toshi Reagon.

Guest speakers include Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Queen Latifah. President Barack Obama is the emcee.

The show will feature songs from the Civil Rights Movement and readings from Civil Rights speeches and writings.

Those who aren't in-the-know online here at Maryland Politics will be forced to wait until Thursday, when the program is televised at 8:00 p.m. on public broadcasting stations as part of the "In Performance at the White House" series.

In addition, NPR will produce a one-hour concert special from the event for broadcast nationwide on NPR Member stations throughout the month of February, beginning February 12th. The special will be available on

Posted by Paul West at 12:33 PM | | Comments (2)

February 8, 2010

Update: Washington Getting Ready to Shut Down again Tuesday

Federal agencies in the Washington area will be closed for a second straight day Tuesday, the Office of Personnel Management announced Monday evening.

Congress was hoping to be back in business Tuesday, despite a curtailed schedule and postponements caused by last weekend’s storm. But even that brave plan was unraveling as predictions of another wintry wallop caused cooler heads to prevail.

House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer announced late Monday that the House of Representatives, which was expecting to begin doing real business Tuesday evening, had canceled all roll call votes for the day.

"We remain focused on completing our work for the week, but will assess the state of the weather tomorrow (Tuesday) and move forward accordingly," Hoyer said in a statement.

With predictions of 10 to 20 inches of snow in the capital region, Congress will be lucky to get anything done this week before.....their next vacation, which is next week! (The all-important Presidents Day break, in which snow-battered politicians will head for some of the sunniest spots on Earth--watch this spot tomorrow for news about where one of Maryland's leading elected officials will be globe-trotting).

Even before the snow forecasts grew more dire, senators had pushed their weekly policy lunches, usually held on Tuesday, back to Wednesday. That was just one indication that many senators might not make it back to Washington by noon--if at all.

Several Senate committees that had hearings planned have postponed them. At 5 p.m. Tuesday, the Senate is scheduled to hold two roll-call votes, on the confirmation of an appeals court nominee from New Jersey and to end a Republican filibuster over the nomination of Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. We'll see if that happens.

Hoyer was to hold his weekly press conference on Tuesday afternoon, instead of in the morning as previously announced. The House did not meet on Monday and is scheduled to go into session Tuesday afternoon. But with a very light slate of committee hearings and no votes to worry about, it's likely that many congressmen will take a snow day.

House activity could be further curtailed because of the death Monday of one of its most powerful members, Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Posted by Paul West at 7:56 PM | | Comments (0)

Annapolis Back In Business

The state's capital produces enough hot air to melt even the fiercest of snowstorms. The Statehouse is open for business Tuesday, says Alexandra Hughes, a spokeswoman for Speaker Busch. Also, Hughes promises, committees will be meeting.

Our advice: Prepare yourselves for snow-laden metaphors and analogies from the floor. We are betting the lawmakers can’t help themselves.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 2:22 PM | | Comments (0)

Your Federal Government (not) At Work

Annapolis isn't the only place where politics is taking a snow holiday.

Washington is almost totally shut down, two days after the snow stopped falling. Downtown streets and sidewalks, in many cases, remain snow-clogged. City snow-clearing crews are nowhere to be seen.

Many businesses remain closed. The Metro subway, which kept underground service running during the storm, hasn't seen fit to move above ground yet. The underground service, like this weekend's subway service in Baltimore, is running every 30 minutes, instead of the usual six. Downtown Circulator buses are running, and Metro bus service is operating on emergency routes only. Traffic is extremely sparse.

President Barack Obama has hunkered down at the White House, meeting with aides and, this afternoon, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Nothing public is on his schedule, thus far. Vice President Joe Biden, who spent the weekend vacationing with his family in Colorado ski country, has nothing on his schedule other than his trip back to DC today. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs' daily briefing was canceled.

Congress, it goes without saying, isn't meeting. But that's hardly unusual. This is a Monday and Congress typically takes Mondays and Fridays off so they can be home campaigning. But even the home events aren't happening for Marylanders. Sen. Ben Cardin, who was scheduled to visit the University of Maryland BioPark, to talk jobs with Baltimore City Community College students, canceled the event.

