Monday, March 31, 2008

Ike Leggett and the Young Democrats

From Marc Korman: Recently, County Executive Ike Leggett visited with the Montgomery County Young Democrats. The event took place one day prior to toiletgate, so we were unable to ask the County Executive about the important issue of his bathroom habits. I also did not have the opportunity to share my idea. I believe we should rig the County Executive, and maybe all of our other elected officials, to catheters. That way we can ensure they are working hard for us at all times and we are really getting our tax dollars worth. But since we could not discuss his bathroom, we had to settle for a discussion about Ike Leggett’s career and the budget.

The County Executive began by playing to his audience a bit, thanking us all for being Democrats and working for the Party. He also talked about his dislike of the term “tax and spend,” as he believes that Democrats have been both fiscally responsible and supportive of the people. For example, he discussed his early advocacy for the County Charter Limit. The County Charter Limit caps the increase in County property taxes each year to the rate of inflation plus new construction. The Charter Limit can only be breached if a supermajority of the County Council votes to do so.

The County Executive next talked about his budget proposal. His command of the budget was quite impressive. He was not just speaking in talking points, but really dug deep into the details of the proposal. He spent most of his time talking about the County’s structural deficit, really focusing on the rate of spending over the past few years. In fiscal year 2006, the County’s spending including government operations, the capital budget, debt service, and grants grew by 9%. In fiscal year 2007, it grew by 11.6%. Leggett takes credit for slowing the pace last year with a growth rate of 6.6% and a proposed rate in 2009 of 3.8%.

In the abstract, Leggett’s numbers sound good. He wants to bring us to sustainable growth so that the long term budget is balanced. To get there he is proposing some sensible moves, like a hiring freeze and phasing out 225 government positions. But he is also proposing to breach the Charter Limit he was so proud of helping to implement. He has also made some policy recommendations, like an ambulance fee, which seem problematic.

Five questions were asked of the County Executive. Surprisingly, three questions involved job opportunities in County government, which will be plentiful in future years despite planned job cuts. Leggett spoke about the coming county government workforce shortage due to the baby boomer retirements. That will create an unusual situation for the County, which typically has high retention and little need to recruit. Another question was by a young realtor, who asked about the increases in the recordation rate and its effect on home sales. The recordation rate was just increased at the end of last year by $3.10 per every $1,000 of the sale price over $500,000. The County Executive said he had opposed the hike, but knew of no efforts to freeze or overturn it.

The other question came from yours truly. Back in January I wrote an op-ed in the Gazette regarding the County’s regulation of alcohol. The County’s direct control of liquor sales generated $20.5 million for the general fund in fiscal year 2007 and I believe more money could be raised for government priorities like transit, education, and healthcare if the regulatory structure was reformed. I asked Leggett about the issue and, to my surprise, he was quite immersed in it. First, he updated my numbers for fiscal year 2008, but then said he agreed with me about the need to discuss reform. While vague, he said an effort was underway to look at ways to reform the process.

The County Executive saw three reasons to reform. First, there could be a better fiscal return for the County under a different system. Second, there are some technical issues that make County regulation problematic. For example, according to Leggett, Anheuser-Busch is requiring the installation of new data stamping equipment in County facilities if the County is going to keep distributing their products. Third, he has some serious philosophical concerns with the County directly selling alcohol. He told a personal story about when he was protesting apartheid in South Africa, only to learn that County retail stores sold South African alcohol.

Altering the way the County regulates alcohol cannot be taken lightly. The County needs to study the issue carefully for fiscal, safety, and labor concerns. But I was happy to hear from Ike Leggett on this topic and the other budgetary issues the County is wrestling with.


Iceland v. Uzbekistan

Being able to hit the ATM is one of the great blessings of modern travel. No longer do travelers have to spend a lot of time waiting in bank lines at home waiting to buy travelers checks and abroad waiting to cash them for a fat commission. Now, banks are happy to take the commission with no middle man.

Iceland, however, has taken electronic transactions to a whole new level. It was the first time I ever visited a country without hitting the ATM or changing any money. Instead, it all went on the credit card. No charge is too small--even hot dog vendors on the street take credit.

The only time I ever wished I had any change was when I wanted to hit the soda machine. I imagine that hiccup will soon pass. I saw my first soda machine that takes credit cards while waiting for my luggage in the Miami airport a few weeks ago.

Uzbekistan lies on the other extreme from Iceland. Except in a few international hotels, credit cards cannot be used anywhere and I didn't see any ATM machine anywhere in the country. Visitors have to bring dollars to exchange and hold on to exchange receipts if they want to exchange it back.

And not just any cash. Unless the dollar bills are in mint condition, Uzbeks won't take them for the excellent reason that other Uzbeks won't take them. And you better have the latest version of each note. Unlike Americans, Uzbeks actually check for forgeries. This is not unique to Uzbekistan but common in cash-based societies.

Once you've changed your money in Uzbekistan, you get a large pile of money. Coins don't exist and the largest note (1000 sum) was worth around $0.75 when I was there. However, it is difficult to figure out what to do with the wads of cash--you get around twenty-seven 1000 sum notes for $20.


