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May 31, 2011

Debt limit vote splits Md. Democrats

A proposal to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion debt limit without making significant cuts in federal spending failed in the House of Representatives Tuesday and split the Democratic members of Maryland's congressional delegation.

Reps. John Sarbanes, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Donna Edwards supported the proposal, while Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, Chris Van Hollen and Steny Hoyer opposed it. All are Democrats. The state's two Republicans, Reps. Andy Harris and Roscoe G. Bartlett, both voted against the bill.

The bill, which failed 97-318, was brought to the House floor by Republicans who acknowledged early in the debate that they would not support it. The measure was intended to put Democrats in a political bind by forcing them to vote on a "clean" debt limit measure without spending cuts -- an idea they initially favored.

Republicans have sought to pair any vote to raise the debt limit with spending cuts. By supporting the measure Tuesday, Democrats left themselves open to attack that they are not serious about federal spending. Seconds after the vote, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, used his Twitter account to blame Democrats for voting "blindly to raise the debt ceiling without real spending cuts."

Van Hollen, of Montgomery County, called the vote a "political stunt" and accused the GOP of "demagoguing the debt ceiling increase for political gain."

Edwards, who backed the measure, called the GOP move "irresponsible grandstanding."

All Republicans opposed the bill, but the Democratic caucus split, with 97 in favor, 82 opposed and seven voting present.

“Marylanders sent me to Congress to end Washington’s spending spree – to get the economy moving and build an environment for positive job growth,” Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, said in a statement. “A vote to yet again increase the debt limit without needed spending reductions would simply continue to kick the can down the road.”

The U.S. reached its debt ceiling May 16, but the Treasury Department has said it can continue to pay the nation's bills until Aug. 2. As the deadline approaches, the issue promises to consume Congress. Several bipartisan groups of lawmakers, meanwhile, are negotiating behind the scenes in search of a compromise.

The House vote followed similar political maneuvering by Senate Democrats last week. In that case, Democratic leaders forced a vote on a 2012 budget approved by House Republicans, even though many GOP senators opposed the spending plan. That budget, drafted by Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, includes a major overhaul of the Medicare program.

Posted by John Fritze at 7:47 PM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Washington
        

Balto. Co. development appointee meets council

New Baltimore County economic development director Daniel C. Gundersen hopes to tie up loose projects as he starts his new position.

He told the County Council on Tuesday that he plans to set priorities among a variety of projects, small and large-scale, ongoing and stagnant while addressing major concerns, such as the impending closure of Solo Cup Co., in Owings Mills.

“Moving forward there needs to be a strategic vision and a strategic plan that is well coordinated with all of the different offices of the county,” Gundersen said.

Councilman Tom Quirk said he does not want smaller retail development projects, such as those along Frederick Road in Catonsville, to get overlooked. Gundersen said that would not be the case.

“Economic development in my book is about all of the inputs to economic prosperity. Too often we look at economic development and we say it’s either industrial development, commercial development, [or] business park formation,” he said. “Economic development today is so much broader. … It’s also innovation and intellectual capital. What you’ll see in me is a willingness to work with others wherever they may be housed, in whatever office.”

The council is slated to confirm Gundersen’s appointment on Monday.

Posted by Raven Hill at 5:27 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore County
        

In-state tuition opponents: We have the signatures

Sun colleague Andrea Siegel reports:

Opponents of the new law to extend in-state tuition breaks to illegal immigrants say they are confident they have cleared their first hurdle in stopping the measure by collecting many more than the 18,500 valid signatures they needed by Tuesday to keep their repeal effort alive.

“We have over 40,000,” said Del. Neil C. Parrott, the Washington County Republican who is leading the petition drive to get the controversial law onto the 2012 ballot.

The opponents will need to submit about 56,000 valid signatures to the State Board of Elections by the end of June to suspend the legislation and give the voters the final say. They plan to collect many more, on the assumption that some will get thrown out.

They were required to gather a third of the total by Tuesday. Elections officials now will vet the first batch of signatures.

Organizers of mdpetitions.com credited their success so far to public opposition to the measure and an easy-to-use website. They said the volume of telephone calls from people asking for a petition to sign or circulate continues to grow.

“The reason this is resonating with voters is because they know this is a bad bill,” Parrott said.

Advocates for immigrants said they will step up efforts to counteract that message while they wait to see how many of the signatures filed Tuesday are accepted as valid. Statewide petition drives must meet minimums within each jurisdiction and statewide.

“The number is very impressive,” said Kim Propeack of the immigrant advocacy group CASA de Maryland. “It underscores that we need to do a better job during the month of June explaining about the benefits” of the law.

Propeack, CASA’s director of community organizing and political action, spoke of “replicating some of” the opponents’ methodology.

“We will be putting up a web site,” she said. “I also think that we will be engaging people at the places where they are signing people up.”

Propeack said opponents of the legislation are not describing it fairly. She said they tell people that illegal immigrants who earn degrees wouldn’t be able to work legally; the law requires that participants work to legalize their status.

She said opponents omit mention of the benefits to military families. The side also disagree on the cost to taxpayers.

“This is an education issue,” she said. “It is the best solution for the imperfect situation.”

The Democratic General Assembly approved the measure at the close of the 2011 legislative session in April, and Gov. Martin O’Malley signed it in May. A spokeswoman for O’Malley reiterated his support on Tuesday.

The governor supports people who are “willing to work hard for a better future in Maryland,” spokeswoman Takirra Winfield said.

Sen. Victor Ramirez, the Prince George’s County Democrat who sponsored the legislation in the Senate, echoed Propeack’s concern that opponents are not describing it accurately.

“Why are you taking it out on these kids?” he said. “At the end of the day it is very hard for them to fight back because they are in this situation.”

But Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a vocal critic of illegal immigration, said supporters of the legislation had “miscalculated.”

“For some reason believed they were on the side of the angels,” the Baltimore County Republican said.

While most of the early signers of the petition online were Republicans, he said, now about half are Democrats. He said organizers had gathered a significant number from African-Americans in Baltimore.

“The black community is exploding on this issue,” he said. He said there is a fear that youths will lose out on opportunities as a result of the bill.

To qualify for the break, an illegal immigrant would have to attend high school in Maryland for three years and show that his or her family had paid taxes to the state.

The student then could attend a community college at the in-state rate. After completing 60 credits, he or she could transfer to a four-year college, again at the residential discount.

The legislation would save eligible students from $4,000 to $6,000 per year at community college, according to a legislative analysis. At a four-year institution, the savings would increase: In-state tuition at the University of Maryland, College Park this year is $8,655; nonresidents pay $25,795.

Legislative analysts estimate the measure would cost the state about $800,000 in the first year, rising to $3.5 million annually by 2016. Opponents say the cost could be far higher.

Once opponents finish collecting signatures, McDonough said, they will turn their attention to filing a lawsuit to stop the law.

Opponents acknowledged the difficulty of getting the measure on the November 2012 ballot. Rules for petition drives are strict: To be counted, each signature must match or nearly match the exact name as it appears on the signer's voter registration card. The rejection rate is so high that the elections board advises petitioners to submit at least 30 percent more signatures than the required number.

Consequently, successful statewide petition efforts are relatively rare. A drive to repeal legislation enabling speed cameras two years ago fell short of the required signatures. Opponents of early voting gathered enough signatures in 2006 to get the question on the ballot, but the courts overturned the legislation, rendering the referendum moot.

A recent decision by the state’s highest court has been interpreted as easing the requirements for valid signatures. Under the interpretation, if the components of the voter’s full name as given on the registration card can be pieced together from the voter’s signature and printed name, it counts.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 5:06 PM | | Comments (72)
        

Former Secret Service agent to run for Senate

A former U.S. Secret Service agent from Severna Park who has served on President Barack Obama’s protective detail announced Tuesday he will seek the Republican nomination for Senate in Maryland.

Daniel Bongino, 36, who spent four years with the New York City Police Department before joining the Secret Service, said he felt compelled to leave his career in law enforcement because he feels the current political leadership in Washington is putting the country on the wrong path.

If he wins the GOP nomination, Bongino would likely face incumbent Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin in November.

“We’re doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different result,” Bongino said in an interview, adding that he would make education and the economy the focus of his campaign. “I hate labels, but I do tend to take the conservative position on economic issues because that’s what works.”

Bongino's campaign will be chaired by Brian Murphy, who ran a conservative challenge to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for the Republican gubernatorial nomination last year.

Bongino, who moved to Severna Park in 2002, said he is not intimidated by Maryland’s reputation as a blue state, or the Democrats’ two-to-one advantage in voter enrollment. Political observers, including the non-partisan Cook Political Report, predict that Cardin’s seat is safe for Democrats.

“Maryland’s not the blue state that everybody thinks it is,” Bongino said. “It’s hard to say conservatives can’t win if we’ve never run a real conservative.”

Bongino said he resigned from the Secret Service May 21 to think about running. Though the agency is fiercely non-political, Bongino would not be the first special agent to run for statewide office. Todd Lamb, the Republican lieutenant governor of Oklahoma, was also a former special agent.

Posted by John Fritze at 4:46 PM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Washington
        

May 30, 2011

Palin turns up in Baltimore

A day after embarking on a bus tour that one associate suggested was a way to see if her family is up to the rigors of a presidential campaign, Sarah Palin made a surprise visit Monday to Fort McHenry -- and rebuked President Barack Obama for a comment about the U.S. military.

Robin Abcarian of sister newspaper The Los Angeles Times describes the scene:

"Palin and her family followed Ranger Jim Bailey, dressed in the sweltering heat as an 1814 Army artillery officer, who gave them a tour of the battlefield in Baltimore and let Palin pick up a 36-pound cannonball.

"On their way out, Sarah and Todd Palin peered through glass at the original 1814 score for Francis Scott Key's 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'

"She stoked the mystery of whether she will run for president at each stop, saying several times that she is still "contemplating" a run. One associate, who was not authorized to speak for Palin, said he thinks that the trip is a way for the Palins to see whether they are up for the rigors of the campaign trail. (Her youngest child, Trig, 3, was not seen, nor did Tripp, the 2 ½-year-old son of her eldest daughter, Bristol, appear to be on the bus.)

"Later at the fort, asked about the GOP field, she mentioned Texas Gov. Rick Perry, saying she thought he would make 'a fine candidate' and that 'we have a lot in common.'

"'Competition breeds success,' she said. 'I would hope there is gonna be vigorous debate and a lot of aggressive competition even in our primary so that our voters have a good choice.'

"She didn't answer a question about her position on U.S. policy in Afghanistan, instead slightly remonstrating President Obama for his remark Monday at Arlington National Cemetery that it is his 'most solemn responsibility as president to serve as commander in chief of one of the finest fighting forces the world has ever known.'

"Said Palin: 'It's not just one of the greatest fighting forces. And I sure hope our president recognizes that. We're not just one of many. We are the best.'

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 10:39 PM | | Comments (3)
        

Obama honors fallen Naval Academy roommates

They were, as the father of one wrote, “Warriors for freedom, brothers forever.” On Monday, President Barack Obama remembered Marine 1st Lt. Travis L. Manion and Navy Lieutenant Brendan John Looney, roommates and best friends at the U.S. Naval Academy, now buried side by side at Arlington National Cemetery.

Manion, who was killed in Iraq by a sniper in 2007, and Looney, who died in a helicopter crash last September, were the focus of a page-one story Sunday by Baltimore Sun writer Childs Walker. Looney was honored today along with eight other service members from Maryland who died in 2010 at the annual Memorial Day service at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium.

Academy classmate Ben Matthews described Manion and Looney as “probably the two best guys I’ve ever known and the two best guys I ever will know.”

Obama, speaking at a Memorial Day service at Arlington National Cemetery, concluded his remarks with a meditation on their friendship and their service.

“After graduation, they deployed -- Travis to Iraq, and Brendan to Korea,” Obama said. “On April 29, 2007, while fighting to rescue his fellow Marines from danger, Travis was killed by a sniper. Brendan did what he had to do -- he kept going. He poured himself into his SEAL training, and dedicated it to the friend that he missed. He married the woman he loved. And, his tour in Korea behind him, he deployed to Afghanistan. On September 21st of last year, Brendan gave his own life, along with eight others, in a helicopter crash.

“Heartbroken, yet filled with pride, the Manions and the Looneys knew only one way to honor their sons’ friendship -- they moved Travis from his cemetery in Pennsylvania and buried them side by side here at Arlington.

“The friendship between 1st Lieutenant Travis Manion and Lieutenant Brendan Looney reflects the meaning of Memorial Day. Brotherhood. Sacrifice. Love of country. And it is my fervent prayer that we may honor the memory of the fallen by living out those ideals every day of our lives, in the military and beyond. May God bless the souls of the venerable warriors we’ve lost, and the country for which they died.”

A complete transcript of Obama's remarks follows, after the jump.

REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
AT A MEMORIAL DAY SERVICE

Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington, Virginia

11:25 A.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Thank you so much. Please be seated.

Thank you, Secretary Gates, and thank you for your extraordinary service to our nation. I think that Bob Gates will go down as one of our finest Secretaries of Defense in our history, and it’s been an honor to serve with him. (Applause.)

I also want to say a word about Admiral Mullen. On a day when we are announcing his successor as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and as he looks forward to a well-deserved retirement later this year, Admiral Mullen, on behalf of all Americans, we want to say thank you for your four decades of service to this great country. (Applause.) We want to thank Deborah Mullen as well for her extraordinary service. To Major General Karl Horst, the commanding general of our Military District of Washington; Mrs. Nancy Horst; Mr. Patrick Hallinan, the superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery, as well as his lovely wife Doreen. And to Chaplain Steve Berry, thank you for your extraordinary service. (Applause.)

It is a great privilege to return here to our national sanctuary, this most hallowed ground, to commemorate Memorial Day with all of you. With Americans who’ve come to pay their respects. With members of our military and their families. With veterans whose service we will never forget and always honor. And with Gold Star families whose loved ones rest all around us in eternal peace.

To those of you who mourn the loss of a loved one today, my heart breaks goes out to you. I love my daughters more than anything in the world, and I cannot imagine losing them. I can’t imagine losing a sister or brother or parent at war. The grief so many of you carry in your hearts is a grief I cannot fully know.

This day is about you, and the fallen heroes that you loved. And it’s a day that has meaning for all Americans, including me. It’s one of my highest honors, it is my most solemn responsibility as President, to serve as Commander-in-Chief of one of the finest fighting forces the world has ever known. (Applause.) And it’s a responsibility that carries a special weight on this day; that carries a special weight each time I meet with our Gold Star families and I see the pride in their eyes, but also the tears of pain that will never fully go away; each time I sit down at my desk and sign a condolence letter to the family of the fallen.

Sometimes a family will write me back and tell me about their daughter or son that they’ve lost, or a friend will write me a letter about what their battle buddy meant to them. I received one such letter from an Army veteran named Paul Tarbox after I visited Arlington a couple of years ago. Paul saw a photograph of me walking through Section 60, where the heroes who fell in Iraq and Afghanistan lay, by a headstone marking the final resting place of Staff Sergeant Joe Phaneuf.

Joe, he told me, was a friend of his, one of the best men he’d ever known, the kind of guy who could have the entire barracks in laughter, who was always there to lend a hand, from being a volunteer coach to helping build a playground. It was a moving letter, and Paul closed it with a few words about the hallowed cemetery where we are gathered here today.

He wrote, “The venerable warriors that slumber there knew full well the risks that are associated with military service, and felt pride in defending our democracy. The true lesson of Arlington,” he continued, “is that each headstone is that of a patriot. Each headstone shares a story. Thank you for letting me share with you [the story] about my friend Joe.”

Staff Sergeant Joe Phaneuf was a patriot, like all the venerable warriors who lay here, and across this country, and around the globe. Each of them adds honor to what it means to be a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, and Coast Guardsman. Each is a link in an unbroken chain that stretches back to the earliest days of our Republic -- and on this day, we memorialize them all.

We memorialize our first patriots -- blacksmiths and farmers, slaves and freedmen -- who never knew the independence they won with their lives. We memorialize the armies of men, and women disguised as men, black and white, who fell in apple orchards and cornfields in a war that saved our union. We memorialize those who gave their lives on the battlefields of our times -- from Normandy to Manila, Inchon to Khe Sanh, Baghdad to Helmand, and in jungles, deserts, and city streets around the world.

What bonds this chain together across the generations, this chain of honor and sacrifice, is not only a common cause -- our country’s cause -- but also a spirit captured in a Book of Isaiah, a familiar verse, mailed to me by the Gold Star parents of 2nd Lieutenant Mike McGahan. “When I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here I am. Send me!”

That’s what we memorialize today. That spirit that says, send me, no matter the mission. Send me, no matter the risk. Send me, no matter how great the sacrifice I am called to make. The patriots we memorialize today sacrificed not only all they had but all they would ever know. They gave of themselves until they had nothing more to give. It’s natural, when we lose someone we care about, to ask why it had to be them. Why my son, why my sister, why my friend, why not me?

