July 8, 2011

AFSCME to charge nonmembers $360 per year

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest union of state workers, has set its nonmember fee at $13.84 per biweekly pay period -- roughly a dollar less than full-fledged members pay, an official said this morning.

Beginning this month, thousands of non-union state workers will see their paychecks reduced by $10.80 to $14.96, thanks to The Fair Share Act. Passed in 2009 by the General Assembly, the Gov. Martin O'Malley-backed bill kicked into gear after state workers this year approved broad contracts containing the nonmember union fee provision. 

Sue Esty, AFSCME's assistant director, said the nonmember fee is based on a union expense amount that auditors have determined is "chargeable," meaning that it doesn't directly relate to political activities.

Unions like AFSCME say charging nonmembers is a matter of fairness because the contracts they negotiate with the state apply to dues-paying members and nonmembers alike. But some of the state workers who don't want to be part of a union but must now pay anyway say the fees are tantamount to stealing. 

AFSCME bargains on behalf of about 21,000 state workers and only about 8,000 pay dues. This new fees mean the union stands to gain as much as $4.7 million over the next fiscal year, about double what it takes in now. Maryland is one of about two dozen states with "fair share" laws.

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Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 11:53 AM | | Comments (17)
Categories: Money and Business

June 30, 2011

O'Malley calls state permit process a 'weakness'

Gov. Martin O'Malley called Maryland's often lengthy and confusing business permit process "one of the weaknesses of our state," this morning before signing an executive order aimed at easing it.

"Fast Track," he said, is supposed to help speed projects with significant economic impact in specific redevelopment areas -- so long as they would not adversely impact the state's environmental and Smart Growth goals.

Developers who qualify for Fast Track would be told up front whether their business plans have any chance at approval, or whether the state will fight "tooth and nail" against the project, O'Malley said.

The new program is part of an overall administration concept called Maryland Made Easy, which corrals state permitting and business approval information in one area. Noting that small businesses account for 85 percent of the jobs in Maryland, O'Malley said, "We understand that government is not the job creator. But it sets the conditions."

Bureaucratic red tape was a theme on the gubernatorial campaign trail last year, with Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. repeatedly criticizing the Democratic governor's "over-regulation" of private businesses.

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Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 12:40 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Administration, Money and Business, jobs, jobs, jobs

June 10, 2011

O'Malley announces deals with Vietnam businesses

Gov. Martin O'Malley, nearing the end of his trade mission to Asia, announced four new business agreements between Maryland companies and their counterparts in Vietnam on Friday.

Half of the agreements involved Maryland firms working with state-owned enterprises in Vietnam. These include Marlin Steel Wire Products, a Baltimore company that manufactures wire baskets that inked a “business collaboration agreement” with Inox Hoa Binh, a steel production and fabrication firm.

Marlin Steel CEO Drew Greenblatt, one of 68 business leaders, educators and state officials traveling with the governor, said before they left that he would not come home empty-handed.

“Because the governor is with us, doors are going to be opened,” he predicted.

O'Malley also discussed trade with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in Hanoi, his office said, and signed a memorandum of understanding between Maryland and the Vietnamese Ninh Thaun Province to explore a sister state relationship to promote trade, investment and educational and cultural exchanges.

The governor’s office said it was the first such agreement between a Vietnamese province and a U.S. state.

Maryland maintains trade offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The state exported more than $25 million in goods and services to Vietnam last year, O’Malley’s office said, and imported more than $156 million in goods including furniture, apparel and wax products from the Southeast Asian nation.

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Posted by Annie Linskey at 12:16 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Administration, Money and Business

June 3, 2011

Lobbyist joining O'Malley on Asia trade mission

Baltimore Sun colleagues Hanah Cho and Jean Marbella report:

The delegation accompanying Gov. Martin O’Malley on his Asian trade mission includes at least one lobbyist. And the e-mail from her Annapolis firm this week was almost boastful.

“As far as we know, Hannah is the only registered lobbyist on the trip and we are extraordinary pleased that she has a chance to represent our client and our firm,” the chief operating officer of the government relations division at Alexander & Cleaver wrote to clients.

“If you have any important messages that you want her to deliver to the Governor, please contact her before Sunday!”

On Friday, ethics advocates said the participation of a lobbyist in the governor’s 10-day trip to China, Korea and Vietnam raises questions, rival lobbyists said it was unusual, and a spokesman for O’Malley called the e-mail Thursday by Robin F. Shaivitz “unfortunate.”

Lobbyist Hannah Powers, who plans to join the delegation for the Korean leg of the trip next week, said there was nothing improper about her participation. She said she will be traveling with client Jim Oberhaus of JX3 Energy, a Cumberland firm looking to expand its relationship with a Korean steel maker. She said her firm would pay her expenses.