If Tuesday's storm delivers the expected 6-plus inches, it could all but wipe out the rest of the week.

Posted by Paul West at 10:31 AM | | Comments (2)

Corked: Popular direct-shipping bill likely a no-go

An effort to allow Marylanders to have wine shipped to their homes has more support than ever, as evidenced by the 100-plus legislators who co-signed this year's bill.

But the proposal must clear the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, and the chairwoman tells The Sun that's not going to happen. Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, says she is concerned about minors signing for the bottles and the potential problems enforcing state laws and tax collection when an out-of-state vendor is involved.

Still, she acknowledges that direct shipping is "conceptually... a good thing." Maryland is one of just a dozen or so states that ban direct-shipping, a Prohibition-era rule.

Affectionately known nationally as the "Free the Grapes" campaign, direct shipping is sure to draw a lively crowd when the Senate hearing is scheduled.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 10:13 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: General Assembly 2010

February 7, 2010

Climate change in Annapolis.

We’ve been regaled with tales of State House fortitude in the face of wintry conditions since being assigned to cover Annapolis. The General Assembly session, lawmakers assured us, has NEVER been cancelled for snow. (We have research request into Baltimore Sun library to check this fact.)  
But Sunday at 11:58 a.m. this message arrived on our BlackBerries from Speaker Busch’s Communications Director Alexandra Hughes:

“The Presiding Officers have decided that the 8pm session of the Maryland General Assembly is cancelled for Monday, February 8, 2010, due to potential icy conditions.”

In Baltimore, however, it’s All Systems Go. The communications director for new Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sent out an email at 3:21 p.m. Sunday saying “City Government Offices Open for Business Monday.” City work will start at 10 a.m., writes spokesman Ryan O’Doherty.

But it is unclear how many will be at work, SRB says that “nonessential employees” are on “liberal leave.” (We are extremely curious to see who and how many put themselves in this category as the city prepares to lop millions from its budget.)

**UPDATE** Former Sun Editor Howard Libit wrote us Sunday night to say YES YES YES  the General Assembly has been closed. It shut down during the last big snowstorm of 2003. The Sun covered it and the story was written (eh hem) by our current editor David Nitkin (sorry boss). Nitikin's fantastic story is posted after the jump. 

In other news, The Sun’s Jill Rosen had a great story on the politics of snow.

The Baltimore Sun

February 18, 2003 Tuesday FINAL Edition

General Assembly shuts down for day;
First cancellation in decades, but with little impact on business;

BYLINE: David Nitkin



LENGTH: 679 words

The carefully constructed timetable of the Maryland General Assembly was disrupted yesterday by a cascade of snow that closed the doors to the House and Senate chambers for the first time in anyone's memory.

Rather than force lawmakers to risk treacherous roads as they returned to Annapolis from all corners of the state, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch canceled the legislative session that was supposed to convene at 8 p.m.

While definitive word was not available yesterday, it appeared to be the first time in at least 40 years that both chambers failed to meet as scheduled.

"I don't recall the session ever being canceled," said Del. John S. Arnick of Dundalk, first elected in 1966. "There's some rumor that it was once, but I just don't recall."

"I can remember once sitting on the House floor and pushing the button 'present' until we got to (a quorum of) 71," the Baltimore County Democrat said. "And then we immediately opened the session, and then adjourned right away and went home."

Miller, a careful student of Maryland history, said the Senate had been called off just twice in the past three decades - once during his tenure, and previously when U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer was Senate president, from 1975 to 1979.

But during both of those occasions, Arnick said, "I think the House side stayed."

Reached at home as he shoveled his driveway, state archivist Edward C. Papenfuse said he could not immediately say when the last time weather or other events caused the two chambers to remain closed.

Maryland's last big winter storm, in 1996, hit in the days before the Assembly opened for the year and did not cause a delay.

Even though the Assembly operates on a strict 90-day schedule - for example, a budget is supposed to be passed by both chambers on the 83rd day, which is March 31 - yesterday's postponement caused only minor disruption.

Monday is typically a travel day for lawmakers, returning to Annapolis after spending the weekend with their families. Bill hearings aren't usually held Mondays, and most committees don't meet.