These are questions that cannot be answered by us. But on this day we remember that it is on our behalf that they gave our lives -- they gave their lives. We remember that it is their courage, their unselfishness, their devotion to duty that has sustained this country through all its trials and will sustain us through all the trials to come. We remember that the blessings we enjoy as Americans came at a dear cost; that our very presence here today, as free people in a free society, bears testimony to their enduring legacy.

Our nation owes a debt to its fallen heroes that we can never fully repay. But we can honor their sacrifice, and we must. We must honor it in our own lives by holding their memories close to our hearts, and heeding the example they set. And we must honor it as a nation by keeping our sacred trust with all who wear America’s uniform, and the families who love them; by never giving up the search for those who’ve gone missing under our country’s flag or are held as prisoners of war; by serving our patriots as well as they serve us -- from the moment they enter the military, to the moment they leave it, to the moment they are laid to rest.

That is how we can honor the sacrifice of those we’ve lost. That is our obligation to America’s guardians -- guardians like Travis Manion. The son of a Marine, Travis aspired to follow in his father’s footsteps and was accepted by the USS [sic] Naval Academy. His roommate at the Academy was Brendan Looney, a star athlete and born leader from a military family, just like Travis. The two quickly became best friends -- like brothers, Brendan said.

After graduation, they deployed -- Travis to Iraq, and Brendan to Korea. On April 29, 2007, while fighting to rescue his fellow Marines from danger, Travis was killed by a sniper. Brendan did what he had to do -- he kept going. He poured himself into his SEAL training, and dedicated it to the friend that he missed. He married the woman he loved. And, his tour in Korea behind him, he deployed to Afghanistan. On September 21st of last year, Brendan gave his own life, along with eight others, in a helicopter crash.

Heartbroken, yet filled with pride, the Manions and the Looneys knew only one way to honor their sons’ friendship -- they moved Travis from his cemetery in Pennsylvania and buried them side by side here at Arlington. “Warriors for freedom,” reads the epitaph written by Travis’s father, “brothers forever.”

The friendship between 1st Lieutenant Travis Manion and Lieutenant Brendan Looney reflects the meaning of Memorial Day. Brotherhood. Sacrifice. Love of country. And it is my fervent prayer that we may honor the memory of the fallen by living out those ideals every day of our lives, in the military and beyond. May God bless the souls of the venerable warriors we’ve lost, and the country for which they died. (Applause.)

END 11:37 A.M. EDT

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 3:50 PM | | Comments (0)
        

May 26, 2011

House votes to block contractor disclosure proposal

A proposal to prohibit the government from requiring federal contractors to disclose campaign contributions was approved by the Republican-led House of Representatives Thursday as part of a massive bill that sets funding priorities for the military.

The legislation, which was included as an amendment to the $690 billion defense bill, was a response to a draft executive order from the White House that proposed requiring federal contractors to disclose their political donations as they bid for projects.

The White House and some Democrats have said the proposal would avoid a repeat of the 2010 midterm election, in which millions of dollars of undisclosed campaign money was used to attack candidates across the country. Business groups and some Republicans have countered that the requirement would bring politics into the procurement process.

“Government agencies should award contracts based on merit and value to taxpayers – not politics,” said Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who authored the amendment.

The draft proposal, which the Obama administration has never officially embraced, would not require awards to be based on political contributions, but trade groups representing contractors said they were nevertheless concerned that including the disclosure along with otherwise nuts-and-bolts bidding documents could affect the contracting process.

Because of its proximity to Washington, Maryland is home to a vast network of government and defense contractors. Southern Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Democrat, broke ranks with many in his party this month by opposing the White House proposal.

But Hoyer ultimately voted against the amendment itself, which was approved Wednesday on a 261-162 vote. Baltimore County Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, on the other hand, was one of 26 Democrats who voted with all but one Republican to support the measure.

Ruppersberger authored another Maryland-related amendment that was approved with the defense bill Thursday. That proposal would require the military to pay travel expenses for National Guard soldiers stationed in Egypt when they return to the U.S. on leave. There are currently 440 soldiers from Maryland serving in Egypt.

“Never in my experience have I seen legislation go from introduction to passage so quickly and that is a testament to the bipartisan nature of my amendment,” Ruppersberger said in a statement. “This is the way Congress is supposed to work.”

It’s not yet clear whether the Democratic-controlled Senate will take up either proposal when it debates the defense bill later this year.

Posted by John Fritze at 6:34 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Washington
        

May 25, 2011

City security equipment removed from Sheila Dixon's home

Update:
City-owned security equipment worth $12,000 was removed from former Mayor Sheila Dixon's home last fall,after Baltimore police made several attempts to reclaim the equipment, the city's inspector general announced Wednesday.

Inspector General David McClintock said he received a tip in September that the security cameras remained at Dixon's home in the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood of Hunting Ridge and that police had previously attempted to get the equipment back. Police removed the cameras in November, he said.

Reached by phone, Dixon said she had no desire to keep the equipment, and that she would have given it back sooner if she could have disconnected it herself.

"You know the city-- how slow they are," said Dixon. "I couldn't take it down myself."

She said that a police officer who had formerly been assigned to guard her first contacted her about getting back the equipment in August or September, months after she left office.

"It was a matter of coordinating between the police department and some of my former staff," she said.

Dixon, who was in New York for her daughter's college graduation, questioned why the inspector general's office was announcing the removal the equipment six months after it occurred.

McClintock said that his office recently completed an administrative review of the policy for reclaiming equipment from former city officials. Receiving the equipment from Dixon was the first part of that effort, he said.

"Police made several efforts to obtain Mayor Dixon’s consent for removal of the equipment but were not successful," according to a news release from his office.

When Martin O'Malley left the mayor's office to become governor, he returned the security equipment that had been installed at his Baltimore home, according to the news release.

"As a result of renewed efforts by the OIG and the Baltimore City Police, the equipment from Mayor Dixon’s residence was returned to City custody," the release continues.

Dixon resigned in February 2010 as part of a plea agreement to settle charges of embezzlement and perjury.

Here's the full text of the inspector general's news release:

Security Equipment Removed from Former Mayor Dixon’s Home

The Baltimore City Office of Inspector General (hereinafter “OIG”) received information in August of 2010 that former Mayor Sheila Dixon (hereinafter “Mayor Dixon”) was still in possession of valuable City-owned security equipment.

Initially, the OIG determined that past practice had been for the equipment to be returned to City custody upon separation from office. Working through the Baltimore City Police Department, the OIG learned that shortly after Former Mayor Martin O’Malley was elected as Governor the City owned security equipment that had been installed in his home had been returned.

Beginning shortly after Mayor Dixon resigned her position in February of 2010, the Baltimore City Police made several efforts to obtain Mayor Dixon’s consent for removal of the equipment but were not successful. As a result of renewed efforts by the OIG and the Baltimore City Police, the equipment from Mayor Dixon’s residence was returned to City custody. The equipment is valued at $12,000.00.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 4:25 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: City Hall
        

'Don't waste our time,' SRB says to those unhappy with slots offer

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake addressed reports this morning that some potential bidders for Baltimore's casino believe the deal assembled by the state and city would make it nearly impossible to turn a profit.

"The ones who are complaining [about the deal], I hope they don't waste our time and submit a bid," said Rawlings-Blake, adding that she did not wish to repeat the problems the city encountered last time they attempted to find a slots operator.

That bidder, Baltimore City Entertainment Group, headed by Canadian developer Michael Moldenhauer, is in Baltimore City Circuit Court today for a hearing on their second appeal to overturn the slots commission's ruling to not issue them a slots license. BCEG was the only group that bid on the casino when the state slots commission last sought proposals in 2009.

Rawlings-Blake said she was confident that the deal negotiated by state slots officials and her economic development team could "attract capable, strong companies."

The city has received "a lot of good feedback" on the deal, although it may not exactly suit the wishes of all companies, she said.

"Many potential bidders wish they could create the [request for proposals for the casino] themselves," she said.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 11:30 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: City Hall
        

Cummings seeks bank subpoenas on foreclosure crisis

Baltimore Rep. Elijah E. Cummings on Wednesday requested that the House Oversight Committee issue subpoenas to six banks he said have refused to voluntarily provide documents detailing their role in the mortgage foreclosure meltdown. 

Cummings, the top-ranking Democrat on the committee who has made the foreclosure issue a top priority, said the documents are needed to help the committee determine how the foreclosure crisis unfolded. He said it is his first request for subpoenas since starting in the position in January. 

“The foreclosure crisis has had devastating consequences for communities across the country and continues to threaten our nation’s economic recovery," Cummings said in a statement Wednesday. “The banks have admitted wrongdoing, and yet they are now refusing to provide Congress with documents that are critical to our investigation.”

Cummings wrote ten of the nation’s largest mortgage companies in February asking them to turn over internal audits of their foreclosure policies and correspondence with customers who went through foreclosure. Cummings said four companies are responding to the request. He released responses from the other six in which the companies declined to provide the information. 

The six companies cited by Cummings are MetLife, SunTrust Banks, PHH Mortgage, U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo & Company and Bank of America Home Loans. 
 
Subpoenas have long been a point of contention between Cummings and the committees's Republican chairman, California Rep. Darrell Issa. Cummings has argued that Republicans have issued subpoenas without giving Democrats on the committee notice. 

Frederick Hill, an Issa spokesman, said the chairman will "be asking ranking memner Cummings to provide additional information about this investigation before deciding on the most appropriate next step."

In February, Issa subpoenaed mortgage documents from Countrywide in an attempt to show that the company provided special deals to members of Congress to curry favor. 

Former Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Democrat, came under fire in 2008 over allegations that he received preferential treatment from Countrywide. A Senate ethics panel later dropped its inquiry, but Dodd nevertheless decided against running for re-election in 2010.

Posted by John Fritze at 6:34 AM | | Comments (30)
Categories: Washington
        

May 24, 2011

Mikulski casts budget fight as women’s issue

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski led a group of female senators Tuesday in opposing a Republican budget plan approved by the House of Representatives, arguing that the measure’s proposed overhaul of Medicare would adversely affect women.

“We feel that we’re under attack,” the Maryland Democrat, who was joined by five other female -- and two male – Democratic senators, said during a Capitol Hill news conference. “We can look at every aspect of this bill and we can see that when it comes to the health of American women, [it] is the wrong prescription.”

The effort by Mikulski and other Democratic female lawmakers in Washington follows a similar push earlier this year against a GOP plan to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding. Though that debate largely turned on abortion, Mikulski cast the proposal as one that would deprive women of preventative health care. The provision was ultimately dropped from the spending bill Congress approved last month.

This time, the Democratic women of the Senate are battling a 2012 spending plan authored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, that would trim federal budget deficits by giving seniors a federal subsidy they would use to purchase private health insurance.

Democrats have pounced on the message that the proposal would “end Medicare as we know it,” and they have pointed to a study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that shows the cost of health care would increase for seniors under the plan. Some Republicans, including Ryan, counter that Medicare as it exists is unsustainable and that changes must be made or the program will run out of money.

“We're being sensible, we're being rational, and we're saving this program,” Ryan said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press.

The GOP proposal has no chance of winning approval in the Democratic-controlled Senate this year. In fact, it is Senate Democrats who are trying to bring the Ryan budget to the floor as they try to use the Medicare fight as a wedge issue against Republicans and force them to vote on the idea in advance of the 2012 election.

But even as many Democrats acknowledge changes must be made to Medicare, the female senators said Monday that any cuts would have an especially significant impact on women, partly because women live longer on average and are more likely to rely on the program.

“This is really a sick proposal,” said California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Meanwhile, a group of women’s organizations, including the National Organization for Women, took aim at deficit talks that are being led by the White House. Vice President Joe Biden is leading a group of lawmakers who hope to find a bipartisan solution to the debt issue. The negotiators involved in that process are all men.

“Women are not prominently there at the meeting,” said Terry O’Neill, president of the organization. “The disproportionate impact on women is not at the center of the analysis and must be at the center of the analysis.”

Posted by John Fritze at 5:30 PM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Washington
        

Murphy to chair Senate campaign, not run, in 2012

Brian Murphy, the conservative Republican who ran against Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in last year’s GOP gubernatorial primary, has a candidate in mind to run against Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin in 2012. The one thing he can confirm: It isn’t him.

“This Thursday, May 26, I’ll be making an announcement regarding the 2012 US Senate race,” Murphy wrote on his Facebook page this week, prompting supporters to reply that they were prepared to campaign for him or make a political contribution if he got into the race.

But in an interview Tuesday, Murphy said he isn’t particularly interested in the seat for himself. He will, however, serve as the chairman of a GOP campaign he hopes can win. Who is the mystery candidate?

Murphy said the challenger is married, has two master’s degrees, including an MBA, has served for 16 years in law enforcement -- including 12 years in federal law enforcement -- and has spent “many years at the White House.”

“And quite frankly, he's leaving it all behind to run for Senate,” Murphy said. “He's got huge passion for his country and for his family.”

Murphy said he will not disclose the candidate’s identity Thursday – just sing his praises. Voters will have to wait until next week for a name, he said.

In his own race against Ehrlich last year, Murphy enjoyed support from many in the tea party movement and captured national attention by securing an endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Ultimately, though, he won only about 24 percent of the GOP primary vote. And Ehrlich lost in November to Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley.

The non-partisan Cook Political Report and other prognosticators list Cardin as solidly safe for 2012. But Murphy said he is convinced the first-term Democrat, who served 20 years in the House, is vulnerable.

“There's no question Cardin’s beatable,” he said.

Posted by John Fritze at 2:51 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Washington
        

Is Lady Terps coach highest-paid state worker?

University of Maryland women's basketball coach Brenda Frese ranks third in the database of state worker earnings from 2010 built by Baltimore Sun colleague Patrick Maynard, with total earnings of $957,523 on a base salary of $347,284.

But numbers one and two -- Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams ($2,335,890 earnings on $450,869 salary) and football coach Ralph Friedgen ($1,088,980/$280,842) -- have since moved on. And with the university not saying how much incoming men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon or football coach Randy Edsall are to be paid, Frese now ranks first among earnings publicly disclosed, ahead of Dr. E. Albert Reece, dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, William Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, and others.

As Sun colleague Larry Carson notes in his analysis of the database, the University of Maryland is home to the 15 highest-earning state workers, and the great majority of the 1,346 employees who outearn Gov. Martin O'Malley.

O'Malley made $150,000 in 2010, less than even some of his cabinet members. State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick earned $190,125 in 2010. State Police Superintendent Col. Terrence B. Sheridan took home $160,788. Former Health Secretary John M. Colmers made $159,144.

Long-serving officials below Cabinet rank also topped the governor's pay. Warren Deschenaux, the General Assembly's top fiscal analyst, earned $153,706. Neil Pedersen, chief planner for the State Highway Administration, made $152,878.

Coaches such as Frese, Williams and Friedgen supplemented their base salaries with earnings from television and radio appearances, camps and academic and performance incentives. Other state employees took home less than their salaries, owing to furlough days.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 5:00 AM | | Comments (3)
        

May 23, 2011

Ruppersberger focuses on man missing in Libya

The family of a 31-year-old Baltimore man who has been missing in Libya since March enlisted the help of Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger on Monday to raise awareness about his plight. 

Matthew VanDyke travelled to the country, which is in the middle of a civil war, in early March to "witness history," according to Sharon VanDyke, his mother. She said she last heard from her son March 12.

"This is a major priority when you have an American being held captive, especially based on the situation occurring in Libya," said the Baltimore County Democrat, adding that he has contacted the White House and the U.S. State Department about the case. "The No. 1 priority is to bring him home safely." 

Ruppersberger said he was asked to help because of his position as the top-ranking Democrat on the House Select Intelligence Committee. 

VanDyke's status is not clear. There has been no confirmation that he is being held by forces controlled by the Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. In April, the State Department counted him among several Americans who were missing in the country. 

An experienced traveller with a degree in security studies from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, VanDyke has been working on a book about his travels in the Middle East, his family said. VanDyke is listed on the Committee to Protect Journalists website as a freelance journalist.

"He truly loved the country," said Sharon VanDyke, who hosted the press conference in her living room in South Baltimore. "When he left he believed...in a week, Gadhafi would be gone. He didn't believe that he was going to be in an area where Gadhafi would show up." 

Sharon VanDyke said her son did not go to Libya to fight with opposition forces. 

In addition to his degree from Georgetown, VanDyke graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2002 with a bachelor's degree in political science. 

"Strange as it might sound, this is not unusual for him to pick up and go to Libya," said Sen George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat who also attended the news conference. " He wanted to fully understand the mindset of the people in the Middle East." 

Posted by John Fritze at 3:09 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Washington
        

Pelosi, Huffington coming for mayors' meeting

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Martin O’Malley, new media magnate Arianna Huffington and U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue will be coming to Baltimore next month for the annual meeting of the the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the Washington-based organization announced Monday.

Hundreds of mayors are expected to attend the meeting from June 17 to 20 at the Hilton Baltimore, which is to focus on jobs and the economy, homeland security, transportation, energy and immigration. The mayors use the annual meeting to debate and vote on policy positions to forward to Congress and the White House.