“I’m strictly going for JX3 Energy and we’re looking for improving economic development in Western Maryland through our partnership with POSCO,” Powers said. “To me, it makes perfect sense.”

Shaivitz, meanwhile, called her e-mail “innocuous.” She said she sends a weekly message to clients.

“If you have good will, pass it along – that was what I meant by it,” she told a Baltimore Sun reporter. “You’re reading a lot more into it than I gave thought to it.”

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Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 8:09 PM | | Comments (0)

May 16, 2011

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.

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

September 7, 2010

Currie gets a court date

State Sen. Ulysses Currie, indicted by a federal grand jury last week on corruption charges, is set to make his first court appearance at a hearing Sept. 17, Baltimore Sun colleague Annie Linskey reports. The Prince George’s County Democrat is expected to plead not guilty.

Currie is alleged to have accepted $245,000 in payments from Shoppers Food Warehouse in exchange for his help removing state bureaucratic hurdles. He stepped down from his position as chair of the senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee after the indictment was announced.

Currie’s attorney, Dale Kelberman, describes his arrangement with Shoppers as a consulting position similar to the outside employment many of the state’s legislators hold during the nine months that the General Assembly does not meet. The supermarket chain is headquartered in Currie’s district.

Two former executives from the chain also were indicted last week. Former president William White is scheduled to appear in court Sept. 17. Former vice president for real estate R. Kevin Small has not yet been assigned a court date.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 6:33 PM | | Comments (1)

August 26, 2010

Currie missing $187K from campaign, fires treasurer

The chairman of Maryland’s powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee reported Thursday that roughly $187,000 has been drained from his campaign account, and his attorney is conducting a “comprehensive investigation” to determine what happened to the money, Baltimore Sun colleague Annie Linskey reports.

Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George’s County Democrat, also reported that he has replaced his longtime campaign treasurer. Currie’s attorney, Gregg Bernstein, wrote in a letter to the Maryland State Board of Elections that “inconsistencies” with the campaign funding report “appear to be the result of the treasurer’s conduct.”

The missing money appears to be unconnected to a federal probe into Currie’s relationship with Shoppers Food Warehouse, a grocery chain in his Prince George’s County district. State prosecutors have also been investigating Currie’s campaign account since an article in The Baltimore Sun raised questions about how the money was being spent.

Currie’s former campaign treasurer, Olivia Harris, did not return phone calls on Thursday. State prosecutors raided her Upper Marlboro home on Friday, according to a source familiar with the investigation. She has prepared Currie’s campaign reports since he was elected to the Senate in 1994. Currie also did not return calls.

Jared DeMarinis, director of the division of candidacy and campaign finance for the State Board of Elections, said he would work with Currie’s campaign to determine what happened to the money.

“They recognized that a full accounting is required,” he said. “We would have required this, but they are doing it proactively on their own.”

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Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 5:00 PM | | Comments (1)

July 27, 2010

O'Malley touts progress on State Center project

Gov. Martin O’Malley heralded progress in the mammoth State Center project, saying construction crews will break ground at the long delayed office complex by the fall, Baltimore Sun colleague Annie Linskey reports.

In Baltimore Tuesday afternoon, the governor called the giant collection of parking lots and office buildings on the western edge of Mount Vernon a “concrete wasteland” that will be soon revamped with retail shopping area and housing anchored by a new grocery store.

“Neighborhoods have been separated by a giant dead zone,” said O’Malley. Hewing to a theme of his reelection campaign, O’Malley stressed that the project will create work: He promised 2,000 construction jobs and 1,500 “ongoing permanent jobs.”

The State Center project, which was first conceived in 2004, when Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was governor, is intended to revitalize a 26-acre area of the city that goes dark after 5 p.m. and on weekends, when state employees who work there leave for the day.

The project has been stalled in part because of its complexity — on Wednesday, the Board of Public Works will vote on only the first of five phases — but also because lead developer Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse dropped out as the economy soured.

The board is expected to approve a complex land deal Wednesday that will extend a 75-year lease for two parcels of land to the private development team State Center LLC. In return, the state will receive a 7 percent share of profits in addition to the lease payments, said Christopher Patusky, director of the Maryland Department of Transporation Office of Real Estate.

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Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 6:50 PM | | Comments (1)

July 22, 2010

City living wage bill dies in committee

After hearing more than four hours of testimony by business and religious leaders Thursday, a Baltimore City Council committee rejected a bill that would have required major retailers to pay workers the city’s living wage, Baltimore Sun colleague Julie Scharper reports.

Councilman Warren Branch, chair of the three-member labor subcommittee, voted against the bill. Councilwoman Belinda Conaway voted in its favor; Councilman Nicholas D’Adamo was absent due to his parents’ poor health.

After the vote, the measure’s sponsor said she was hopeful it could be resurrected.