"If the snow had occurred on any weekday, we wouldn't have canceled it," Miller said, because legislators would have been in town. "The sessions were designed this way before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was built. It's a citizen legislature, and we encourage people to go home as much as possible."

So while some are predicting that a budget battle and disagreement over legalizing slot machines will send the Assembly into overtime, this snow won't be a contributing factor to an extended session.

"If it were a Wednesday or Thursday, it would be a bigger deal," said Del. Alfred W. Redmer, the House Republican leader from Perry Hall, who canceled a GOP caucus scheduled for 8:30 a.m. today. "If it were the middle of March, it would be a bigger deal."

Today, the presiding officers have scheduled the Senate and House to meet two hours later than normal, at noon.

The snowfall delay came as relief to lawmakers with the longest commutes to Annapolis, although they found much to do to fill their day.

Del. George C. Edwards, a Garrett County Republican, lives farther from the capital than any of his colleagues. He cleared his driveway twice Sunday and again yesterday to prepare to come east, he said, removing 49 inches of snow.

Instead of driving, he spent some time in a convenience store he owns and did bookkeeping.

Del. Norman H. Conway of Salisbury doubted he could have made it over the Bay Bridge. Icy roads in Dorchester and Queen Anne's counties were impassable, the Democrat said. So he hunkered down at his dining room table and rolled up his sleeves.

"I'm working on a whole host of things," Conway said. "You name it and I'm working on it."

Miller used the day to replenish his energy. A reporter reached him in the den of his Calvert County home, light years removed from the business of the state.

"I've got a fireplace going, reading a book and watching a Humphrey Bogart movie," he said. "It doesn't get much better than that."


Posted by Annie Linskey at 4:13 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: General Assembly 2010

February 5, 2010

Senator: Governor's plan to cut unemployment tax appears doomed; other provisions OK

One of Gov. Martin O'Malley's signature efforts this year -- a plan to cut the hefty unemployment-benefits taxes paid by businesses -- has not gained the support of the business community, despite weeks of talks, a senator said today.

"I don't think the tax cut is going to be a reality," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Democrat who has been in numerous discussions with business groups, the governor's office, labor and other stakeholders. "That's my gut feeling. We're moving away from it."

Middleton, who heads the Senate Finance Committee and the Unemployment Insurance Fund Task Force, had given the work group a deadline of today to reach a consensus, though he says talks will continue on early next week.

"We're running out of time," he said. The state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation must tell businesses how much in unemployment insurance they need to pay this year in letters that typically go out March 1.

The O'Malley plan would increase the number of out-of-work Marylanders eligible for benefits so that the state can apply for nearly $127 million in federal stimulus money to prop up the depleted unemployment-insurance fund that businesses pay into through a tax formula. The governor proposed using $83 million of the federal money to reduce the taxes paid by businesses.

Business groups, including the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and Maryland Retailers Association, have said the one-time cash infusion would be quickly outweighed by the permanent costs -- estimated at about $20 million annually -- that come with the required increase in benefits.

Middleton said new problems have emerged in discussions.

For one, he said, most business groups would prefer to keep all of the federal money in the fund rather than using any of it to cut their taxes, believing that a healthy fund is more important than rate relief. And before they would sign onto the effort to go after federal money, the business groups would need assurance that the cost of the new benefits would be offset by cutting some existing benefits. Middleton said all of the stakeholders are furiously researching what cuts could be made.

Moreover, the senator said, businesses dislike the idea of tapping federal stimulus money altogether. To reach a deal, Middleton said, the business groups "need to get over the feeling that stimulus money is bad... Right now they're saying, 'We don't want anything to do with the federal stimulus.'"

Aides to the governor remain hopeful, and the discussion continues.

"We are actively working with employers to reach a consensus on the remaining issue -- rate relief -- and will do so as long as people are willing to talk," said Joseph Bryce, O'Malley's chief legislative officer. "We’re all pulling in the same direction and trying to help ease the burden on employers."