On the last day of the meeting, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is scheduled to be inaugurated president of the conference for 2011-12. He takes over from Eilzabeth Kautz, mayor of Burnsville, Minn.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors represents the 1,210 U.S. cities with populations of 30,000 or more.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 11:16 AM | | Comments (12)
        

Steele joins MSNBC

Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and head of the Republican National Committee, will join MSNBC as a regular political commentator, the network announced Monday.

The new position comes after months of speculation about Steele’s next move. A regular guest on the cable news circuit, Steele had previously been in talks with Fox News and CNN.

“It’s an honor to contribute and engage in the dialogue on MSNBC,” Steele said in a statement released by the network Monday. “I look forward to engaging a diverse audience to share insights and analysis about the people, issues, and events shaping America’s future. I’m sure our discussions will be both informative and a bit spirited!”

As a Republican, Steele will stand out on the network -- which is known more for its liberal commentary -- just as the 2012 GOP presidential nomination fight takes shape. The job starts immediately and Steele will appear regularly on the "full lineup of MSNBC programing," the network said.

“His strong voice and opinions will be a great addition to all of our programs,” Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, said in a statement.

Steele's latest move was first reported by Politico.

Steele, the party’s first black leader, had a rocky tenure at the RNC and ultimately pulled out of his bid for a second term in January. Steele, 52, also served as Maryland’s lieutenant governor from 2003 until 2007 under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Posted by John Fritze at 8:25 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Michael Steele
        

May 20, 2011

Bipartisan interest in immigrant tuition repeal, petitioners say

With about 10 days to go until a critical first deadline on an effort to repeal in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, organizers say they've seen bipartisan support for the effort, reporting that Democrats account for about one-quarter of the people who have downloaded the petition online.

Del. Neil Parrott, a Washington County Republican who is leading the signature drive, has not said how close petitioners are to the 18,500 signatures required by May 31. Today he said the effort is "on track," while acknowledging it "needs a surge" to meet his goal of 35,000 signatures to hand over to the State Board of Elections.

Parrott is seeking the higher number of signatures because strict petition requirements mean the board ends up tossing as much as one-third of them for technical reasons, including a signer's name not matching his or her voter registration information.

Aside from assurances from Parrott and other organizers that the petition drive is going well, there's no real way of knowing how close they are. Parrott said petitioners will be collecting names at Preakness tomorrow, and they've hit numerous local festivals and community meetings across the state.

Casa de Maryland this week held its own event, featuring Lt. Giv. Anthony Brown, to discuss the merits of the tuition measure.

If the board determines petitioners have met the 18,000-signature benchmark, they can continue collecting. The full petition -- containing more than 55,000 signatures -- would then be due by the end of June.

Parrott said he is encouraged by what he said is the bipartisan interest in the repeal.

"Marylanders across the state and across political boundaries understand that this bill costs too much, and that rather than enforcing our immigration laws, it encourages violations of federal immigration laws in our state," Parrott said in a statement. "Marylanders understand that overturning this bill is just a matter of common sense."

Democrats also are helping to circulate the petition. Sen. Jim Brochin of Baltimore County said he has helped constituents sign up, and his insurance office employees also wanted petitions to circulate.

The petition drive kicked off in earnest about a month ago, with the launch of mdpetitions.com.

Lawmakers this year voted to give undocumented students who have attended at least three years of Maryland high school and whose parents pay taxes access to in-state tuition, rather than charging the far higher out-of-state rates. Advocates argued that it is in the state's economic interest to help qualified Marylanders, even if they are here illegally, continue their education.

Gov. Martin O'Malley signed the bill about a week ago, and it is slated to take effect July 1. A successful petition drive would halt the bill, putting it in limbo until Maryland voters get a chance to weigh in at the polls in November 2012. 

Talking Points Corner: 
To read Casa's take on the in-state tuition legislation, check out the group's website.
And here's what opponents have to say over at mdpetitions.com.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 3:42 PM | | Comments (24)
Categories: Immigration
        

Horse racing: How Miller would mitigate 'disaster'

There's no doubt Maryland lawmakers love horse racing -- they've given the industry $45 million in recent years and have promised it future annual payouts of up to $140 million through slots revenue.

Yet even its staunchest advocate in Annapolis, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, acknowledges that horse racing, anchored by the money-losing Maryland Jockey Club, is deeply troubled.

"It has been a disaster for the state of Maryland, a total, unmitigated disaster," Miller said of racing's course over the past decade.

But how would Miller mitigate the disaster? The Southern Maryland Democrat said again and again: The answer is slots. He sees electronic gaming as inextricably tied to the health of horse racing. 

As such, Miller said, the greatest help lawmakers could provide is to legalize slots at Rosecroft -- a harness racetrack in Prince George's County built by his family in the 1940s. 

Recently purchased by Penn National Gaming, Rosecroft is shuttered. Penn National officials say they want to return live racing to the track, as well as offer simulcasting of races across the country.

Miller insists that the facility -- helped by its proximity to the tourist attractions of D.C. and National Harbor -- would thrive with slots, which he says could help attract a younger generation to racing. Rosecroft could take its cue from Ocean Downs on the Eastern Shore, the only horse racetrack in the state authorized to have slots. It opened last fall.

Slots at Rosecroft would need the blessing of Maryland voters in November 2012, at the earliest. That's because when lawmakers designed the gaming program in 2007, authorizing five sites across the state (none of which was in Prince George's), they sent the issue to the ballot.

The longtime Senate president can't help but lament what Maryland and horse racing "lost" by not authorizing a slots program eight years ago, during the tenure of Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who made slots one of his signature issues. 

Miller bitterly recalled the "party politics" and "lack of vision" that he said have cost the state hundreds  of millions in revenue and brought Maryland's storied horse racing to the brink of demise.

"We lost it," he said. "We were ahead of everyone, all the states on our borders."

He's left, he said, with skepticism that the horse racing industry can survive in Maryland. "But I still have hope."

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 10:07 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Slots
        

May 19, 2011

Alcohol tax, WWII disclosure, more signed into law today

The first tax increase on alcohol in more than a generation was among more than 200 bills signed into law Thursday by Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Come July 1, the sales tax on alcohol will rise from 6 to 9 percent, a move that legislative analysts say will generate about $85 million per year. Much of the initial revenue is earmarked for education support in Baltimore and Prince George’s County, school construction across the state and developmental disabilities services.

“David truly beat Goliath on this one,” said Aaron Kaufman, who has cerebral palsy and has lobbied lawmakers for years to increase disabilities services funding. Lawmakers promised an extra $15 million next year for such services.

In opening remarks at the bill-signing ceremony, the Democratic governor briefly referenced the tax legislation, calling it “critical funding for health.” He highlighted other measures, saying “the theme today is jobs.”

O’Malley said a $75 million plan called Invest Maryland is “the largest single shot of venture capital in our state’s history.” A bill allowing horse track owners to use up to $12 million in slots revenue over the next two years for racing purses helps an industry of at least 9,000 jobs, he said.

Also receiving the governor’s signature was a controversial bill classifying incinerated trash as a renewable energy source on par with wind and solar.

O’Malley had struggled with whether to sign a measure that was strongly opposed by environmental groups, but ultimately said the state needs many approaches to developing renewable energy.

Maryland League of Conservation Voters officials said in a statement that they are disappointed” in the governor’s decision “and the step backward it represents.

Just before the bill-signing ceremony, O’Malley greeted Leo Bretholz of Pikesville, a Holocaust survivor who urged lawmakers to make a Rockville-based railroad company disclose its involvement in transporting deportees to Nazi death camps during World War II.

O’Malley signed the legislation, saying it protects “the dignity of every individual.”

Drivers take heed: As of Oct. 1, reading a text message joins writing and sending as an illegal activity punishable by $500 fine. The governor also signed a bill expanding the pool of drunk drivers who will be required to use an ignition interlock device.

Other legislation signed into law Thursday included nearly $1 billion in capital bond loans for school construction and various state projects, an array of electric vehicle incentives and new rules requiring corporations and unions to provide details when they make independent expenditures in political races.

Also, as Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown noted, a bill signed into law Thursday means that Maryland now joins 49 other states in outlawing child neglect. The new crime is to be a misdemeanor offense. Another new legal provision: In contested divorces, the spouses need only live apart for a year, rather than the two years now required.

Most of the new laws take effect either July 1 or Oct. 1.

On Wednesday, O'Malley announced he had vetoed four bills, largely for technical reasons, and is allowing three measures to take effect without his signature.

Among those is an adjustment to how inmates serving life sentences are released; they are to be freed if the governor does not reject Parole Commission recommendations for parole within 180 days.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 3:25 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

Healthcare workers union endorses Rawlings-Blake

A healthcare workers union endorsed this afternoon Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's bid to retain the city's highest office.

The United Healthcare Workers East of the SEIU pledged to back Rawlings-Blake at an event at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center.

“As a city council member, as council president and now as mayor, she’s fought tirelessly for quality healthcare — and for quality healthcare jobs," John Reid, executive vice president of 1199SEIU, said in a statement. "By helping caregivers to win a voice for our patients and a better life for our families, she’s helping to improve the quality of life for everyone in Baltimore.”

“Healthcare workers are the heart and soul of Baltimore. One in five jobs in our city is in healthcare, so by improving conditions for workers in our hospitals, nursing homes and clinics, we’re not only improving healthcare standards, we’re improving living standards across the city. I’m proud of the progress we’ve made so far, and I know together we can do so much more by 2015," Rawlings-Blake said in a statement.

The union touted Rawlings-Blake's sponsorship of a 2009 resolution in support of the Heart of Baltimore campaign, which backed "the right of every Baltimore caregiver to a free and fair union election."

The union described itself in a press release "the most powerful grassroots election operation in Maryland" and said "substantial numbers" of its members would campaign door-to-door.

Rawlings-Blake has picked up a number of high-profile endorsements in recent weeks, including Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Rep. Elijah Cummings and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 12:59 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: City Hall
        

Alcohol tax among bill signings today

In a little over a month, Marylanders will be digging deeper into their pockets to pay for beer, wine and liquor, after Gov. Martin O'Malley today signs into law the first tax increase on alcohol in at least a generation.

The sales tax on alcohol will rise from 6 to 9 percent July 1, a move expected to generate $85 million in the next fiscal year.

At the final bill signing ceremony following the 2011 legislative session, other high-profile measures are on deck, including a requirement that a railway disclose its past ties to Nazi, a new classification for energy created by burned trash, slots money for the Maryland horse racing industry and the addition of child neglect as a misdemeanor crime.

A list of all bills to be signed today is available here. Most take effect June 1 or Oct. 1.

Yesterday, O'Malley announced he would veto four bills, largely for technical reasons, and allow three measures to take effect without his signature.

Invest Maryland, electric vehicle proposals and regulations on oyster poaching are among the dozens of bills to be signed today. A livestream feed of the ceremony is available beginning at 11 a.m.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 7:46 AM | | Comments (23)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

May 18, 2011

Harris opposes doubling Bay Bridge toll

Sun Washington correspondent John Fritze reports:

With the Bay Bridge as a backdrop, Rep. Andy Harris said Wednesday that Maryland officials have unfairly targeted rural areas of the state for toll increases, and suggested Congress should consider withholding federal transportation money from states unless they demonstrate they will spend it equitably.

The Baltimore County Republican, whose competitive district includes the Eastern Shore, suggested that a state proposal to double the $2.50 eastbound toll on the bridge this year is evidence of a larger preference by some state governments, to direct a greater share of transportation money to urban areas.

“I don't think we're going to stand by and watch systematically the rural areas of the country getting shortchanged,” said Harris, who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Asked if the Republican majority in the House would consider making federal transportation funding to states contingent on the issue, Harris said: “If you accept the federal dollars I think you're going to have to show that your state is not preferentially spending its transportation dollars in one area at the expense of the rural areas.”

The Maryland Transportation Authority has proposed a four-year, $210 million package of toll increases on several facilities, including the Fort McHenry and Harbor tunnels and the Bay and Key bridges.

State transportation officials say the revenues are used to maintain toll facilities and is kept separate from federal transportation dollars. Maryland Department of Transportation spokesman Jack Cahalan said many of the state's toll facilities cost more to maintain than they did to build.

“To keep these facilities safe and operational you have to reinvest in them in major ways,” said Cahalan. He said the bridge toll has not increased since 1975, when Gerald Ford was president.

He said federal transportation funding is not allocated based on where a project is located but rather on need. He said the state continued to spend federal money on routes 404 and 113 on the Eastern Shore, for instance. He also said the state does not keep track of how much money is spent in rural areas versus urban ones.

Congressional committees are drafting a new version of the massive bill that sets funding priorities for the nation's roadways, but the final product will face a difficult climb in Washington this year with both parties focus on cutting federal spending — and the 2012 election.

Harris made the comments during a press conference to highlight the impact the toll increase for the bridge would have on Eastern Shore businesses. The $2.50 eastbound toll would double this year and increase to $8 in 2013 under the state proposal. The increase comes as drivers are already wrestling with $4-a-gallon gas.

“It's essentially a tax on the citizens of the Eastern Shore,” Harris said.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 5:01 PM | | Comments (44)
        

Lifer parole to take effect without O'Malley signature

Gov. Martin O'Malley announced today that he will not sign a bill that forces him to act on parole requests for inmates serving life sentences. Maryland does not provide for a "pocket veto," so the legislation still takes effect Oct. 1.

The lifer parole bill requires the governor to respond in writing within 180 days when the Maryland Parole Commission recommends parole for a lifer. If the governor does nothing, the inmate will be released. Under current law, no lifer may leave prison without the governor's signature.

The issue arose, lawmakers said, because O'Malley had failed to act on any of the Parole Commission's recommendations to parole or commute the sentences of 50 lifers during his first four-plus years in office.

As lawmakers debated a bill to remove the governor from the parole process altogether, O'Malley denied commutation requests for seven prisoners. The legislation does not affect commutations.

"Governor O’Malley understands that all involved in these cases deserve a timely decision process," his office said in a statement. "However, given the gravity of the offenses for which these inmates are serving life sentences, it is the Governor’s contention that Maryland citizens would be better served if the default provision in the legislation was to deny the parole request rather than to grant it."

O'Malley also announced that he has decided to veto four bills, and let two other take effect without his signature. The final bill-signing ceremony after the 2011 legislative session is scheduled for tomorrow morning.

The legislation O'Malley has vetoed are: a proposed change as to who can collect state pensions, a requirement that Frederick County grant a property tax credit to a nonprofit school, an alteration in how Allegany County liquor commissioners are appointed and changes to Circuit Court subpoena procedures.

The pension change would have prohibited some in the state pension plan from receiving a retroactive vested benefit allowance if the member files for vested benefits after normal retirement age.

O'Malley's office said: "It is the Governor’s contention that this legislation unintentionally imposes a very harsh punishment on former teachers and State employees who do not file their application for benefits upon reaching normal retirement age. Governor O’Malley, in his veto letter, expresses concern about the potential impact of lost benefits on seniors who are struggling on fixed incomes."

The two other proposals that will become law without O'Malley's signature are a bill affecting entertainment licenses associated with the planned casino at Arundel Mills mall and a clarification of unemployment insurance exemptions for messenger services drivers.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 4:44 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

May 17, 2011

Rolley unveils plan to 'rebuild' city government

Mayoral candidate Otis Rolley is slated Wednesday to release his plan to "rebuild" city government by cutting high-ranking staffers, requiring new or promoted municipal workers to live in Baltimore and performing random anonymous checks of city services.

Rolley says he wants to "increase... the public's faith in how government makes decisions" by forcing disclosures of contributions from contractors and subcontractors and barring major donors from receiving no-bid contracts or participating in powerful boards.

"If you’re serious about a open and transparent government and if you're truly respectful of the citizens as your customers and your bosses then you do things differently," Rolley said in an interview.

Rolley, who served as the city's planning director under then-Mayor Martin O'Malley for four years and as former Mayor Sheila Dixon's chief of staff for one year, plans to present his plan tomorrow afternoon at his campaign headquarters in Hampden.

In the seven-page proposal, Rolley says he would eliminate the two deputy mayor positions, which currently have a salaries over $100,000.

"The mayor needs to hire competent, qualified courageous [agency heads] and deal with them directly," he said.

Rolley said he would require more detailed disclosures from lobbyists working in the city and require contractors and subcontractors bidding for city work to disclose all political donations. He would also prevent companies that donate more than $10,000 to receive no-bid city contracts.

"I want to be sure there isn't the illusion or even the appearance of someone being able to buy business with the city," he said.

Rolley would also require the city to seek competitive bids for all non-emergency contracts larger than $25,000 -- limiting "sole source" contracts -- which he said would provide more opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses.

He would also employ "secret testers" of city services, similar to secret shoppers.

"When you're paying the highest tax rate in the state, I think its appropriate... to raise the bar," said Rolley.

Rawlings-Blake's campaign manager, declined to respond to the specifics of Rolley's proposal.

"Mr. Rolley who served as Sheila Dixon's chief of staff is a latecomer to ethics reform.," said campaign manager Travis Tazelaar, reading from a prepared statement. "This mayor has led the way since her first day in office as Baltimore's mayor 15 months ago."