“This is too important to just let it die in committee,” Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said. “It could have made a huge difference for thousands of families who live in Baltimore City. It could have lifted them out of poverty or at least taken them to the poverty line.”

The bill could have another chance if Branch asks for it to be reconsidered, or if eight of the 15 council members petition for it to come to the full body for a vote. Seven members have pledged their support.

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Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 9:02 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: City Hall, Money and Business

City council considering living wage rules

The Baltimore City Council will hear testimony Thursday on a controversial proposal to require large retailers in the city to pay employees a "living wage" — currently, $10.59 per hour.

Baltimore Sun colleague Julie Scharper reports that the reactions have fallen along the familiar business-labor divide. Supporters say it would help workers who do not earn enough money to support their families; opponents say it would discourage retailers from moving into the city.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke tells Scharper she was inspired to introduce the bill after listening to presentations about a planned Walmart store in Remington.

"The goal is that people who work hard can support their families without turning to charity or the government for help," said Clarke, who was council president when the city passed the nation's first living-wage law in 1994.

But Greater Baltimore Committee Chairman Donald C. Fry says the measure could force retailers to lay off employees or cut hours to cover the increased payroll, while leading stores to set up business in the surrounding counties rather than the city.

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Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 6:30 AM | | Comments (0)

July 21, 2010

Bartlett joins congressional Tea Party caucus

While there appears to have been some confusion about who is and who is not a member of the new House Tea Party Caucus, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett is making his position clear: The Western Maryland Republican announced Wednesday that he has joined the group.

“I have been cheered at every Tea Party event that I’ve attended because I’m one of only 18 members in Congress who has voted against every bailout bill,” Bartlett said in a statement.

Rep. Michele Bachmann introduced the new caucus Wednesday in Washington with a list of 28 members, including Rep. Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican who shouted “You lie!” as President Barack Obama gave a speech before a joint session of Congress, and Rep. Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who apologized last month to BP for its treatment by the Obama administration following the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Later Wednesday, the Furm Forum reported that two of the House members on the list had not yet agreed to join the caucus, and spokesmen for others said they did not know that their members had joined or were unaware that the list was to be made public.

Bartlett, the only Republican in Maryland’s congressional delegation, confirmed his membership.

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Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 6:35 PM | | Comments (12)

Marylander joins Obama at finance bill signing

Not long ago, Andrew Giordano was dealing with hundreds of dollars in bank fees for service he never requested. On Tuesday, the Locust Point man stood onstage at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington as President Barack Obama told his story.

“If you’ve ever applied for a credit card, a student loan, or a mortgage, you know the feeling of signing your name to pages of barely understandable fine print,” Obama said. “What often happens as a result is that many Americans are caught by hidden fees and penalties, or saddled with loans they can’t afford. …

“ That’s what happened to Andrew Giordano, who discovered hundreds of dollars in overdraft fees on his bank statement – fees he had no idea he might face. … Well, with this law … we’ll ensure that people like Andrew aren’t unwittingly caught by overdraft fees when they sign up for a checking account.”

Giordano was one of two citizens who joined Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and congressional leaders onstage as Obama signed a sweeping overhaul of financial regulationts into law.

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Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 6:01 PM | | Comments (1)

Attempt to block Comfort move advances in House

Language introduced by Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger to require the Navy to conduct a cost-benefit analysis before moving the hospital ship U.S.N.S. Comfort out of Baltimore has moved out of committee.

The requirement, which came in the form of an amendment to miltary construction legislation, was accepted late Tuesday by the House appropriations committee and will now be considered by the full House.

A Navy spokesman confirmed this week that the Navy is considering moving the Comfort from Baltimore to Norfolk, Va., after the current berthing agreement expires in 2013. Ruppersberger, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and others are trying to block the move.

“I am not convinced that moving the Comfort from Baltimore, her home for the past 23 years, is a good idea,” Ruppersberger said Wednesday in a statement. “We must make sure this move won’t hurt the Comfort’s ability to quickly respond to urgent military and humanitarian missions and unnecessarily waste taxpayer dollars. Clearing committee is an important step and I will continue to fight to keep this Baltimore icon home, where it belongs.”

Mikulski, a member of the Senate appropriations committee, is seeking federal funding to study the impact of moving the ship on its wartime and humanitarian missions, and the impact of the home port on the medical facilities that staff the ship.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin weighed in on Wednesday, saying in a statement that the Comfort “has taken on the difficult mission of saving lives and addressing some of the most difficult medical cases – all from the Port of Baltimore. I believe the resources of the Port of Baltimore have enabled the Comfort to fulfill its mission and there is no reason to spend money on a costly move to Norfolk.”

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Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 3:57 PM | | Comments (3)

July 19, 2010

Biden in Baltimore to boost O'Malley

Vice President Joe Biden heaped praise on Gov. Martin O’Malley at a Baltimore fundraiser Monday evening, Baltimore Sun colleague Annie Linskey reports, telling a room of 200 supporters that the governor can be trusted to lead in part because he “feels” the pain of ordinary Marylanders “in the gut.”