Meanwhile, other parts of the governor's unemployment-insurance proposal, including spreading out the payments and reducing interest for late payments, have gained broad support and appear poised for passage by lawmakers, Middleton and Bryce said.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 1:57 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: General Assembly 2010

February 4, 2010

Obama: If this is Friday, it must be Maryland

Last Friday, President Barack Obama traveled to Maryland and advertised his desire to help small businesses, about as close to an apple pie issue as exists in American politics today. He donned safety glasses, toured a Highlandtown machine shop and, with those industrial devices as a photogenic backdrop, flogged his plan to give business owners a tax break for hiring new workers.

This Friday, Obama is traveling . . . to Maryland. He plans to visit . . . a small business. The purpose of the trip is to advertise . . . . his desire to help small businesses.

Hey, it's one of the secrets to success in politics: find a message, stick to it, and repeat it, over and over, and hope that it'll sink in. 2010 is an election year, after all.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that Obama, on this week's Maryland stop, will "talk about some of the issues that we've talked about relating to small business -- tax cuts, increased lending, getting our economy moving again."

The venue this time will be closer to the White House: the Maryland suburbs of Washington--specifically, Lanham in Prince George's County, which straddles the D.C. beltway. As you recall, the main objective of Obama's Baltimore trip was to meet with House Republicans, who were holding a retreat at the Inner Harbor. The small-business-jobs-promotion stop was an add-on.

Still, it's Friday. And Obama is visiting Maryland. Again.

Perhaps it's the state's reward for Virginia's recent decision to replace its Democratic governor, a close Obama ally, with a Republican. And Gov. Martin O'Malley, whom Obama seems to like, may have a race on his hands, so anything the president does that might rub off on a key Democratic candidate probably doesn't hurt.

The latest Obama jobs event, like the one in Baltimore, is not open to the public. It is scheduled for just after noon, weather permitting. Same routine: a tour of the business, followed by a short speech.

A wild card is the near-panic brought on by the prospect of heavy snow. It will be interesting to see if Obama's motorcade plays havoc with the thousands of folks in the Washington area trying for an early escape from work as the snowflakes start to fall.

Before Obama gets to Lanham, he is scheduled to travel to the Northern Virginia suburbs, for a memorial service honoring CIA employees killed in a recent terrorist attack on a CIA station in Afghanistan.

After his Maryland stop, Obama is due back at the White House for another presidential ceremony -- in honor of the 2009 Little League World Champions from Chula Vista, California.

All in a snowy day's work. See you next Friday.

Posted by Paul West at 7:53 PM | | Comments (0)

Jockey Club says it can stop Arundel Mills casino

A coalition that includes the Maryland Jockey Club says it has submitted more than enough signatures to send a recent county zoning decision allowing a slot-machine emporium at Arundel Mills Mall to referendum -- meaning that voters might be able to reject it.

The Jockey Club, which partnered with resident activist groups to collect the necessary 18,790 signatures, says it has nearly 24,000. Tomorrow is the due date for at least half the signatures.

Those signatures must be verified by the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections before the zoning measure can be placed on the November ballot.

"Without question, there is overwhelming opposition by Anne Arundel County citizens to placing a casino at Arundel Mills Mall," Rob Annicelli, President of the citizens group Stop Slots at Arundel Mills, said in a Jockey Club news release. "The mall is not the right location for a slots casino and is not in the best interests of the citizens of Anne Arundel County. I would like to thank the volunteers and ask them to continue to collect signatures until the Board of Elections certifies the petition question."

The Jockey Club has been active in trying to stop a 4,750-machine facility planned by Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. Along with the bankrupt Magna Entertainment, the club bid on the sole Anne Arundel license, but the application was tossed from the competition because they failed to submit all of the necessary fees.

Horse racing officials have warned putting a casino at the mall would spell financial ruin for Laurel Park race track, which they say needs slot machines to stay viable. Presenting the track as marketable is of critical importance: It is up for sale. The auction has been delayed several times, and it's unclear this afternoon what further effect the petition could have.

David Cordish has already started the permitting process for building on a parking lot near the Arundel Mills food court. He has said that he expects the signature drive to fail.

Developing story. See Nicole Fuller's coverage in tomorrow's Baltimore Sun for more details.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 4:22 PM | | Comments (12)
Categories: Slots

Lawmakers turn down raises for themselves and gov

This comes as no surprise, but lawmakers today officially rejected salary increases.