Rolley said that he made the planning office more efficient while he was at its helm, eliminating management positions, among other initiatives. And he says that he was limited in his power to reform government in his role as chief of staff.

"There's a difference between implementing my agenda and implementing someone else's agenda," he said. "What you have in front of you is my agenda."

Posted by Julie Scharper at 7:22 PM | | Comments (15)
Categories: City Hall
        

Stokes to make mayoral announcement Wednesday

Councilman Carl Stokes plans to tell supporters that he is "definitely" planning to run at an event at a Charles Village cafe tomorrow evening.

Stokes, who also ran for mayor in 1999, says that he will not be making a "formal campaign announcement" and that he is not planning to file to run for office tomorrow.

"My friends and my family have been asking me if I'm definitely going to run," said Stokes. "I've asked those who are able to come over tomorrow to Terra Café to tell them I'm definitely going to run for mayor."

Stokes denied rumors that he is contemplating a run for his current seat representing the 12th District or to unseat Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young.

Stokes said he'll leave the campaign event shortly after 6 p.m. to join the rest of the City Council for taxpayer's night at the War Memorial Building, a public forum for residents to share their thoughts on Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's proposed budget.

"I'm not going to miss taxpayers night," said Stokes. "That wouldn’t be a signal for anybody."

So far, two candidates have filed to run against Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake -- former city planning director Otis Rolley and Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors vice president Joseph T. "Jody" Landers.

State Sen. Catherine Pugh has sent invitations for a fundraiser for a mayoral campaign next month, but has not officially declared her bid for office. City Clerk of Courts and perennial mayoral candidate Frank M. Conaway Sr. has also said he plans to run.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 6:06 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: City Hall
        

O'Malley will sign waste-to-energy bill

Gov. Martin O'Malley has decided to sign into law controversial legislation that categorizes incinerated trash as a renewable energy source on par with wind and solar generation.

Wednesday morning update: Check out this article by The Sun's Tim Wheeler.

O'Malley called the legislation "but one part of a comprehensive solid waste management approach."

The Democratic governor's final bill signing for the 2011 legislative session is Thursday, and O'Malley had publicly struggled with whether he would approve the measure. Many environmental groups strongly oppose the waste-to-energy plan, fearing it will discourage recycling and undercut other green energy efforts, such as solar and wind.

“After careful deliberation, I have decided to sign Senate Bill 690," O'Malley wrote in a statement. "Our State has an aggressive goal of generating 20% of our energy from Tier I renewable sources by 2022 and we intend to achieve that goal through as much in-state energy generation as possible. This will require a diverse fuel mix including onshore and offshore wind, solar, biomass including poultry litter, and now waste-to-energy if we are to realize our 20% goal."

In his statement, O'Malley said he remains committed developing an offshore wind farm -- a plan the legislature rejected this year in favor of a study. Entire statement after the jump.

“After careful deliberation, I have decided to sign Senate Bill 690. Our State has an aggressive goal of generating 20% of our energy from Tier I renewable sources by 2022 and we intend to achieve that goal through as much in-state energy generation as possible. This will require a diverse fuel mix including onshore and offshore wind, solar, biomass including poultry litter, and now waste-to-energy if we are to realize our 20% goal.

“Maryland is not alone in this determination. Over half of the states that have a renewable energy goal classify municipal solid waste as a renewable fuel. European countries that are many decades ahead of the United States in reducing their carbon footprint and their reliance on fossil fuels make broad use of modern waste to energy facilities and employ comprehensive recycling efforts in order to land fill as little waste as possible. In fact, Sweden, a leader in this arena, sends 45% of it’s waste to waste-to-energy facilities, recycles 41%, and has reduced the quantity of waste going to land fills by 50% over a 1994 baseline.

“Despite the success of recycling programs in our State, including in Harford and Montgomery counties, where existing waste-to-energy facilities coexist with robust recycling programs, the reality is that Marylanders generate tons of solid waste each and every day. If there is no waste-to-energy facility available, these tons of trash are simply dumped into landfills, no value is derived from the waste, and our State continues to rely on coal-fired generation to account for 55% of our energy needs.

“Therefore, the question is not whether waste-to-energy facilities are better for the environment than coal-fired generation or better for the environment than the land filling of trash, but rather whether waste-to-energy facilities are better than the combination of coal and land filling, based on the best available science. The answer to that question is a qualified ‘yes.’

“On carbon emissions, those greenhouse gases that degrade our environment and contribute to global warming, waste to energy facilities are better for the environment than the combination of coal generated electricity and land filling of solid waste. With regard to sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter emissions, waste-to-energy facilities are generally lower per megawatt hour electricity generated than coal fired generation. And on mercury emissions, the answer depends on how thoroughly mercury containing items are sorted out from the waste stream before the combustion process occurs.

“Mercury emissions are the most worrisome aspect of waste-to-energy facilities, but can be limited through vigorous regulation. To this end, I have instructed Maryland’s Department of the Environment to strictly regulate the amount of mercury emanating from both existing and proposed waste-to-energy facilities in our State. This is not enough, however. We must also remove mercury from the waste stream altogether; my Administration is considering legislative proposals to ensure that happens.

“This legislation is but one part of a comprehensive solid waste management approach. We made progress last week, when I signed into law House Bill 817, which increases our education efforts on composting and requires the Department of the Environment to conduct additional study of the issue. I want to keep moving forward, however, to a zero waste environment. Last year, the General Assembly created a study group to evaluate additional steps that can be taken to increase commercial recycling and reduce plastic bag usage. The group is also looking at electronic recycling measures, bottle deposits, beverage container recycling issues, and long-term funding for such measures. A final report is due in December of 2011. I am hopeful that recommendations from the study group will be implemented through the regulatory and legislative process.

“With this decision, I also reaffirm my commitment to bringing offshore wind to Maryland. It is only through a diverse, renewable fuel mix that we will be able to reach our aggressive goals, protect our precious environment, and create the economic engine to move Maryland forward.”

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 5:54 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Administration
        

Cummings lobbies for more federal IGs

Baltimore Rep. Elijah E. Cummings wants President Barack Obama to fill nine vacant inspector general slots in the federal government, including at the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, according to a letter he signed Tuesday.

Cummings, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, joined two other Democrats, an independent and four Republicans on the letter. Included in that list is California Rep. Darrell Issa, Cummings’ Republican counterpart on the oversight committee.

“We have serious concerns that the lack of permanent inspector generals at so many federal agencies is impeding the federal government’s efforts to increase efficiencies and detect and prevent waste, fraud and abuse,” the letter read.

Cabinet level agencies without a permanent inspector general include the departments of State, Justice, Homeland Security, Labor and Housing and Urban Development, according to the letter.

In addition to Cummings and Issa, the letter was signed by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and John Tierney, D-Mass.

Posted by John Fritze at 5:31 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Washington
        

Ruppersberger proposes paying for R&R travel

The military would cover travel expenses for about 440 Maryland National Guard soldiers stationed in Egypt when they return home on leave under a proposal Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger plans to unveil Wednesday.

Under current law, Egypt is not included in the military’s leave program that pays for R&R travel expenses because it is not a combat zone. That means service members pay their own way home, the Baltimore County Democrat said.

National Guard troops have been on the Sinai Peninsula since 2002. The Maryland soldiers deployed in March as part of a peacekeeping missing.

“For their families, it’s hard to keep the home fires burning – there are empty seats at the dinner table, missed mortgage payments and unopened birthday gifts,” Ruppersberger said in a statement. “We must work harder to provide these families with the resources they need to survive their tours of duty here at home and overseas.”

Ruppersberger will attempt to tack the proposal onto Defense Authorization Act moving through Congress.

Ruppersberger, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, has previously focused on travel expenses for soldiers. In 2003, he developed a program that let frequent fliers donate airline miles to help service members pay for flights home while on leave. The government picked up only part of the cost.

Posted by John Fritze at 4:52 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Washington
        

PG County: Johnson plea reveals developer bribery

Former Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson pleaded guilty today in federal court to bribery, extortion and witness tampering in a case involving millions of dollars in federal housing grants.

The 24-page guilty plea released by U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein's office details how Johnson and other former county officials took bribes in exchange for agreeing "to perform favorable official actions" for several Prince George's County developers, business owners and their companies.

As investigators closed in last year, Johnson famously asked his wife -- current county council member Leslie Johnson -- to conceal $80,000 in her underwear and flush other evidence down the toilet, according to wiretaps in the case.

Jack Johnson, the county's former state's attorney and county executive for eight years until December 2010, is to be sentenced in September. He faces a maximum of 20 years in prison for the conspiracy case and 20 years for witness tampering.

Federal prosecutors and the FBI indicated they are continuing to investigate misdeeds in Maryland second most-populous county.

“While Jack Johnson’s guilty plea today shines a bright light on the crimes he and his associates committed, it is not the end of the FBI’s investigation into corruption in Prince George’s County," FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard A. McFeely said in a statement released by Rosenstein's office.

"The FBI will devote all available resources to bring corrupt public officials and their criminal associates to justice."

The federal judge in the case today also unsealed three related guilty pleas: from former Prince George's County Housing Director James Edward Johnson (no relation), Dr. Mirza Hussain Baig and Patrick Q. Ricker.

New Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker released a statement this afternoon:

“Today’s events remind us of our solemn responsibility as public officials to our constituents. Our obligation at this point is to restore this community’s trust. The people of Prince George’s County are strong and resolute."

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 3:46 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: In The Counties
        

Del. Liz Bobo 'proud' of her lump sum contributions

Del. Liz Bobo -- who has fought for increased campaign finance disclosure -- reported $12,819 in contributions from undisclosed donors over the four-year election cycle that ended in December.

The Howard County Democrat told The Sun's Larry Carson that she sees no contradiction between her reform efforts and her practice of labeling money as lump sums.

“I don’t call this a loophole,” she said, noting the lump sums are associated with a once-a-year picnic. “I’m proud of those contributors. I don’t see a risk.”

Bobo told Carson she prefers financing her campaigns through small amounts of money from "everyday" people, rather than through bigger sums from developers, lawyers, builders and consultants.

Carson followed up with Bobo after her name appeared on a list of the 12 highest individual users of lump sum reporting that accompanied a Sunday story in The Sun. The State Board of Elections discourages candidates from designating anything as a lump sum, and Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has taken issue with the practice.

The rest of Carson's piece about Bobo appears after the jump.

Some may have been surprised to see Bobo’s name among those listed in a Baltimore Sun story Sunday about elected officials who report small donations lumped together as one contribution on their state campaign finance reports. The story, by reporter Julie Bykowicz, called the practice a loophole, but Bobo, a champion of campaign finance reform, said she’s proud of her inclusion on the list and wasn’t surprised at all.

“I don’t call this a loophole,” she said. “I’m proud of those contributors. I don’t see a risk.” Bobo said she strives to collect those small amounts to finance her campaigns with donations from everyday voters, rather than the big developers, lawyers, builders and consultants who foot much of the bill for many other candidates.

“All of mine come from my once a year picnic,” she said.”I know these people.”

As a legislator who has annually sponsored a bill to close a frequently used corporate campaign finance loophole, Bobo said the problem isn’t small contributors, but big business owners who give the maximum $4,000 to a candidate from each of numerous limited liability corporations they control.

“We know that’s being abused,” Bobo said. The bill has been approved by the House of Delegates several times, but the Maryland Senate has killed it.

Maryland is one of 49 states that allows candidates to lump small contributors, in this case those who give less than $51, into one sum on a campaign finance report. The candidates are required to keep records of who these contributors are, but don’t have to disclose the contributors’ names on the reports. Bykowicz reported that $4.3 million was accounted for this way during the four-year 2010 campaign cycle. That included including $12,819 for Bobo, the 11th-highest number in the state.

Nevertheless, if the General Assembly decides to change the law to require that every contributor, no matter how small, be listed on reports, Bobo said she would “absolutely” vote for it.

This year, Bobo did vote for Del John A. Olszewski Jr.’s bill that would limit lump sum reporting to $25,000 per cycle. She doesn’t accept cash anyway, she said, and every donor is listed in her own computer records. Bobo has traditionally not raised large amounts of money for her House campaigns, relying on a core of devoted supporters for financial support.

Her last report in January showed her with $22,865 left in the bank after beating a primary challenger and easily winning re-election in single-member District 12B in west Columbia.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 2:51 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Campaign finance
        

Governor pledges action after beating of transgender woman

Gov. Martin O'Malley today commended the Baltimore County state's attorney for bringing a hate crime charge in the beating of a transgender woman at a McDonald's -- and said he would fight for stronger antidiscrimination laws next year.

Yesterday, State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger announced that a grand jury had indicted 18-year-old Teonna Brown on a hate crime charge, adding to an assault charge she had already faced.

Brown, whose attorney said she acted in self defense, is accused of beating Chrissy Lee Polis outside a bathroom at a McDonald's in Rosedale. A 15-year-old girl is charged as a juvenile. A restaurant employee recorded the attack on his cell phone camera, and it went viral on the Internet.

“As some have noted, out of this awful beating has come a moment to foster a deeper understanding and respect for the dignity of all persons," O'Malley said in a statement. "We should not allow the moment to pass without greater action."

The Democratic governor pledged to work with the General Assembly next year to "provide even greater protections for transgendered people."

This year, the Senate blocked action on a bill that would have prevented landlords, creditors and employers from discriminating against transgender people. Some in the transgender community rebuffed the legislation because it did not go far enough; it did not include public accommodations protections. 

Here's O'Malley's full statement:

“I want to commend Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger for using every available means to prosecute the heinous beating of Chrissy Lee Polis last month.

“Even with Maryland's 'hate crimes' law, it is clear that more must be done to protect the rights and dignity of transgendered people. In the struggle for justice and equality for all, I'm committed to working with the Maryland General Assembly during the next legislative session to increase awareness and provide even greater protections for transgendered people.

“As some have noted, out of this awful beating has come a moment to foster a deeper understanding and respect for the dignity of all persons. We should not allow the moment to pass without greater action.”

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 1:00 PM | | Comments (24)
Categories: Crime & Justice, Martin O'Malley
        

May 16, 2011

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown returns to 'Marryland'

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown today announced that he is engaged to be married to Karmen Bailey Walker.

In a short, joint statement this afternoon, Brown and Walker said they are planning their wedding for summer 2012. Walker is Comcast's director of government affairs, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Brown and Walker each had a previous marriage. Brown lives in Mitchellville with his 16-year-old daughter, Rebecca, and 10-year-old son, Jonathan. Walker lives in Hughesville with her 11-year-old son -- named Anthony.

“It brings us great joy to announce to our friends, family, and neighbors that we are engaged to be married," the couple said in a statement. "Our love and respect for each other have grown stronger each day of our relationship and we are so very excited to be taking this next step together."

Brown was Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley's running mate in 2006 and again last year.

(Photo provided by Brown's office.)

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 4:26 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Administration
        

Cardin looks to eliminate oil tax breaks

As Senate Democrats prepare to hold a vote this week on whether to end taxpayer subsidies for the nation’s largest oil companies, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin carried the party’s message to a Shell station on Russell Street in Baltimore on Monday.

“At a time of soaring gas prices and record budget deficits, we need to end $4 billion a year in subsidies for the big-five oil companies,” said the Maryland Democrat, a member of the Senate Finance Committee. “Americans should not be footing the bill for big oil, which has made nearly $1 trillion in profits over the last decade.”

Democrats across the country have been pounding on the perennial issue in an attempt to corner Republicans who have argued against any tax increases to close the nation’s burgeoning budget deficit. The Senate is expected to vote on the proposal later this week.

The Democratic legislation would end annual subsidies for Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, BP and Conoco Phillips. Last week, Cardin co-signed a letter asking the oil companies to admit that they no longer need the tax breaks.

“It’s a question of fairness,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said during a floor speech Monday. “The bonus checks taxpayers are writing to big oil are absurd and obscene. They defy common sense.”

Republicans and business groups have opposed new taxes, noting the economy's slow recovery. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to senators Monday arguing that “levying new taxes and fees on America’s oil and gas industry would increase U.S. dependence on foreign oil, increase costs to consumers, jeopardize U.S. jobs, and erode economic competitiveness.”

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service found last week that eliminating the tax breaks for oil companies would not have an impact on prices at the pump. “Prices are well in excess of costs and a small increase in taxes would be less likely to reduce oil output, and hence increase …gasoline prices,” according to the report.

The average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gas in Maryland is $4.002, according to AAA.

Posted by John Fritze at 3:50 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Washington
        

Delegates push for 'lump sum' finance reform

House delegates vowed to seek limits to the amount of contributions that candidates can label as "lump sum" payments, a description that denies citizens a thorough look at campaign finances.

Maryland's campaign finance system allows candidates to bundle together contributions of under $51 without disclosing donor information. Although legal, the State Board of Elections and Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler discourage the practice.

A Baltimore Sun examination published Sunday found that heavy users of lump sum reporting logged more than $300,000 in unidentified contributions in the four-year election cycle that ended in December.

In all, candidates -- Democrats and Republicans alike from across the state -- and political action committees reported $4.3 million in lump sums, about 3 percent of all political contributions.