Speaking for half an hour at the private event at the Baltimore Hilton Convention Center, Biden highlighted some of the themes O’Malley regularly hits while on the stump: keeping jobs in Maryland and pushing a tax credit for small businesses.

Tickets to the event, intended to raise money for O’Malley’s reelection campaign, ranged from $250 to hear the Biden’s remarks to $1,000 for a brief private reception with the vice president. Members of the host committee paid $4,000.

Biden is the first big-name Democrat to stump for O’Malley, who is locked in a tight re-election race with his predecessor, Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. O’Malley has already spent more than his opponent, airing two radio commercials and a TV spot. Fundraising reports will not be public until August.

Biden said that he’s known the governor since O’Malley was mayor of Baltimore. “This is a man whose passion for Maryland starts in the gut and moves to the heart,” the vice president told the audience.

The economy and fiscal management was the theme of the day Monday. Hours before Biden arrived in Baltimore, The state Republican party issued a statement calling him “the Administration’s chiefspokesman for the failed stimulus bill” and saying that the legislation had failed to create as many positions as promised – a subject of continuing debate.

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July 16, 2010

Auditors: Center must return $79,800 to state

A state home for intellectually disabled adults improperly kept nearly $80,000 that it should have returned to the state general fund at the end of fiscal year 2009, the Office of Legislative Audits reported Friday.

The state Department of Mental Health and Human Hygiene, which operates the Potomac Center in Hagerstown, has agreed to return the $79,800 to the general fund, according to a letter signed by Secretary John M. Colmers and included in the OLA report.

Auditors for OLA, an agency of Department of Legislative Services, found that the Potomac Center did not have adequate records to susbtantiate general fund expenditures it had accrued on June 30,2009, the last day of the fiscal year.

Under the comptroller’s State Policy on Accounts Payable, Accrued Expenditures and Encumbrances, expenditures should be accrued only when goods or services have been received before the end of the fiscal year but not paid. State law requires that any funds remaining at the end of the fiscal year be reverted to the state’s general fund.

The auditors said the Potomac Center is responsible for establishing and maintaining effective internal control of financial records, but acknowledged that errors or fraud might still occur and not be detected.

They said their audit “did not disclose any conditions that we consider to be significant deficiencies in the design or operation of internal control that could adversely affect the Center’s ability to maintain reliable financial records, operate effectively and efficiently, and/or complyu with applicable laws, rules, and regulations.”

Continue reading "Auditors: Center must return $79,800 to state" »

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 3:05 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Administration, Money and Business

June 18, 2010

'Enjoy your corporate-funded field trip'

They're angry. And they've named themselves after a hot beverage.

A small group of Coffee Party protesters -- a liberal challenge to the conservative Tea Party protesters -- gathered near the Westin Hotel in Annapolis today to draw attention to the corporate funding of an annual legislative retreat being held there. The National Speakers Conference, hosted by Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch, is funded by 67 corporations, The Washington Post reported this week.

Five adults, accompanied by a baby and a toddler, hoisted signs that read "Enjoy your coporate-funded field trip," and that urged passers-by to ask them why they're angry. They chose 10 a.m. Friday because at that time the legislators were attending a seminar about why voters are angry.

"Corporations have showered them with gifts and get exclusive opportunities to speak with them," said Baltimore Coffee Party organizer Susan Larson. "And they wonder why voters are angry?" 

The protesters hastened to say they weren't upset with Busch, a Democrat, but rather the way the system works.

Later, Busch said the four-day conference is going well (Only two major events remain: a chat with histroiran David McCullough and a golf outing). It's the conference's first time in Maryland since the group's inception in 1992.

"There are no taxpayer dollars involved," Busch said. "It's basically run and financed the same as the National Governors Association and the Senate Presidents Association. For the most part, it has a consistent list of clients that support it every year."

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 1:56 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Money and Business, People

June 7, 2010

Ehrlich details small-business strategy, UPDATED

In the first major policy unveiling of his campaign, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. this morning announced a "small-business initiative to help revitalize Maryland's economy."

The Republican said he would move immediately to change the "attitude about entrepreneurship," which he said has suffered under the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley, the Democrat who unseated him four years ago.

Nearly all of Ehrlich's proposals involved the formation of commissions. Ehrlich made his first announcement of the day at a pizza restaurant in Gaithersburg. He'll hold a similar talk this afternoon at a crab house in Reisterstown.

Details from this morning:

Continue reading "Ehrlich details small-business strategy, UPDATED" »

Posted by Julie Bykowicz at 7:00 AM | | Comments (16)
Categories: Money and Business, Tax & Spend
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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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