A House of Delegates committee unanimously voted down the recommendations of two independent commissions that called for moderate pay raises in about three years.

Most of the state lawmakers make $43,500 yearly; the House speaker and Senate president earn $56,500 each. The governor’s salary is $150,000, and the lieutenant governor’s is $125,000. The commissions meet only once every four years, meaning that the salaries of those elected officials are to remain the same until 2015. That will make for eight years without raises.

General Assembly Commission Chairman Sean W. Glynn said the recommendation for small pay increases for lawmakers reflected a desire to be “sensitive” by balancing current issues, such as pay freezes for state workers, with the infrequent salary reviews.

However, Gov. Martin O’Malley and the two legislative leaders quickly declared they weren’t interested in pay raises.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 2:59 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: General Assembly 2010

MD Dem Party claim: Ehrlich violated FCC rules

Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. -- who may rematch Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley this fall -- violated the "payola rules" during a segment last year on WBFF-Fox 45, the Maryland Democratic Party says in a complaint delivered today to the Federal Communications Commission.

Ehrlich, a regular on the station's "Political Pulse" show, discussed Baltimore-based Cordish's bid for the Anne Arundel County slot-machine facility license in an appearance April 3. But he did not disclose that his firm, Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, had been hired by Cordish to build support for the company's license, the Democrats say.

At the time, Magna was battling to stay in the game. The Canadian company had also applied for the license, but failed to submit all of the required fees. The license was awarded in December to Cordish.

In the letter to the FCC, the Democrats quote the former governor as saying on the Fox 45 show: "We have one applicant, Cordish obviously, that followed the law, that dotted their i's, crossed their t's, and Magna did not, which is why they are now the lone applicant in Anne Arundel County."

Ehrlich, the Democrats say, "was obligated to inform the station of the fact that he was being paid to promote the position of the Cordish Company and ... the station was obligated to disclose that fact to its viewers."

Since leaving Annapolis in 2007, Ehrlich -- a longtime slots proponent -- and several of his associates, including former communications director Paul Schurick, have been employed in Baltimore by Womble.

Jon Cordish told The Baltimore Sun in March that Schurick "and his Womble communications team" had been hired to help with community relations for the Arundel site, though Cordish noted that Ehrlich himself had not been hired.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell, also now at Womble, says the Democrats' claim "does not deserve the dignity of a response." He said the party frequently dispatches letters to Ehrlich and "anyone who will listen" pointing out what they see as wrongdoings.

"The Democratic Party is paid to feign outrage and to try to invent boogeymen," Fawell said, citing the FCC letter as an example of that. "The problem is, they're not very good at it. I'd encourage them to keep their training wheels on."

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 10:59 AM | | Comments (30)

Rewrite the Maryland Constitution? It's up to you.

Here's one reason to read all the way to the end of the ballot when you vote this November.

Maryland voters will choose a governor and all 188 state lawmakers this fall, but they'll also likely face an even weightier decision: Should the state constitution be ripped up and rewritten?

Every 20 years, state lawmakers are required to pass legislation placing a "constitutional convention question" on the ballot. The bill is expected to win easy approval because, as Assistant Attorney General Dan Friedman told lawmakers on Wednesday, "You really don't have a choice."

Once the question is on the ballot, it has a long record of going nowhere - just one has been called since 1867, and the document produced was rejected. But some wonder if citizen activist groups might be able to rally enough support this year for rewriting the state's governing laws.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pan the idea of a convention, though they acknowledge that it's their duty to pose the question to voters.

Some citizen groups have already begun rallying for a convention. Here's a recent opinion piece, published in The Baltimore Sun, that explores some of the pros of a constitutional update by citizens.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 9:56 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: General Assembly 2010

February 3, 2010

Effort to block gay marriage blocked

Maryland lawmakers just rejected an effort to prohibit the state from recognizing same-sex marriages lawfully performed elsewhere.

Del. Emmett C. Burns, a Baltimore County Democrat and minister, had proposed that the state, which does not allow same-sex unions, pass a law explicitly declaring that such marriages are illegal, even when performed in another state.