This year and last, the House of Delegates has passed legislation to limit lump sum reporting to $25,000 per cycle. The bills, sponsored by Del. John A. Olszewski Jr., did not make it to the Senate floor.

"What you have is a system that cuts against all that it is trying to accomplish with transparency and access to records,” Olszewski, a Baltimore County Democrat, said in an interview last week.

The $25,000 limitation would affect only a few top-level users of lump sums, including Del. Norman H. Conway, an Eastern Shore Democrat, and Charles County Sheriff Rex Coffey, a Democrat.

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and former St. Mary's County Commissioner Kenny Dement, Republicans, also reported more than $25,000 in lump sums during the 2010 election cycle.

Del. Jon S. Cardin, chairman of the House election-law subcommittee, said delegates plan to push again next year for lump sum limits. The Baltimore County Democrat called it a "good government" issue that merits quick action.

The General Assembly this year approved a commission to study campaign finance issues. Loopholes such as the lump sum label, limited liability corporation giving and transfers among political slates are expected to be some of the focus areas.

Commission members will be appointed in the next few weeks. 

Are your elected officials identifying campaign money as lump sums? Search our database. The Sun's editorial board weighs in on lump sum contributions here.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 1:41 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Campaign finance
        

Cigars: Delegate says he'll work to end shipping ban

The to-do list for the fall special session continues to grow.

Del. Michael Smigiel says he will use the rare fall General Assembly meeting to introduce legislation ending the state's new ban on premium cigar shipments.

The Sun's Jay Hancock has been chronicling cigar-gate on his blog and in print Sunday. He reports that cigar aficionados are fired up about Maryland's recent decision to prohibit Internet sales of the smoky treats.

Maryland's cigar shipping ban -- which, ironically, is taking effect just as the state begins to allow wineries to ship bottles to consumers -- appears to be an unintended consequence of 2010 legislation aimed at licensing wholesalers of cigars and pipe tobacco.

Comptroller Peter Franchot's office has received hundreds of complaints since the new cigar regulations took effect May 1.

Hancock writes that Philadelphia-based Holt's Cigar Co., sent customers an email last week describing the new Maryland law as "unconstitutional, anti-freedom, anti-choice and wholly un-American" and urged them to contact Franchot.

Smigiel, an Eastern Shore Republican, told Hancock he's on it.

"We're working on this," Smigiel said. "We're going to fix it."

Hancock also noted the twist of legalizing wine shipping while banning delivery of a tobacco product:

One sin is restricted, the other abetted. If that doesn't tell you that nonsense still rules in the regulation and taxation of Internet retailing, you've been indulging in too many Cusanos and cabernets.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 11:50 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Money and Business
        

May 13, 2011

Update on the arrests of city workers

A total of 11 city employees were found to have open warrants under a new initiative that checks a database of of the city's 15,000 workers against a list of people with open warrants, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Friday.

Four of the workers were with the Department of Recreation and Parks, two were with public works department, two with the fire department, two in employment development and one in transportation, spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said in an email.

The warrants were primarily for assault charges and violations of probation, he said.

One of the workers was the subject of two open warrants. Police have served 10 of the 12 open warrants and are waiting to serve the last two, O'Doherty said.

The arrests are part of a new initiative to check city worker rolls against lists of open warrants, which is apparently the first time in recent years city official have performed such a check.

O'Doherty said the initiative was part of Rawlings-Blake's efforts to boost ethical standards and make government more open and accountable.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 5:32 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: City Hall
        

Subpoenas going out in Ehrlich robocall case

The Baltimore Sun's Laura Vozzella is reporting a "surprising update" in the investigation of questionable election-night robocalls ordered up by the campaign of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

She writes on Baltimore Insider:

The update: They've just subpoenaed someone to testify before a grand jury on the matter later this month.

The surprising part: The subpoena was served on that someone right in front of me.

Political operative Julius Henson, who was working for the Republican former governor, faces a federal civil complaint in the case. The Office of the State Prosecutor also is investigating, though the agency would not comment on any subpoenas it may or may not have issued.

The calls in question told tens of thousands of Democratic voters to “relax” because Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley had “been successful” and that “the only thing left to do is watch it on TV tonight.”

Henson's attorney is seeking a stay in the civil case because he is aware of two grand juries probing the matter. Attorney Edward Smith argues the civil case could interfere with any potential criminal cases.

Earlier, Henson's attorney argued that the robocalls amounted to Constitutionally protected speech.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 3:28 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
        

GOP senator: Toll increases are 'highway robbery'

State Sen. E.J. Pipkin says the Maryland Transportation Authority's plan to hike tolls "delivers a one-two punch" to commuters and travelers who are already feeling the pinch from gas prices hovering around $4 per gallon.

In a release this morning, Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, said the toll increases "give the term 'highway robbery' a new meaning."

The fee for occasional travelers crossing the Bay Bridge, which has remained at $2.50 since 1975, would rise to $5 in October and to $8 in 2013. Commuters pay less.

Motorists who use the Baltimore Harbor crossings and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway also would pay more. Harbor tunnel tolls would rise from $2 now to $3 in October and $4 in 2013.

The four-year package of fee increases amounts to $210 million.

The Sun's Michael Dresser details the transportation authority's plan in an article this morning.

Republicans have also expressed fears that lawmakers will shepherd through an increase on the gasoline tax when they meet this fall for a special session on Congressional redistricting.

However, as much as lawmakers acknowledge a need to prop up the Transportation Trust Fund -- which is how the state maintains its roadways -- they also admit there might not be much of an appetite for a gas tax hike at a time when people are paying near-record amounts at the pump.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 12:39 PM | | Comments (8)
        

State rethinks youth jail, revisiting campaign issue

State prison officials now believe they overestimated the necessary capacity of a planned jail for teenagers who face charges as adults.

A study released yesterday by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency concludes the city needs about half the size of what was originally to be a 230-bed facility, Sun colleagues Liz Kay and June Torbati report this morning.

The youth lockup became a campaign trail issue last year for Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Both had a hand in planning the jail.

Just as officials prepared to break ground, juvenile services activists loudly protested, saying Baltimore needs more youth programs, not more jails. O'Malley agreed to the study that came out yesterday. The lower capacity reflects a downward trend in teen arrests.

Prison Secretary Gary Maynard said the state could adapt the facility plans to the new capacity suggestion -- or go back to the drawing board altogether.

The state already has spent $14 million on planning, design, demolition and site preparation.

At one time, officials said the project was expected to cost more than $100 million, though more recent estimates put it at about $70 million. The state also wants to build a new women's detention facility nearby, on the existing "prison campus" on Madison Street just east of the Jones Falls Expressway.

A Baltimore Sun editorial on downsizing the facility can be found here.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 9:40 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Administration, Crime & Justice, Law and Courts
        

May 12, 2011

City employees arrested on outstanding warrants

About a dozen city employees have been arrested on open warrants under a new initiative from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a spokesman said Thursday.

The Baltimore City Police warrant task force arrested the employees after a check of city databases revealed that they had open warrants for serious offenses, spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said.

The mayor's office recently began checking a database of the city's 15,000 employees against a list of people with outstanding warrants, O'Doherty said. It appears to be the first time in recent history that such a check has been made, he said.

The checks, which are part of an effort to create a more "open and honest government" are ongoing and will be repeated in the future, O'Doherty said.

The names of the employees and their offenses, the agencies for which they worked and the time and place of arrests were not immediately available. A police spokesman did not immediately have additional information.

Posted by Julie Scharper at 6:36 PM | | Comments (16)
Categories: City Hall
        

MD GOP: Does the governor really need a new butler

Maryland's GOP took aim at Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley this afternoon, creating a mock job listing intended to draw attention to real help-wanted advert for a butler at the governor's mansion.

The vacant butler position, listed as paying in the mid-$30k, was first reported by The Capital's Pamela Wood. The job entails "routine, semi-residential housekeeping duties" in both "public and non public" rooms, according to the online posting. Duties could include washing linens.

Job seekers are subject to background checks and must have some experience providing similar services elsewhere, according to the listing.

The staff a the state's Republican Party, clearly in a jokey frame of mind this afternoon, amended posting adding a few requirements of their own to the list:



* Preferably live within walking distance to downtown Annapolis since a new gas tax is likely to make driving to work unaffordable.

* Ability to last long periods of time without seeing your boss, while he’s campaigning for the DGA.

* Ability to tune a guitar, gets extra points.
 
Posted by Annie Linskey at 6:09 PM | | Comments (0)
        

Hoyer urges schools to teach health care benefits

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer is asking colleges and universities in his district to add a new item to their curricula: Information about the benefits of the Democrats' health care overhaul.

Polls show Americans remain divided over the controversial law approved by congressional Democrats and signed last year by President Barack Obama. Republicans rode opposition to the overhaul to the House majority in November, and surveys this year have shown a plurality of voters favor its repeal.

Supporters of the law say it will grow more popular as more of its provisions take effect.

“Before health reform became law, more than one-third of all young adults — including those with insurance — were having trouble paying their medical bills, and one-fourth were paying off medical debt,” Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said Thursday in a statement.

“The Affordable Care Act has a number of features that will help those young Americans and provide them with the health and security they deserve. It is important that young people understand and have access to the health coverage they need, so I encourage our colleges and universities to help ensure that they are aware of the new options and resources available to them.”

In a letter Thursday, Hoyer suggested the colleges and universities of the Fifth Congressional District consider placing links on their homepages, distributing flyers along with graduation materials and hosting information sessions about the law.

The letter, which Hoyer's office said was sent to the University of Maryland, Bowie State University, St. Mary's College of Maryland and other schools, follows after the jump.

May 11, 2011

Dear ------,

As we approach the graduation season, I wanted to follow up on a letter you should have received from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan regarding health care coverage for students.

The recently enacted Affordable Care Act contains a vitally important, immediate improvement in health coverage options for young people under age 26. Thanks to this new law, young people up to age 26 can typically obtain coverage on their parents’ health insurance plan as long as that plan covers dependent children. This option is true regardless of whether they are employed, in school, or living at home. I encourage you to follow up on the secretaries’ advice and ensure that your graduating students – and the entire student body – are aware of this new option for health coverage.

The Administration provided numerous ways to supply this information to your student body. Listed below are those links for your convenience:

• Place a “badge” on the home page of your Website that automatically links to information about how students can remain on their parents’ health insurance plan. Download the badge by visiting: http://www.healthcare.gov/stay_connected.html.

• Distribute a flyer to students and their parents about this new benefit along with graduation materials. Download a sample flyer by visiting: www.healthcare.gov/center/brochures/new_benefits_for_graduates_and_young_adults.pdf.

• Encourage staff to talk to students about other insurance options – for example, if their parents do not have coverage – by visiting: www.healthcare.gov/foryou/betterbenefitsbetterhealth/youngadults.html.

• Host a session to explain insurance options to your students. HHS has helpfully offered to assistance in creating this event and you can email them at: externalaffairs@hhs.gov.

• Encourage students to visit the Administration’s Facebook page with information for young adults and parents about coverage for individuals under age 26. That can be found at: www.facebook.com/youngadultcoverage.

Another excellent resource for your student body is the non-partisan Young Invincibles online tool kit: http://www.gettingcovered.org/Toolkit/, which has information tailored specifically to young people. It is searchable by state and explains exactly what the new law means to young people, including how to get on a parent’s insurance policy, what to do if he or she has a pre-existing condition, and how the new law impacts women and young people with cancer.

Working together, we can ensure more students and recent alumni obtain the health coverage they need. Please feel free to contact my office at 202-225-4131, should you have any questions. We appreciate your attention to this important matter.

Wishing you the best during this graduation season and with kindest regards, I am

Sincerely yours,


STENY H. HOYER

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 3:02 PM | | Comments (15)
        

Peter O'Malley to be Rawlings-Blake's chief of staff

The governor's brother is leaving his post as the chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party to become Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's chief of staff, the mayor's office announced Thursday.

Peter O'Malley will start work as Rawlings-Blake's chief of staff tomorrow, according to a news release.

"Peter will help deliver results that benefit the people of Baltimore -- that is why he is the best choice to be Chief of Staff in my Administration," Rawlings-Blake said. "Peter is an effective and proven manager with great integrity who has proven his ability as a public servant."

O'Malley, who worked for the city from 2000-2 and later served as former Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s chief of staff, said he was "honored" to have been chosen for the position.

"I think she's a very serious leader," said O'Malley.  "She makes a decision and does the hard work 

Rawlings-Blake's previous chief of staff, Sophie Dagenais, former corporate attorney and developer, stepped down in March.

The timing is awkward: Peter O'Malley was named to be the chair of the state Democratic Party two months ago.

Yvette Lewis will serve as the party's acting chair and Gov. O'Malley urged the party's executive board to grant her the position permanently at its next meeting, according to a news release.   Lewis, a political veteran from Prince George's County, currently is the party's first vice chair.

O'Malley, an attorney and Mt. Washington resident, said that the two years he spent working for the Citistat office while his brother was mayor "was the best job I ever had."

"You go to work in the morning and you see problems, and when you get to work you can fix them," he said. 

He said his time in Baltimore County and work with the state party would benefit the city.

"I think it's good to have those relationships with the surrounding jurisdictions because a lot of our issues don't just stop at the border," he said. 

City Councilman Robert W. Curran, who is related to the O'Malleys by marriage, praised the move, saying Peter O'Malley would "be a good fit" and wouldn't "need any on the job training."

"He knows the city and he has the ability to reach out to the other subdivisions," Curran said. 

During the annual Democratic party gala Monday night, O'Malley thanked his brother for his hard work but gave no hint that Peter would be moving on.

Peter O'Malley was praised by several officials, and roasted by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

The Senate President, from Prince George's County, said that during the 2010 election Peter O'Malley was "barked at" by his brother, the governor.

 Also, Miller vastly understated Peter's campaign role, saying the governor's brother frequently called to round up yard signs. "He was a sign man," Miller said. "And now he's the head of the Democratic Party."

Peter O'Malley, who has worked on his brother's campaign, should be a political boost for Rawlings-Blake, who faces a competitive primary this year in her first citywide election as mayor.  Rawlings-Blake was elevated to the mayor's office last year after Sheila Dixon resigned.

But at least one challenger to Rawlings-Blake said the move raises eyebrows.

"It's not a show of strength," said Dan Fee, campaign manager for former city planning director Otis Rolley.

"It's clear that she recognizes that she has a real problem, that people are deeply dissatisfied because there are too few jobs and too much crime," he said. "Rather than dealing with this [campaign] with substance, they're looking to do it politically. How does that help the people of Baltimore?"

 

                                                                                      ~Annie Linksey and Julie Scharper

 

Posted by Annie Linskey at 1:41 PM | | Comments (22)
Categories: City Hall
        

Interim Human Resources secretary takes the job

Gov. Martin O'Malley has chosen aide Ted Dallas to lead the Department of Human Resources, the state's fourth-largest agency. The Democratic governor also announced hiring choices for communications director and deputy chief of staff (see jump).

Dallas has been O'Malley's deputy chief of staff since March 2010 and has served as interim Human Resources secretary since January. When Secretary Brenda Donald left the agency in July, O'Malley said his administration would conduct a national search for her replacement.

“I am pleased that Ted has chosen to step up and lead our Department of Human Resources," O'Malley said in a statement.

O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec said the administration considered candidates from Florida, Ohio, Georgia and elsewhere before asking Dallas to take the job.

Dallas said he is pleased to become secretary of "an agency that helps people."

"The impact the agency can have on people's lives, particularly on the most vulnerable among us, is a rare opportunity," he said in an interview today.

Before coming to Maryland, Dallas was the second-in-command at Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare. He has also worked as an aide to Philadelphia's then-Mayor Ed Rendell and in the private sector for an IT company.

The Pennsylvania welfare agency, which Dallas helped lead for five years, is far larger than Maryland's, combining elements of human resources, juvenile services and health. It has a budget of $23 billion and about 19,000 employees, Dallas said.

The Maryland agency has a $2.6 billion budget and about 6,600 employees.  

O'Malley also announced today that Raquel Guillory will be his new communications director and Catherine Motz will fill Dallas' former position as deputy chief of staff. Guillory has served as Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler's chief spokeswoman for the past several years, and Motz has been the governor's deputy legal counsel for the past four years.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 1:08 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Administration
        

Hoyer honors Schaefer on House floor

Southern Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer credited William Donald Schaefer with transforming Baltimore and called him “one of the great American mayors” in a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives Thursday to honor the longtime political leader.

“Few mayors can ever say that they transformed a city as thoroughly as he did,” Hoyer said of Schaefer, who died April 18. “But over his 16-year tenure as mayor of Baltimore, he led a dramatic and historic turnaround.

“Just as importantly, Mayor Schaefer’s legacy came in thousands of gestures that showed just how deeply he cared about the people he represented, and how seriously he took his work.”

Complete text of the speech follows, after the jump.


“I rise to honor the legacy of Maryland’s Governor William Donald Schaefer, who died on April 18th after a long life of public service.

“William Donald Schaefer was one of the great American mayors. Few mayors can ever say that they transformed a city as thoroughly as he did. But over his 16-year tenure as mayor of Baltimore, he led a dramatic and historic turnaround. In 1971, when his mayoralty started, Baltimore was a deeply struggling city: a city plagued by population flight, crime, and a decaying urban infrastructure. When so many had given up on Baltimore, Mayor Schaefer made it his mission to stand up to that decay. And we can still see his legacy today: it is a legacy that includes physical landmarks like Camden Yards, the National Aquarium, Baltimore’s Harborplace, and an outstanding light rail system, projects that he saw through to completion as both mayor and governor.

“Just as importantly, Mayor Schaefer’s legacy came in thousands of gestures that showed just how deeply he cared about the people he represented, and how seriously he took his work: personally addressing illegal dumping in alleys or broken equipment at parks, driving through the city at night on the lookout for everything from potholes to crime trouble spots, and even jumping into the Aquarium’s seal pool—complete with a rubber ducky—when the city failed to complete the Aquarium on time. Above all, his colorful, passionate, and dedicated leadership added up to a change not just in Baltimore’s appearance and infrastructure, but in its mindset. In the words of the Baltimore Sun he ‘changed the way the city felt about itself.’

“He brought that same dedication to his two terms as Maryland’s governor. His trademark no-nonsense style was on display in Annapolis, where he pursued an agenda focused on job creation, strengthening Maryland’s schools—which now rank as the nation’s best—and protecting Maryland’s natural heritage, including our beloved Chesapeake. After reaching the highest point in Maryland politics, many would have ridden off into the sunset. But William Donald Schaefer couldn’t get enough of the work he loved: he ran for state comptroller and won twice. In his last job, he was one of our state’s most respected voices for fiscal responsibility.

“Before he died, Governor Schaefer was asked how he’d like to be remembered. He answered: ‘There are two words: ‘He cared.’ People mock me and make fun of it. But it’s the truth.’ It is the truth—and it mattered because, at a time when so many wrote off our cities, caring took remarkable courage and strength.

“A great architect was once laid to rest in a building he himself had designed. His tombstone read: ‘If you seek his monument—look around you.’ Those words apply just as well to William Donald Schaefer, and I hope that the people he served will bear them in mind whenever they enjoy the best that the city of Baltimore and our state of Maryland have to offer.”

Posted by John Fritze at 11:59 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Washington
        

Ruppersberger views bin Laden pictures

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, one of a handful of lawmakers in Congress with oversight on intelligence issues, traveled to the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters in Virginia Thursday to view about a half dozen photographs of Osama bin Laden’s body, the Baltimore County lawmaker said.

“My first thought was, this was Osama bin Laden,” said Ruppersberger, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence. “It wasn't really gruesome… There was some blood but his face was not distorted to the point where you couldn’t really determine who he was.”

Ruppersberger viewed the pictures in a fourth-floor conference room at CIA headquarters for about 30 minutes, he said. Analysts presented several pictures of bin Laden alive alongside the photographs of his body and highlighted matching facial features with arrows.

One of the pictures shows bin Laden wrapped in a white robe before he was buried at sea, Ruppersberger said. No one else is in the picture and the sea can be seen in the background, he said. Other pictures show bin Laden’s face and body.


President Barack Obama said this past weekend that he would not release photos to prove that bin Laden had been killed. “We don't trot out this stuff as trophies," Obama said during an interview with CBS. "The fact of the matter is, this is somebody who was deserving of the justice that he received."

Since then several members of Congress, including those who sit on armed services and intelligence committees, have said they have been invited by the CIA to come to the agency's headquarters in Virginia to see the photographs.

Ruppersberger described the pictures as “respectful,” but said he nevertheless agrees with the administration’s decision not to release them for now. “We don't want to inflame people who support bin Laden. We don't want to put Americans at risk.”

Posted by John Fritze at 11:40 AM | | Comments (17)
Categories: Washington
        

Cummings, Issa battle over federal contractors proposal

Hours before a congressional hearing was set to begin Thursday on a White House proposal that would require federal contractors to disclose political donations Republicans and Democrats were heatedly arguing over the witness lineup.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the top-ranking Democrat on the committee, had invited Fred Wertheimer of the Washington-based watchdog group Democracy 21 to testify in support of the draft proposal, but said Thursday that Rep. Darrell Issa, the committee’s GOP chairman, denied the request.

Five of the seven remaining witnesses expected to testify oppose the measure.

“It is deeply troubling that Chairman Issa refused to allow testimony from this coalition of independent experts,” the Baltimore lawmaker said in a statement. “Denying their testimony is a disservice to members of Congress and the public, and it tarnishes the integrity of the committee.”

A spokesman for Issa noted that the witness roster includes an Obama administration official as well as Lawrie Hollingsworth, president of a Chicago-based engineering company that supports the White House measure.

“Cummings has only himself to look at for his failure to coordinate his minority witness request with his Democratic counterparts on the Small Business Committee,” Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said in a statement. “Whatever this committee does, whoever it invites … Cummings always looks for a way to obstruct and whine.”

The White House proposal, which has not been officially released, would require contractors to declare third-party political contributions exceeding $5,000 a year – a response to the millions of dollars in corporate money that flowed into the 2010 election without being reported. Some Democrats have called for more disclosure of those contributions, but business groups and Republican lawmakers say the proposal would politicize how the federal government buys goods and services.

Maryland is a powerhouse for government contracting: Companies in the state secured more than $34 billion in federal business in 2009. A total of 80,987 federal contracts were awarded to 13,277 businesses in Maryland in 2007, according to a 2010 report from the state Department of Legislative Services.

Some Democrats have also expressed concerned about the idea as well. Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the House, said this week that he was “not in agreement with the administration on that issue.” Hoyer’s Southern Maryland district is home to many federal contractors.

The hearing, which is titled “Politicizing procurement: Would President Obama's proposal curb free speech and hurt small business?" will include testimony from two contracting associations, a law professor who has written about his opposition to the proposal and a lawyer who represents federal contractors.

Also included on the witness list is Daniel Gordon, who heads procurement for the Obama administration in the Office of Management of Budget. Because the draft proposal was leaked and has not been formally endorsed by the White House, it’s not clear whether he will directly defend it.

Posted by John Fritze at 10:27 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Washington
        

May 11, 2011

Cardin asks oil companies to give up tax breaks

On the day before the heads of the country’s five largest oil companies are due for a Senate Finance Committee grilling on tax subsidies, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin is asking them to admit that they no longer need the breaks.

The Maryland Democrat is a co-sponsor of the Close Big Oil Tax Loopholes Act, which supporters say will save the federal government $4 billion annually. The so-called Big Five – Exxon Mobil, Conoco Phillips, Chevron, Shell and BP America – have reported a total $36 billion in profits for the first quarter of 2011.

“At a time of soaring gas prices and record deficits, the five most profitable oil companies do not need, or deserve, a handout from the American taxpayer,” Cardin said in a statement.
He has joined fellow Finance Committee Democrats Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Bill Nelson of Florida, Chuck Schumer of New York and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan in a letter to the oil executives.

“We are sure you will agree that our nation’s mounting debt is a serious threat to our recovering economy,” they wrote. “But if we are truly serious about cutting our deficit, it is imperative that we start by getting rid of wasteful and ineffective corporate subsidies that have outlived their usefulness. … The former President of Shell Oil, John Hofmeister, had the courage to say, in no uncertain terms, that your companies no longer need these giveaways. We urge you, in your testimony tomorrow before the Senate Finance Committee, to acknowledge the same.”

Complete text of the letter follows, after the jump.

Rex W. Tillerson John S. Watson
Exxon Mobil Corporation Chevron Corporation
5959 Las Colinas Boulevard 6001 Bollinger Canyon Road
Irving, Texas 75039-2298 San Ramon, CA 94583

James J. Mulva Marvin Odum
ConocoPhillips Shell
600 North Dairy Ashford One Shell Plaza
P.O. Box 2197 910 Louisiana Street
Houston, TX 77252-2197 Houston, TX. 77002

H. Lamar McKay
BP America
501 Westlake Park Blvd
Houston, TX. 77079


Dear Sirs:

As members of the Senate Committee on Finance, we eagerly await your testimony at our panel’s hearing tomorrow. We urge you to take this opportunity to publicly admit that, given your companies' prodigious profits, you no longer need taxpayer subsidies. We hope you will do the right thing for our country's fiscal health and endorse their discontinuation.

We are sure you will agree that our nation’s mounting debt is a serious threat to our recovering economy. But if we are truly serious about cutting our deficit, it is imperative that we start by getting rid of wasteful and ineffective corporate subsidies that have outlived their usefulness. That is why we introduced legislation yesterday—the Close Big Oil Tax Loopholes Act (S. 940)—that would end $21 billion in projected taxpayer subsidies for the five largest integrated oil companies. The former President of Shell Oil, John Hofmeister, had the courage to say, in no uncertain terms, that your companies no longer need these giveaways. We urge you, in your testimony tomorrow before the Senate Finance Committee, to acknowledge the same.

We agree with the vast majority of Americans that taxpayer subsidization of your companies is no longer necessary. When many of these tax breaks were passed into law, oil was less than $20 a barrel. Today, the price of oil is hovering around $100 a barrel. Because of the exponential increase in the price of oil, the companies you successfully manage have reported a combined total of $36 billion in corporate profits in the first quarter of 2011 alone. That amounts to a staggering $2.8 billion per week of profit.

Every single one of us has heard from constituents back home who are struggling with the rising price of gasoline. While families across the country are being squeezed, your industry is doing better than ever. And yet the U.S. government continues to dole out $4 billion a year in tax breaks to your companies. These subsidies are not sustainable, and we intend to end them.

We are hopeful that you will agree that S. 940 makes economic sense in our shared goal of putting our country back on the right fiscal track.

Sincerely,

Senator Bob Menendez
Senator Chuck Schumer
Senator Debbie Stabenow
Senator Bill Nelson
Senator Ben Cardin

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 5:34 PM | | Comments (9)
        

Miller: Special session should include tax hikes and pension shift

Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller made a pitch this week to use the upcoming special session to erase the state's structural deficit and solve a persistent funding transportation funding problem.

To achieve the goal Miller floated one of his favorite budget policy ideas: Shifting the costs of teacher pensions to the counties.

The idea is one that terrifies county leaders since it would add a new burden to their already strapped budgets. Miller suggested making up the difference with new taxes and tackling the transportation issue with "greater contributions from the users and the beneficiaries of our public infrastructure."

In a letter he sent Monday to Gov. Martin O'Malley and all 188 members of the General Assembly, Miller called moving the pension costs "good fiscal and public policy" and pointed out that if the locals paid the full amount -- $1 billion -- the state's structural deficit would no longer exist and the state could "finally talk about what we can do to best position Maryland's future in the new economy."  In 2010, the Senate passed a measure that would have eventually moved $337 million in pension costs to the counties, but it died in the House. Speaker Michael E. Busch has repeatedly said that his chamber does not have the votes to make the pension changes.

O'Malley flirted with the idea of off-loading pension costs this year, but decided to table the issue until the General Assembly cut benefits to make the retirement plan more sustainable.

Most of the talk about the special session, which has to be called so lawmakers can approve a new map for congressional redistricting, has focused on fixing the transportation trust fund. That fund is separate from the state operating budget. It pays for improvements to roads, bridges and trains.

A Blue Ribbon Commission Report on Transportation Funding published earlier this year estimated that an extra $800 million is needed for state projects. Ideas to raise money include: 

* Increasing the current 23.5 cent per gallon tax on gas. Each penny increase equals $32 million in revenue for the state. Speaking at a Chamber of Commerce dinner recently, O'Malley said that he does not like relying solely on a "traditional" gas tax increase because the revenue stream will decrease as cars become more fuel efficient and people use public transportation.

* Index the gas tax to the Consumer Price Index (O'Malley has previously tried and failed to index the tax to the Construction Price Index). This could raise $66 million for the state according to the report.

* Apply the 6 percent sales tax to the purchase of gas (this would be on top of the 23.5 cent tax.) It raises $580 million.

* Increase fee for vehicle emission testing from $14 to $24, a change that would raise $15 million for the state

Posted by Annie Linskey at 2:10 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Administration
        

Balto. Co. police to receive award at White House

Three Baltimore County police officers will meet with President Barack Obama at the White House on Thursday after winning an annual law enforcement award, Rep. John Sarbanes said Wednesday.

Michael B. Forish, Michael Gerard Lynch and Zachary J. Small, were among 30 officers, deputies and agents from nine states who won an award from the National Association of Police Organizations this year. The three pulled a disabled man out of a burning building in Pikesville just before it collapsed, according to Sarbanes.

In a statement, the Baltimore County Democrat said when the three officers arrived at the fire they found the disabled man stuck in his wheelchair on the staircase. He called the three “heroes who risked their lives to save another.” The incident took place on Halloween.

The TOP COPS Awards are based on an independent review of hundreds of nominations and are intended to pay tribute to law enforcement officers "for actions above and beyond the call of duty during the preceding year."

Posted by John Fritze at 12:53 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Washington
        

Ruppersberger will view bin Laden photos

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a member of a small group of lawmakers that oversees intelligence issues in Congress, will view the photographs of Osama bin Laden’s body that were taken after the raid on his compound, a spokeswoman said.

The Baltimore County lawmaker, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, has been invited to see the pictures and plans to do so, said spokeswoman Heather Molino. The timing is uncertain but he may see them as early as today, she said.

President Barack Obama announced in an interview with 60 Minutes on Sunday that he would not release photos to prove that bin Laden had been killed. “We don't trot out this stuff as trophies," Obama said during that interview. "The fact of the matter is, this is somebody who was deserving of the justice that he received."

Since then several members of Congress, including those who sit on armed services and intelligence committees, have said they have been invited by the Central Intelligence Agency to come to the agency's headquarters in Virginia to see the photographs.

Speaking at a Parkville retirement community last week, Ruppersberger said he agreed with the White House decision not to release the photos to the general public.

"Down the road," Ruppersberger said, "that situation might be reconsidered."

Posted by John Fritze at 11:33 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Washington
        

Maryland higher education: the state gives and takes

** UPDATE

Gov. Martin O'Malley just announced that he will restore funding to the Distinguished Scholars program. In a statement he called the cut an "error" saying that he never intended to revoke funding from students who had received awards.

"It was never our intention to impact prior awards," said O'Malley in a statement. "Clearly, our commitment to honor existing awards was not fulfilled and I’ve directed [the Maryland Higher Education Commission] MHEC to immediately correct the error and restore the four-year scholarships to all seniors who were expecting their award."

** ORIGINAL POST

Roughly 350 top-performing Maryland seniors learned earlier this month that they won't be receiving scholarships from the state for college next year, The Sun reported this morning.

The reason: The $1.35 million Distinguished Scholars program was included in a package of budget cuts offered by Gov. Martin O'Malley and approved by the General Assembly. "When we're dealing with the kind of recession we've been dealing with, every program can't be protected," said Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for O'Malley.

The awards, worth $12,000 over four years, only go to the state's best and brightest, like Lindsay Michocki (pictured on the right). She took 11 AP courses, graduated top of her class and was recruited by the Ivy League. Her scholarship was rescinded.

The Sun also reported today that the state is expanding funding for a different set of high school graduates  -- illegal immigrants. O'Malley on Tuesday signed into law the Maryland Dream Act, a bill that offers discounted tuition to undocumented residents who've attended three years of high school and paid taxes.


Legislative analysts say the in-state tuition bill won't impact the state spending plan that starts July 1, but over time the program will cost money. In FY2014, the program costs $778K and by FY2016 the cost will rise to $3.5 million. Critics contend that the price tag is low because it relies on a set of assumptions that underestimates the number of illegal immigrants who will take advantage of the program.
Posted by Annie Linskey at 11:03 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Administration
        

May 10, 2011

Hoyer opposes disclosure rule for federal contractors

Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, said Tuesday he opposes a White House plan that would require federal contractors to disclose their political contributions as a condition for winning government business.

The revelation puts the Southern Maryland lawmaker at odds with a White House proposal drafted last month that would require contractors to disclose third-party political contributions exceeding $5,000 a year. The proposal has not been formally released, but it has already faced harsh criticism from the business lobby and some Republican lawmakers.

“I don’t think it ought to be a requirement,” Hoyer said.

"You know, I think the issue on contracting ought to be on the merits of the contractor's application and bid and capabilities," he said. "I think the other aspects are, frankly -- I think there is some serious questions as to what implications there are if somehow we consider political contributions in the context of awarding contracts."

Millions of dollars of corporate money flowed into the 2010 election – much of it never disclosed – after a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year struck down a prohibition on corporations and unions funding certain types of political advertising. Some Democrats are calling for more disclosure of those contributions as next year's presidential election nears.

But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and several Republican lawmakers have countered that the White House proposal could discourage companies that contribute to GOP candidates from seeking work under a Democratic administration.

Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, scheduled a hearing on the White House proposal Thursday. Baltimore Rep. Elijah E. Cummings is the top-ranking Democrat on that committee.

Cummings sent a letter to Issa Tuesday arguing that the witnesses set to testify at the hearing "appear to represent only one side of the debate." The witnesses who have confirmed to speak at the hearing include three representatives of the contracting industry, a law professor who has written that the White House plan would "deeply politicize the contracting process," and a Washington lawyer who advises contractors on federal procurement laws.