The Burns proposal was seen as a pre-emptive strike against a legal opinion that state Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has been working on since a senator requested it last year. Top lawmakers have predicted that Gansler will allow same-sex marriages to be recognized in Maryland, following the state’s legal tradition of recognizing unions, including common-law marriages, that are illegal in Maryland but lawful elsewhere.

Burns had said that with a growing number of nearby states and Washington giving the green-light to gay marriage, it was especially important for Maryland to close what he called a legal loophole.

By a 12-8 vote, the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee decided to give the bill an unfavorable report, dooming it.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 5:12 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: General Assembly 2010

Babs and Barry: We'll always have Baltimore

President Barack Obama is addressing Democratic senators right now, following on his boffo Inner Harbor encounter with House Republicans last week.

Like the Republican Q&A session, there's more than a bit of political structure to the Dem event. The first senators who got a chance to stand and address the president just happen to be those who face difficult re-election fights this year--Specter of Pennsylvania, Bennet of Colorado, Lincoln of Arkansas, Boxer of California, Gillibrand of New York.

Maryland's senators were not among the questioners, but that didn't mean they both merely sat silently and listened (Ben Cardin grabbed a front-row seat).

As Obama was running through a bunch of the places he's been recently--to escape the evil influences of Washington and get out in the Real America, where he could interact with ordinary people--he got some help from a female voice in the audience, that sounded suspiciously like the Free State's senior senator, before he could get around to mentioning his recent Maryland visit.

"Baltimore!" piped up Mikulski, who had been on hand for the president's tour of a Highlandtown machine shop on Friday.

"Baltimore," responded Obama. "Had a great time in Baltimore."

Posted by Paul West at 11:06 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Candidate Watch 2010

February 2, 2010

States of the State: A Retrospective

Gov. Martin O'Malley has now delivered four years' worth of State of the State addresses. I've mined the Baltimore Sun archives for highlights from previous years. Let's start with the one he delivered at noon today:

Quotable line: “... A dark thing that has penetrated deep into our collective soul ... that somehow we are destined to decline, backslide and fail.”
Notable theme: Jobs, jobs. jobs. About 30 mentions, in fact.
Republican reaction: “There seemed to be a disconnect with sincerity and a disconnect with reality,” said Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell, the House of Delegates minority leader. “People have struggled mightily over the past three or four years, as he has raised every kind of tax imaginable. And now he wants sympathy and to form some kind of bond with those people?”
Full speech
Note: has created a snazzy word cloud with this year's speech.

Quotable line: "Two reasons. Barack ... Obama." O'Malley delivered that line as he told lawmakers the final budget they consider in April will likely be better than the one he submitted to them.
Notable theme: The new president will help us.
Republican reaction: Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman described the address as "the most partisan speech I have ever seen from the State of the State." Del. Warren E. Miller, a Howard County Republican, called the address "heavy on partisan rhetoric, light on relief for our taxpayers."
Full speech

Quotable line: "The people of our state deserve a state government that works as hard as they do."
Notable theme: "The most important days in life are not always the easy days," he said three times in his address, acknowledging the pain many Marylanders are feeling from a slowing economy and the state's efforts to balance its budget.
Republican reaction: Del. Christopher B. Shank, a Western Maryland Republican and the minority whip, said O'Malley was right to say Marylanders are hurting. "But what he failed to do is recognize that one of the reasons for the hurt is that he pushed one of the largest tax increases in Maryland's history through the General Assembly," Shank said.
Full speech

Quotable line: "We cannot resolve every unsettled issue in just 90 days, nor can we heal in 90 days divisions that were four years in the making. But we must do all that we can to maximize the effectiveness of this session and these four years for the people of our state."
Notable theme: Let's work together.
Republican reaction: Shank said O'Malley has taken no real steps to close the projected budget shortfall this year, and that will only make the problem worse next year. "It's setting the stage for a massive tax increase next session. I didn't follow the metaphor about bread and fishes, but it sounded like taxes to me."
Full speech

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 3:19 PM | | Comments (4)

Governor to address lawmakers in annual State of the State

At noon, Gov. Martin O'Malley will deliver the annual "State of the State," a speech expected to include lots of talk about protecting and creating jobs amid another year of a national down economy. The Democratic governor, like all 188 state lawmakers who will be in the House of Delegates chamber listening to him, is up for reelection this fall.

While the governor's office puts the finishing touches on this year's remarks, let's remind ourselves where we were last year. Here are the opening paragraphs of The Baltimore's Sun's coverage of the 2009 address:

Gov. Martin O'Malley charted a course for the state through a national recession yesterday, pledging to protect safety net programs, freeze college tuition and eradicate childhood hunger.

The Democratic governor laid out the vision in his third State of the State address before a joint session of the General Assembly, which must approve many of his plans. In a 30-minute speech, O'Malley said he "never felt more energized" despite bleak economic times, and repeatedly invoked President Barack Obama's name, drawing applause in the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature.

"Our great challenge for this session is to redouble our efforts, doing all we can to stand up for Maryland families and to power through the other side of this recession ahead of every other state," O'Malley said. "The very good news is that we actually have a president and a Congress who, rather than looking at government as the enemy, are committed to moving us forward."

This year, O'Malley has agreed to end his signature tuition freeze, instead backing a 3 percent increase now that he has achieved his goal of making college more affordable, he says. He may address this in today's speech.

And with the president's popularity declining and growing discontent with incumbent elected officials from both parties, it will be interesting to listen for how frequently O'Malley drops Obama's name -- and just how enthusiasticly lawmakers respond this time.

Sen. Allan Kittleman, a Howard County Republican and the Senate minority leader, will give his party's response immediately after O'Malley's address. Republicans have already put out a sort of preview of Kittleman's talking points, pointing out what they say is the "irony" of State of the State being delivered on Groundhog Day. (The speech was moved twice, first to accomodate the State of the Union and then to account for Baltimore's change in leadership, coming Thursday.)

Maryland citizens must feel like they live in a perpetual budget Groundhog Day under Governor O'Malley. For the fourth year in a row, Governor O'Malley introduced a budget plan that papers over deep deficit spending by one-time transfers, fund swaps and "found money."

Governor O'Malley continues to plug the hole in the dam instead of providing the long-term structural repairs that are needed to solve the state's gaping black hole of deficits. The next Governor will need to resolve over $8 billion of deficits caused by O'Malley's misguided budget policy.

To add insult to injury, these deficits were rolled up by O'Malley after he promised Maryland taxpayers that the 2007 special session historic tax hikes would solve Maryland's future deficits.

Check back shortly after noon for an update covering O'Malley's address.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 10:39 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: General Assembly 2010

February 1, 2010

Lawmakers hesitant to back governor's unemployment-insurance plan

Gov. Martin O'Malley wants to give businesses a break on their skyrocketing uenmployment-benefits taxes. But -- in somewhat of an odd twist -- businesses don't seem to want the help.

That's because, as they've told lawmakers, employers fear the long-term rate increases that come with O'Malley's proposal to tap into $127 million in federal stimulus cash. They say that expanding the pool of people who can access benefits, a requirement for receiving the federal money, will cost businesses about $20 million more per year in unemployment-benefits taxes.

But, as O'Malley's aides have pointed out to lawmakers, it seems clear that expanding benefits will soon be a federal requirement anyway. Even businesses groups like the Maryland Chamber of Commerce acknowldge that. So why not go after the money now, the governor's aides argue.

Many lawmakers have told me that they feel they're in an awkward spot: They think the governor's push for the federal dollars makes sense in lots of ways, but they don't want to ignore the will of the business community ... particularly in an election year.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Democrat who heads the Senate Finance Committee, puts it this way:

"The governor is very well-intentioned on this, and I think his ideas are good and make a lot of sense," he said. "But we don't know what's best for businesses. They do. And they really don't want this."

Senator James E. DeGrange, a Democrat on the Senate's budget committee, has similar concerns. In a letter to his constituents, dated Jan. 29, he wrote:

The Governor has offered a proposal that involves a short term infusion of federal money in exchange for long term structural changes to our unemployment insurance system. The proposal would secure $127 million for short term relief, but would raise long term unemployment insurance costs by 26% for businesses. The proposed changes would cost small businesses an additional $20 million annually.