Cummings invited Fred Wertheimer, president of government watchdog group Democracy 21, to appear at the hearing.

"I am concerned that such an unbalanced approach would not provide members an accurate or complete understanding of this issue," Cummings wrote in the letter.

Posted by John Fritze at 3:48 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Washington
        

In Howard, tough sell for state transportation fixes

Discussion has been heating up in recent weeks about how to pay for transportation projects in the state, and a lot of people are thinking Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly will use this fall's special session to come up with a solution to funding concerns.

As Larry Carson writes in his Howard County Political Notebook this week, an increase in the gas tax looks less likely as prices rise.

Click through to read the whole thing, but here's a taste:

"If Howard’s delegation is any measure, it will be tough to pass anything. Everyone agrees there is a problem, but there’s no consensus on a solution, and few are suggesting specific options. Among the ideas mentioned are broadening the state sales tax to apply to various services as well as goods or applying the 6 percent sales tax to gasoline in addition to the per-gallon tax.

Many are like Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Democrat who has a fervent wish: “One keeps hopeful things will get better.”

But that seems a distant goal, and after several years of reduced state highway aid, locally maintained roads are deteriorating and new projects are stalled."

Posted by Andy Rosen at 3:27 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: In The Counties
        

Former Rep. Tom McMillen named to fitness foundation

Tom McMillen, the former Maryland basketball star who served three terms in the House of Representatives, will chair a new congressionally chartered foundation focused on fitness and nutrition, Obama administration officials said Tuesday.

McMillen, a star for the Terrapins who went on to play professionally from 1975 to 1986, will lead the National Foundation on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition at a time when the White House – and particularly first lady Michelle Obama – have tried to raise awareness about childhood obesity.

The Crofton Democrat, who is 58, represented Anne Arundel County and parts of Prince George’s County in Congress from 1987 through 1992. The foundation, which was created by legislation authored by Rep. John Sarbanes, will seek private funding for the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.

“We are facing a national youth health crisis, with one in three kids obese or overweight,” Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, said in a statement. “The creation of this foundation will give the [council] the ability to leverage private funding to expand its scope and activities and promote physical fitness and sports programs across the county.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius named the board members at an event on Capitol Hill Tuesday. The nine-member governing board will also include Scott Blackmun, CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and NBC sports analyst Cris Collinsworth.

McMillen previously served on the Council on Physical Fitness and Sports under President Clinton but was forced to step down in 1997 after federal agents raided a Washington-based health management company that he led. McMillen was not charged and nothing came of that investigation.

Posted by John Fritze at 2:53 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Washington
        

State House dome to get a facelift

The dome of the historic Maryland State House -- the oldest continuously operating state capitol in the country -- is getting a facelift this summer.

The Department of General Services says the 222-year-old dome will be scraped and repainted, and windows will be repaired. Scaffolding is already being erected (pictured).

DGS reports that this is the first time since 1996 that the dome, the highest point in Annapolis, will be covered in scaffolding. Winds, salty air and direct sun have taken their toll on the paint. An upgraded primer will be applied this time.

“As the most important historic structure in Maryland, the State House requires special attention for its care and preservation,” DGS Secretary Alvin C. Collins said in a statement.

The project, which began this month and is scheduled to be completed in late October, costs $787,000, said Sam Cook, Annapolis regional director of DGS.

Trivia: Although white for most of its years, the State House dome originally was "finished in hues of ochre and blue," according to the Maryland Historical Trust. 

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 1:23 PM | | Comments (6)
        

Former N.Y. development official hired by Balto. Co.

Baltimore County has hired a former top development official from New York State to serve as chief of the local economic development department.

Daniel C. Gundersen was New York's commissioner of Economic Development in 2007 and 2008, and has recently been a senior advisor for Econsult Corp., based in Philadelphia.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced the appointment in a statement.

"The stakes are high, and this is a very important appointment. Mr. Gundersen's extensive contacts with the private sector will be invaluable in Baltimore County," the statement said. "He respects and understands the very important role that the private sector plays in our economy. That was very important to me."

Gunderson will become acting director June 1, and will need County Council approval to make the appointment official.

Posted by Andy Rosen at 1:12 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: In The Counties
        

Tuition breaks, wine ship among bills to be signed

In-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants and direct shipping of wine are among the dozens of bills to be signed this morning by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Early reaction to bill signings after the jump.

In the second bill signing of the spring -- the next is planned for next week -- O'Malley and legislative leaders are to bless some of the session's more controversial proposals. A complete list is available here. The bills typically don't take effect until July 1 or October 1.

Other measures up for signature today include prescription drug monitoring, tighter gun laws and a commission to develop a method to distribute medical marijuana. The marijuana legislation also will enable sick people to be found not guilty if arrested with a small amount of the drug. 

Legislators and local officials, including Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, have gathered in Annapolis for the ceremony, scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. The event will be broadcast over the Internet.

The O'Malley administration issued a statement on the tuition bill:

"We have a constitutional obligation to provide a public education for every child in our state," Labor Secretary Alex Sanchez wrote. "But we should not allow our nation’s broken immigration system to serve as an excuse to escape our basic, moral obligation to expand opportunity for all Marylanders, provided they graduated from a Maryland high school, pay taxes in our state, and are on a path toward citizenship."

O'Malley will join President Barack Obama's drug czar later today to discuss Maryland's new prescription drug monitoring program.

Wine advocates cheered the direct-shipping legislation. Wineries can pay $200 per year for a permit to ship to residences.

Kevin Atticks, director of the Maryland Wineries Association, said "wineries are raring to go." The legislation takes effect July 1.

Adam Borden, a wine consumer advocate with Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws, said the shipping legislation is a "major step." But he noted that consumers must continue to fight for retailers, who often have wine of the month clubs, to join wineries in the ability to ship.

Waiting in line to watch the medical marijuana bill being signed, polio survivor Barry Considine, said he was "pleased" with the progress this year. He said he hopes Maryland soon takes the "next step" and helps sick people "avoid arrest altogether" by establishing a state-sanctioned distribution system. 

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 11:33 AM | | Comments (71)
Categories: 2011 legislative session
        

May 9, 2011

Council chairman supports Balto. Co. PAL move

Baltimore County Council chairman John Olszewski Sr., said he’s comfortable with plans to remove recreation centers from police supervision starting next month.

Officers will remain connected to the centers and serve as mentors for youth, Olszewski said.
“It’s not like they’re bailing out 100 percent,” he said. “One of the major concerns for everybody is public safety. Our police department is doing an outstanding job, but at the same time I think they also believe it is important for them to continue to be role models.”

Michael Gimbel, the county’s former director of substance abuse, said he recalled discussions about moving the centers over to the parks and recreation department occurring almost annually. While a move was attempted during former county executive Dennis Rasmussen’s administration, officials decided that putting police in charge improved public perceptions and had a greater impact on children, he said.

With county crime rates improving, it’s important to consider the role of PAL centers along with school resource officers and programs like D.A.R.E., Gimbel said.

“The real reduction in crimes comes from prevention as much as it comes from police work,” Gimbel said. “Having police officers in the schools, in the PAL centers has an impact on the reduction of juvenile crime. It all makes a difference but we all understand the dilemma the chief is in, the county executive is in.”

For the move to be effective, recreation and parks workers will need more intense training in counseling, drug and alcohol prevention and other interventions, he said.

“Really, the PAL officers were more than just police officers playing baseball with the kids,” Gimbel said. “They did a lot more.”

-Raven L. Hill

Posted by Andy Rosen at 5:25 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: In The Counties
        

O'Malley brother-in-law to fight for Constellation sale

Max Curran, a seasoned utilities attorney and former Maryland Public Service Commission member, will lead the legal fight for state approval of the sale of Constellation Energy and BGE, The Sun's Jay Hancock reports.

Curran will help shepherd the purchase of the local companies to Chicago-based Exelon through the Public Service Commission. Hancock notes Curran's tie to O'Malley could come in handy:

"The hookup isn't a conflict of interest for Gov. Martin O'Malley or anybody else under the state's ethics law. But it at least bears the appearance of another attempt by Constellation boss Mayo A. Shattuck III to butter up the governor."

When the deal was announced two weeks ago, Hancock notes, "almost the first thing stock analysts wanted to know was how in the world the deal could get done, given Constellation's O'Malley troubles."

More from Hancock:

"Through a spokeswoman, Curran declined to comment, saying he didn't want to speak publicly about a pending case. Constellation declined to answer my question about whether Curran's ties to O'Malley were a factor in the decision to hire him.

Robert A. Hahn, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, would not address Curran's Constellation gig specifically. However, he said, Maryland law bars public officials from participating in matters involving somebody who employs a spouse, child, parent or sibling. Nothing about siblings-in-law.

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said Curran's involvement would have no bearing on the governor's approach to the Constellation-Exelon combo."

See Hancock's column for the full report.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 12:11 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Martin O'Malley
        

May 6, 2011

Montgomery Co. bag tax -- coming soon statewide?

This week, Montgomery County approved a 5-cent levy on paper and plastic bags, becoming the first Maryland jurisdiction to institute a "bag tax." But it likely won't be the last.

Already state lawmakers are laying the groundwork to expand the tax statewide. DC has had tax on disposable bags at food store since January 2010. The Montgomery County bag tax, which will take effect in January, extends to more kinds of retailers.

Prince George's County lawmakers pursued a bag tax earlier this year but couldn't get the legislation passed. Montgomery and Baltimore city and county are the only three areas with taxing authority; the 21 other counties need state legislative approval first.

The Baltimore City Council bagged a proposed bag tax in 2009. Councilman Bill Henry had sought a whopping 25-cents per bag -- a high enough number, he figured, to end the disposable bag addiction.

Bag taxes at the local level are spreading across the country, though the National Conference of State Legislatures noted in February that no state had instituted a statewide tax.

The Gazette reported that Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat who championed a bag tax this session, thinks Montgomery's bag tax "continues the momentum."

Carr's statewide plan would have required stores to charge 5 cents for each disposable bag. Stores would be able to keep one cent -- two if they offered a "customer bag credit program."

Most of the revenue raised would have gone to the Chesapeake Bay Trust. The fiscal note doesn't provide a solid estimate of how much money the tax would generate.

"While the total amount of bag fee revenue that will be allocated to the trust cannot be reliably estimated, it is anticipated to be significant, based on revenue generated over the past year by the District of Columbia’s new bag program."

However, The Washington Post recently noted that DC's bag tax "is generally viewed as an environmental success, if not necessarily a fiscal one." The Post said consumers quickly and overwhelmingly stopped using disposable bags.

If lawmakers succeed in passing a statewide bag tax next session, the question is, will Montgomery County be double-bag-taxed?

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 6:15 PM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Tax & Spend
        

State seeks to rescind controversial autism appointment

The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is trying to oust David Geier from a state autism advisory panel, The Sun's Meredith Cohn reports.

Geier and his father, Dr. Mark Geier, have drawn scrutiny for their controversial view that autism is linked to the mercury in in vaccines -- an idea that has been discredited by the Institute of Medicine. 

Mark Geier's medical license in Maryland was suspended this week; David Geier is not a medical doctor, but the Montgomery County man has worked closely with his father.

"Under the circumstances, we do not believe it's appropriate for David Geier to serve on the autism commission," said David Paulson, a spokesman for the state health department. "Unfortunately, he declined to resign his commission. ... As a result, we are considering the appropriate next steps."

The health department recommended David Geier and 18 others for the panel, which was created in 2009 and advises Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly on autism.

Health officials have not explained why it wanted Geier's input, other than to say they sought a "diverse" array of views. Like all applicants, Paulson said, Geier applied on his own.

The Maryland Commission on Autism is led by Renata J. Henry, deputy secretary of behavioral health and disabilities. Sen. Katherine Klausmeier and Del. Kirill Reznik also serve on the panel.

The commission's preliminary report to the General Assembly is due June 1, and a final report is to be submitted in September 2012.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 12:29 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Administration
        

Arundel casino delay to cost state, county $120M

The Cordish Co's decision to abandon plans for a temporary casino will blow as much as a $120 million hole in the budgets next year for the state, Anne Arundel County and horse racing industry, The Sun's Nicole Fuller reports.

The Baltimore-based developer loses out on $59 million in its own profits, according to figures compiled by the state Department of Legislative Services. Company head David Cordish, who blames the delay on litigation by a jilted would-be slots developer, says he will focus on opening the first phase of the permanent structure at Arundel Mills mall by June 2012.  

The legislative agency also detailed how the delay affects others. State law prescribes how all slots revenue is to be split up. Here's the breakdown:

Loss to the state's education trust fund: $87 million (Gov. Martin O'Malley's aides say the figure drops to $70 million because the state won't need to purchase machines next fiscal year.) 
Loss to the horse racing industry: $17 million
Loss to the county: $10 million (though the county budget director says $8.1 million)
Loss to minority and women-owned business development fund: $3 million
Loss to the lottery agency: $4 million

State legislators and O'Malley officials say the state can absorb the loss through what it hopes are higher-than-expected revenue streams and, if necessary, by tapping the $43 million fund balance available next year.

Still, the Democratic governor and his aides had harsh words for Cordish, saying he broke his commitment to the state.

The horse racing industry -- which had hoped to build a casino at Laurel Park race track and was part of a lawsuit to stop Cordish's project at the mall -- says it can't afford to lose the anticipated slots money.

John Franzone, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, called Cordish's decision disappointing but understandable, Fuller reports.

"I can understand their rationale," said Franzone. "But right now, the loss of purse money is devastating, because we're surrounded on all sides in other states by table gaming. It's tough."

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 11:46 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Slots
        

May 5, 2011

Leopold takes detail to fundraiser with Huckabee

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold’s county-paid security detail ferried Leopold Wednesday to a fundraiser for the Maryland GOP headlined by former Arkansas governor and possible GOP-presidential contender Mike Huckabee at a private home in Montgomery County, Leopold’s spokesman said Thursday.

Leopold paid $100 by private check to attend the event sponsored by the Maryland Republican Party at a home in North Potomac, said spokesman Dave Abrams, adding that an officer from the detail drove Leopold to the event.

Leopold, a Republican, is under investigation by the state prosecutor’s office, which is looking into whether he improperly used his county-funded security detail to work on his recent campaign. Leopold has denied any wrongdoing and has moved to limit the use of the security detail following last year’s election.

“The county executive goes to all types of community and political events during the day or night,” said Abrams. “The county executive has been very clear that he has curtailed the use of his detail to minimize the use of overtime. But on advice from the police department, he has a security detail present when he goes to public events. The decision to use the detail is made on a case-by-case basis.”

Ryan Mahoney, a spokesman for the state Republican party, said about 150 people attended the event and paid anywhere from $100 to $2,500. The event was expected to raise between $15,000 and $20,000.

Other notable Maryland Republicans in attendance were Harford County Executive David R. Craig and Del. Justin D. Ready, of Carroll County, Mahoney said.

As for the popularity of Fox News host Huckabee in Maryland, Mahoney said, “He’s pretty popular nationally. He finished second to John McCain in 2008. Most people don’t remember that. He’s got a following.”

Mahoney added that his party plans to invite other possible GOP presidential contenders to the state. What about Donald Trump?

“If he wants to come, who knows,” Mahoney said, in a fit of laughter. “But no, we have no plans to bring The Donald yet.”

-Nicole Fuller

Posted by Andy Rosen at 5:50 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: In The Counties
        

When was the last time Peter Angelos wrote a letter to the editor?

The O's owner blasts Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake over the State Center redevelopment in a rare letter to The Sun.

Details on Baltimore Insider.

Posted by Laura Vozzella at 5:02 PM | | Comments (1)
        

Cardin proposes capturing highway runoff

Rain water that rolls off new or newly renovated federally funded highways would be collected and treated for pollution before it reaches nearby waterways under a bill introduced this week by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin.

Heavy rains wash tailpipe emissions, brake dust, oil and other pollutants off highways and ultimately into drinking water supplies, Cardin’s office said Thursday. The bill, similar to legislation the Maryland Democrat introduced last year, would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop design standards for how to address the problem.

There are more than 985,000 miles of highway in the United States. During a hearing last year, Cardin said that every inch of rain that falls on a mile of two-lane highway produces 52,000 gallons of polluted runoff.

“Stormwater is the largest source of water pollution in our nation,” Cardin said in a statement. “We must design and construct roads in ways that address contaminated highway runoff at its source, reducing the chance of flash floods and stopping pollution before it reaches the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.”

Cardin, a longtime proponent of addressing runoff issues, is a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and chairs a subcommittee on water and wildlife. It’s not clear how much his proposal would cost.

Posted by John Fritze at 4:09 PM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Washington
        

Locals seeking less school construction money

Next year's $264 million package of school construction money, approved yesterday by the Board of Public Works, contained signs of financial strife in the counties, state officials said.

Charles and Wicomico counties are so strapped that they couldn't accept a total of $12 million for construction projects that are already well under way. And other counties had to say no to smaller upgrades.

But perhaps even more troubling, according to David G. Lever, director of the state's Public School Construction Program, is a years-long pattern of county officials seeking less and less money. He said the drop in requests likely reflects inability to pay the local share of projects. 