That might solve the immediate problem, but it will create serious
problems down the road. Local business owners have contacted me to
express strong opposition to this idea - and I share their concerns.
Unemployment benefits provide an important hand up to people who need
it, but raising long term costs will not solve the problem. In fact,
that would cause small businesses to lay off employees. That's the last
thing any of us want in this economy.

So what's going to happen? Middleton has had numerous meetings with O'Malley officials, business leaders and labor representatives -- in fact, I hear they're talking again tomorrow morning -- to reach some kind of compromise on the governor's proposal.

The governor's office seems committed to working something out. As Joseph Bryce, O'Malley's chief legislative officer, told me last week: "The governor's goal was to do what we can to help businesses weather through a very difficult time... As long as people are willing to keep discussing the different options, we'll keep working on it."

Stay tuned.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 5:26 PM | | Comments (1)

Governor appoints sex offender advisory board

Gov. Martin O'Malley announced today the appointment of six members to the newly revived Sexual Offender Advisory Board, which had lain dormant since being established by law in 2006. Last week, he tapped former Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. as the board chairman. Curran, who is O'Malley's father-in-law, has studied sex offender reforms for years and favors civil commitments for certain predators.

From O'Malley's statement on the appointees:

"The new members of the Board announced today have one thing in common: a strong desire to protect our most vulnerable citizens – our children," said Governor O’Malley. “I am confident that their combined knowledge, background and expertise, and their advocacy of our legislation to impose the strictest standards of supervision of sex offenders will help strengthen our efforts to ensure that Maryland’s children are protected.”

The six are (with brief bios from governor's office):

Michele J. Hughes, Victims Advocacy Group – Ms. Hughes serves as the Executive Director of the Life Crisis Center, a non-profit, 24-hour facility which provides comprehensive support services to victims and child victims of domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore.

Annette L. Hanson, M.D., Mental Disorders Expert– Dr. Hanson is a Board Certified psychiatrist at the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, where she has worked since 1989.

Karla N. Smith, State’s Attorney – Ms. Smith is the Chief Attorney for the Family Violence Division of the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, where she is responsible for the prosecution of all child abuse, domestic violence, vulnerable adult abuse, and physical elder abuse cases.

David Walsh-Little, Esquire, Criminal Defense – Mr. Walsh-Little is an Assistant Public Defender in the Felony Trial Division of Baltimore City.

Laura Estupian-Kane, Ph.D., Sex Offender Treatment Provider – Dr. Estupian-Kane, a licensed psychologist, holds her own private psychology practice focusing on the assessment of adolescents who have committed sexual offenses and/or are involved with the juvenile court system.

J. Patricia Wilson Smoot, Citizen – Ms. Smoot is currently the Deputy State’s Attorney for Prince George’s County and has served in that role since December 2002.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 3:59 PM | | Comments (9)
Categories: General Assembly 2010

Larry Hogan bows out of race for governor

The leading Republican with clear plans to challenge Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley this fall has dropped out of the race.

Hogan said in a brief interview this afternoon that his conviction that Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is going to run led him to end his own exploratory bid. Ehrlich, for whom Hogan served as appointments secretary, has said recently that he'll make public his intentions in March, but probably not sooner.

"I have become convinced he's going to run," Hogan said. When I asked what led him to this conclusion, he replied, "I just believe it."

What happens if Ehrlich says in March that he's not going to run after all?

"I'll jump off that bridge when I come to it," Hogan replied, perhaps a bit too fatalistically.

Hogan revealed his decision in a long note posted today on his blog:

"Today I am officially concluding my exploratory committee and calling on my friend Bob Ehrlich to enter this race for governor. Not only do I believe that Bob Ehrlich should run, but I am convinced he will run and that we should all push in the same direction to elect him as Maryland's next governor."

Hogan had put up more than $300,000 of his own money to run his campaign, but he'd said all along that he had no interest in running if his former boss did. has said recently that he continues to mull whether to run in this heavily Democratic state. After one term in office, he lost his reelection bid to O'Malley in 2006.

(Baltimore Sun photo by Monica Lopossay / February 11, 2005)

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 12:39 PM | | Comments (20)
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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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