Here's what the 23 counties and Baltimore City have requested from the state recently:

Fiscal Year 2006: $593 million for 252 projects
FY07: $730 million for 410 projects
FY08: $894 million for 402 projects (peak)
FY09: $871 million for 326 projects
FY10: $766 million for 283 projects
FY11: $729 million for 251 projects
FY12 (begins July 1): $612 million for 244 projects  

(Photo of vacant land in Waldorf where St. Charles High School is to be built. By Sun photographer Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Though requests are declining, Lever said, "the need across the state is as enormous as ever."

In 2004, a state commission found $3.85 billion in necessary school construction and renovation. Lever said if the same survey were done today, his agency estimates those needs now amount to $5 billion, in part because of escalating construction costs.

Lever said to have Charles and Wicomico counties delay state funding for buildings that are already well on their way was "unprecedented" and "a real bellwether of the economy."

Charles officials are worried they won't have the tax base to support operation of the St. Charles High School once it is built. Perhaps they are mindful of the "Three Cups of Tea" problem; a charity built dozens of new schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but local leaders don't have the money to staff many of them. They're called "ghost schools."

The problem in Wicomico, officials there said, is coming up with the local capital match. They hope to round up enough money to resume construction in fiscal year 2013.

It's also worth noting that a $24 million chunk of FY12 construction money is actually FY11 money that didn't get used.

All of this comes at a time when Maryland is about to hike the sales tax on alcohol -- in part to pay for school construction.

Beginning July 1, if Gov. Martin O'Malley signs as expected, sales tax on alcohol will jump from 6 to 9 percent. Nearly $48 million generated by the tax next year will be earmarked for school construction.

Baltimore City and Prince George's and Montgomery counties get the most, $9 million each, while Western Maryland counties share $750,000 and the Eastern Shore counties divvy up $1.25 million.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 8:42 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Tax & Spend
        

May 4, 2011

O’Malley says new funding needed for transportation

Gov. Martin O’Malley made a case to Maryland’s business community that the state needs more money to fix roads and build new ones in a 15 minute speech to the Chamber of Commerce Wednesday night.

Outlining five “hard truths” about the state’s aging infrastructure and dwindling revenue sources, he appeared to be laying the groundwork for a package of tax and fee increases. Top lawmakers have speculated that the fall special session needed for congressional redistricting will include a fix to the transportation trust fund.

“I’d like to tell you bridges are like trees and if we left them alone they would grow taller and stronger, but it is not true,” O’Malley said. “He said he would “like to” be able to say that the state could “build a $90 million bridge for $10 million” but added “it does not work that way.”

O'Malley told reporters that he is looking at a "mix of choices" for shoring up transportation dollars. He cautioned that relying solely on a "traditional" flat increase to the gas tax has drawbacks: It will raise fewer dollars over time since cars and trucks are becoming more fuel efficient and the state is creating incentives for people to use public transportation.

During the 2007 special session, O'Malley proposed an gas tax that would rise on an index, but he noted that the idea was not popular. The governor reminded the audience that there is a cost to inaction -- 495, he said, is like a parking lot. A region known for snarled traffic will not be able to attract new companies, he argued.

He also said that tolls will raise. The money is needed to pay for the widening of I-95 in Baltimore County and the Inter County Connector in the DC suburbs.

William T. Riley, Jr., the new chairman of the Maryland Chamber, spoke briefly after the governor and asked him not to a wide array of taxes during the special session, when the rules are different and bills move much more quickly through the legislative process.

"Some legislators have talked about heaping on taxes," Riley said. "We believe there should be dialog and discourse."
Posted by Annie Linskey at 8:02 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Administration
        

Statuary Hall gets a new member -- from MI, not MD

President Gerald R. Ford took his place this week in the National Statuary Hall Collection, shortly after former Detroit Mayor Zachariah Chandler was ushered out a side door of the U.S. Capitol.

Each state is allowed to contribute only two statues to the prestigious collection -- a rule Maryland lawmakers confronted this year as some sought to oust founding father John Hanson to make room for Underground Railroad hero Harriet Tubman. (Declaration signer Charles Carroll joins Hanson.) 

Uncomfortable with the idea of trading one historical figure for another, Maryland senators -- who include some of Hanson's descendants -- suggested asking Congress if the Free State could please be allowed a third statue.

But the House of Delegates didn't approve that plan, and some lawmakers have vowed to fight for Tubman again next year.

A recent visit to the Capitol revealed that Hanson (pictured far right) is in a hallway not accessible to the public. However, he has a commanding view of the Mall.

Chandler, whose marble likeness had graced the nation's capitol since 1913, was moved Sunday to Lansing's Constitution Hall.  U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, heralded the arrival of the bronze Ford statue.

"He looked down on no one and trusted the good sense of the American people," Boehner said at a ceremony Tuesday, according to prepared remarks. "Now the gentleman from Michigan has come home."

In 2000, Congress passed a law allowing states to replace statues once every 10 years. Kansas, California and Alabama have done so, installing President Dwight Eisenhower, President Ronald Reagan and Hellen Keller, respectively.

In a historical battle led by the Women's Caucus, Maryland appeared poised to send Tubman to Washington. Carroll and Hanson have been there since 1903. But opposition by Team Hanson proved insurmountable.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, an amateur historian who stands to the right of a likeness of Hanson every day in the Senate chamber, called a trade "completely unacceptable."

"You don't take down history," Miller said. "You add to it."

(Left: Ford ceremony Tuesday. Associated Press photo. See Detroit News for the story.)

 

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 7:19 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Washington
        

Bob's chicken and my blog

Find out what happened to Bob Ehrlich's plan to become a Chick-fil-A franchisee on my new blog, Baltimore Insider.
Posted by Laura Vozzella at 3:30 PM | | Comments (1)
        

May 3, 2011

Internet stars in effort to repeal tuition breaks for illegal immigrants

Opponents of Maryland’s plan to offer in-state college tuition rates to illegal immigrants are optimistic that they can stop the measure in its tracks. (Read the full Sun story here.)

A Republican-led petition drive to repeal the bill approved last month by the Democrat-led General Assembly began in earnest last week and has been welcomed enthusiastically by voters across the state, organizers say.

Organizers say they have combined the traditional boots-on-the-ground with a sophisticated website, mdpetitions.com, to overcome the challenges of collecting so many signatures in such a short time. (Casa de Maryland's position in favor of the measure can be found here.)

"First, I want to thank Al Gore for inventing the Internet," said Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a key petition drive organizer. "It’s playing a major role, and we have already had a tremendous number of hits."

The site links with Maryland’s voter registration database to automatically fill in the correct name and address of a petition signer, who then may print out, sign and date the form and mail it to the organizers. The mailing address is provided on a printed page that can be folded into an envelope.

McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, said the Internet also makes it easier for people to volunteer to circulate the petition because all of the materials can be printed out from the site, which also includes talking points. An example: "Many Marylanders cannot afford to send their own children to college, and yet this bill uses their tax dollars to pay for illegals to go to college."

Del. Neil C. Parrott, who is leading the repeal drive, said he conceived the idea for the site after meeting in February with the Board of Elections in preparation for a petition effort to overturn a same-sex marriage law that was expected to pass this year (It didn’t).

"I just wanted to make it easy and help people avoid pitfalls," said Parrott, a Washington County Republican.

He said he paid $2,000 of his own money to a web site development company, which he declined to identify. He is seeking donations to recover the cost. Parrott said the petition drive is “entirely grassroots” and has not tapped any national groups for support.

To succeed, they will have to collect 55,736 signatures — the equivalent of 3 percent of voters in the last gubernatorial election — by June 30. That would suspend the measure until November 2012, when voters would decide its fate in a referendum.

The first batch of more than 18,500 signatures is due by the end of this month.

"We’re off to a fantastic start," Parrott said. He would not say how many signatures have already been collected, but said he passed around the petition last week at a Washington Nationals baseball game and couldn’t believe how excited Marylanders were to sign on.

"You just start to explain the issue and a lot of people say, ‘Give me the form. I want to sign it right now.’"

Advocates for immigrants say they are taking a wait-and-see approach to the petition drive.

"Our strategy is to wait and get through the May deadline and see if they get anywhere close," said Kim Propeack, director of community organizing and political action for CASA de Maryland. She said it would be "a huge endeavor" to reach the signature requirement.

"We continue to believe that a majority of Marylanders support the bill, especially if it is accurately described," she said.

Noting that there are rules against committing fraud to obtain signatures, Propeack said Casa de Maryland has consulted with lawyers in case the petition is certified and the group decides to challenge it.

Maryland gives voters the opportunity to petition for the final say on most new laws. However, rules for petition drives are strict: Opponents have just a few months to gather tens of thousands of signatures, and to be counted, each must match or nearly match the exact name as it appears on the signer’s voter registration card.

The rejection rate is so high that the State Board of Elections recommends petitioners submit at least 30 percent more signatures than the required number, to account for those that will be deemed invalid.

Successful statewide petition efforts in Maryland are relatively rare.

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 6:45 PM | | Comments (16)
Categories: Immigration
        

Despite cuts, lawmakers seek funding for FDA complex

Maryland lawmakers are pressing the General Services Administration to maintain federal funding for the construction of a government complex in White Oak despite a more than 80 percent cut the agency took in the current-year spending plan approved by Congress in April.

When completed, the 12-year-old project will provide 1 million square feet of space for the Food and Drug Administration and house 9,000 employees, many of whom are now scattered around the region. Without the funding, the FDA will struggle to finish a laboratory slated to develop vaccines to bio-terrorism threats, the lawmakers said.

In a letter to the GSA, the agency charged with overseeing government buildings, five members of the state’s congressional delegation said that 500 construction jobs are also at stake if the complex has to be redesigned or put on hold. Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, along with Reps. Steny Hoyer, Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards signed the letter.

“We understand that if some of the … funds are not forthcoming, the Life Sciences-Biodefense cluster will have to be redesigned,” the lawmakers, all Democrats, wrote in reference to the laboratory. “The result would be significant additional cost to the taxpayers and construction delays.”

The push for the funding comes after Congress approved a stop-gap spending plan last month to keep the government running through the end of September. With Republicans advocating for deep cuts in spending -- and many Democrats acknowledging that the current pace of federal spending is not sustainable – Congress cut about $40 billion in the funding measure.

One of the largest single chunks came from GSA’s construction budget, which had more than $400 million in 2010 but that received $82 million this year. Previously, the White Oak project had an additional $138 million in dedicated funding, but that was eliminated in the stop-gap spending plan. The agency must now determine which projects to prioritize with its smaller budget.

A spokesman for the GSA was not immediately available for comment.

Posted by John Fritze at 1:06 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Washington
        

How Maryland's 9/11 victims list grew by 20

Maryland is moving ahead with plans to honor its residents who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with a memorial featuring beams from the toppled North Tower of New York City's World Trade Center.

Memorial organizers say the piece, to be displayed in front of Baltimore's World Trade Center in time for the 10th anniversary, will be all the more poignant because U.S. special forces have killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

The names of victims who considered Maryland home are to be inscribed in the marble base. Organizers have identified 63 such people. But careful readers of The Baltimore Sun will remember a different number -- 43 -- mentioned by Gov. Martin O'Malley when the mangled beams arrived in November.

Memorial committee chairman Randall "Rand" Griffin explained how the list of victims grew by 20 in the past few months.

Committee members contacted state and federal agencies that deal directly with 9/11 victims' families and found that there were a number of victims who, while not living in Maryland at the time of the attacks, had strong ties to the Free State.

Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr. of The Baltimore Sun

Griffin said memorial organizers then spoke with those families and asked whether they thought of their loved one as a Marylander. 

Now, the memorial will include both victims who'd been living in the state at the time of the attacks and those who grew up here and considered it home.  

Honor Elizabeth Wainio, 27, and Daniel McNeal, 29, were two Marylanders who weren't included in the original list of 43. (Relatives of both are featured in a Sun story this morning by Liz Kay and Childs Walker.)

Wainio died in the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pa. As her tribute page explains, Wainio was a former resident of Catonsville who graduated from Catonsville High School and Towson University. She moved to New Jersey in April 200 for a position as regional manager for the Discovery Channel stores.

McNeal died in the attacks at the World Trade Center. His tribute page includes stories from fellow Loyola Blakefield High School graduates. He went on to graduate from Boston College and Georgetown University before moving to New York to work as a financial analyst.

As McNeal's mother, Kathryn "Kitty" McNeal, said, Maryland "was his hometown. It's significant for his hometown to honor him."

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 11:44 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: People
        

May 2, 2011

Maryland leaders react to bin Laden's death

Maryland leaders praised the U.S. raid in Pakistan that led to the death of Osama bin Laden, but members of the state's congressional delegation and other local officials on Monday tempered their optimism by cautioning that the war on terror is not over.

President Barack Obama announced late Sunday that a team of U.S. had killed bin Laden in a firefight Sunday. Gov. Martin O'Malley commended the military for the action.

“This closes a sad and tragic chapter in our country and our world’s history," O'Malley said in a statement released Monday. "This should be a day of reflection and prayer for a more peaceful future.”

While expressing hope that bin Laden's death would bring closure to the families of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, officials also said the threat of terrorism remains real and cautioned the public, in the words of Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, to remain vigilant to "confront the national security threats we face."

"That terrible day has been seared into our memory," the Southern Maryland Democrat, who serves as the House minority whip, said in a statement. "While the enormity of this moment cannot be overstated, we all recognize that the threat of terrorism still exists and we must remain vigilant."

That warning, sounded by lawmakers of both parties, came as the U.S. State Department issued a warning early Monday to citizens traveling and living abroad. Citizens in areas where bin Laden's death could cause anti-American violence, the statement said, were strongly encouraged to limit travel.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a member of the Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence, called bin Laden's death a "historic day for our country," but warned that terrorists will continue to harbor "predatory intent" toward the country.

"While bin Laden is dead, the hateful ideology he espouses will persist," Mikulski said in a statement. "Al Qaeda is a resilient operation."

She said the country must be vigilant and prepared.

Rep. Andy Harris, one of the state's two Republican members of the House, said Monday that bin Laden's death was "great news for the security of America, as well as for our troops at home and overseas who continue to protect us from terrorism every day."

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, praised the work of intelligence professionals who tracked bin Laden down.

"This is a great day for America," Ruppersberger said. "Bin Laden had the blood of thousands of people on his hands. Justice has now been done."

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett was the only Maryland lawmaker to point out the significance that bin Laden was located near a city in Pakistan with a major military presence, not along the Afghan border where some had suspected he was hiding out.

"Osama bin Laden’s death is a huge psychological victory for Americans," the Western Maryland Republican said in a statement. "However, the fact that Osama bin Laden had been living for months in a million dollar compound surrounded by Pakistani military facilities and personnel makes it clear that bin Laden’s death is not the end of the war against the United States and our allies by al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations."

"The death of Osama bin Laden is an important milestone in the fight against terrorism and a relief to millions of Americans and others around the world who have felt his murderous destruction," Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin said in a statement. "All Americans can feel safer knowing that bin Laden is dead, but we must remain vigilant in the continued fight against al-Qaida and any terrorists who seek to harm our nation."

Baltimore Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, also a Democrat, said the "moment of justice" must be "tempered with caution," and noted that the nation's fight is with terrorism, not Islam.

"The pursuit of bin Laden has been only one part of our war on international terrorism — a war that has cost the lives of more than 6,000 American soldiers," Cummings said. "Though it took years, the death of Osama bin Laden shows the righteous might of our citizens and our military."

Rep. John Sarbanes called the effort "a significant blow" to Al Qaeda and said that "the demise of Osama bin Laden will help turn the page on a dark chapter for the families of the victims of 9/11, the American people, and people of good will everywhere. ”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen was scheduled to speak Monday at the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute in a lecture series named after a victim of the September 11 attacks.

"The death of Osama bin Laden represents a huge milestone for the United States in our fight against al-Qaeda and terrorists seeking to harm our country," the Montgomery County Democrat said in a statement. "The fight against al-Qaeda is far from over and we must remain vigilant, but yesterday the terrorist network lost its founder and leader."

On his Facebook page, former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. credited Obama and also George W. Bush with bin Laden's death.

"I commend and congratulate President Obama, the United States intelligence communities, and the courageous and selfless men and women of the United States military for successfully completing the mission tasked by President George W. Bush on September 11, 2001," the Republican wrote. "His pledge to bring bin Laden to justice has been fulfilled and the world is better and safer for it."

Washington Mayor Vincent C. Gray said bin Laden's death would "not erase the pain nor diminish the threat of terror," but said he hoped "this service of justice brings some comfort to the families and friends of loved ones lost on September 11, 2001."

Posted by John Fritze at 9:46 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Washington
        
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About the bloggers
Annie Linskey covers state politics and government for The Baltimore Sun. Previously, as a City Hall reporter, she wrote about the corruption trial of Mayor Sheila Dixon and kept a close eye on city spending. Originally from Connecticut, Annie has also lived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where she reported on war crimes tribunals and landmines. She lives in Canton.

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

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