Furmansky Slams Muse, Defends Raskin

From the Gazette:

The March 19 article, ‘‘Freshman Raskin seeking a balance in his second session,” creates a muddled picture of the senator’s pivotal role in the debate about protections for families headed by same-sex couples, repeating so-called ‘‘rumors” that Senator Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park helped doom passage of comprehensive legislation because he publicly discussed Sen. C. Anthony Muse as a swing vote on the issue.

It’s hardly a secret that key to passage of any comprehensive relationship recognition legislation in Judicial Proceedings rested with Senator Muse (D-Dist. 26) of Fort Washington, who openly discussed the topic with major press outlets and portrayed himself as open to compromise.

The Baltimore Sun reported, ‘‘...the lawmaker says he opposes gay marriage on religious grounds. But he also says that he is concerned about fair, equal treatment for gay couples. He has not made up his mind on civil unions.”

In the end, Senator Muse’s equivocations amounted to little more than hot air, since he opposed all proposed measures that would help alleviate difficulties faced by unmarried couples in committed relationships, including measures far more modest than civil unions or domestic partnerships, which polls have shown have majority public support.

For his part, Senator Raskin is the lead sponsor of the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, which would open civil marriage to same-sex couples, and is one of the strongest new advocates for ending discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Marylanders.

Speaking as the head of Maryland’s LGBT civil rights group and as a constituent, I feel well-served by Senator Raskin’s leadership in Annapolis on civil rights issues for LGBT Marylanders.

Dan Furmansky, Silver Spring

The writer is executive director of Equality Maryland, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization.


In Defense of Taxing Millionaires

The current battle over whether to replace the hated computer services tax with an income tax surcharge on millionaires has become a defining ideological struggle among Maryland state legislators, especially those from Montgomery County. Many MoCo Democrats, including a few really good ones, argue that millionaires pay enough. Today I take up the banner for the rest of us.

The best case for the other side has been presented by David Lublin, founder and owner of this blog. His central arguments are budgetary and geographic. David points out that millionaires pay a lot of taxes. He does not want them to move out because if they do it will hurt our capacity to fund programs we need. He also describes both the computer tax and the millionaire surcharge as targeting MoCo because both affect lots of people who live in the county. “You're replacing one tax which targets Montgomery County with another that does exactly the same,” he writes.

David’s argument is logical and pragmatic, and I respect it. But a millionaire surcharge is a worthy alternative to the computer tax for three reasons.

First, let’s examine how people who earn a million dollars in a year get their money. I will bet that the majority of them do not earn a million dollars every single year. Rather, many of them will earn in the mid-to-upper-six digits in most years but then obtain an occasional spike. That spike may be from a payout in a lucrative lawsuit settlement, a capital gain or an inheritance. Would people in this category really move out of the state because they had to pay a couple extra thousand dollars in a year when they got lucky?

As for the super-rich, those who do earn a million dollars in every single year, they already can park their compensation in tax-deferred vehicles like 1031 exchanges or establish part-year residency in no-income-tax states like Florida and Nevada.

The Washington Post reports that 6,150 Maryland residents reported at least one million dollars in income in 2005 and 2,535 lived in MoCo. How many of those residents earned a million dollars in every single year over the last five years and would therefore be really tempted to move? Possibly several hundred, but only the Comptroller’s office would know for sure. Are these several hundred people really worth the colossal amount of political capital that MoCo’s state legislators are expending on their behalf?

Second, anyone who believes that the economic well-being of our county is a linear function of the number of millionaires who live here does not understand the source of our prosperity. Montgomery County’s vitality comes from its excellent schools, the entrepreneurialism of its small businesses (including those in the tech sector), its highly-educated and diverse population, its attractive neighborhoods and, of course, federal spending. Millionaires live here for those reasons just like the rest of us do. If tax rates were the sole determinant of their residency, they would all have moved to Virginia long ago.

Third, Maryland’s working and middle classes have already paid their share. Just last fall the legislature’s special session passed a regressive tax package. Last October, I calculated that the Governor’s original $1.7 billion proposal derived 61% of its revenues from regressive sources like the sales tax hike. The package that was ultimately passed was worse. The Maryland Budget and Policy Institute analyzed the session’s product and found:

The poorest 1/5 of taxpayers will pay nearly 0.8% more of their income in taxes. The middle 1/5 will pay half that percentage: just over 0.4%. The wealthiest 1/5 will pay between 0.3% and 0.5% of their incomes in increased taxes. This overall regressive distribution occurs because the regressive nature of the sales tax increase overwhelms the progressive features of the income tax changes.
Now I am not opposing all regressive taxes. The cigarette tax, for example, saves lives. The gas tax encourages mass transit use and fuel efficiency. But when a billion-dollar-plus tax package is comprised primarily of regressive measures, that sends a message about the legislature’s priorities. And the principal reason for relying on regressive taxes like the sales tax was the desire by some legislators – including some from MoCo – to limit income tax increases for the rich. Now some of these legislators are talking about cutting transportation funding as an alternative to the surcharge.

Isn’t relieving traffic congestion also a high priority for this county? If the rest of MoCo’s residents sit in gridlock to protect the rich from paying more taxes, isn’t that an example of replacing one measure that targets Montgomery with another, as David says? MoCo Democrats rightly criticized Governor Ehrlich when he diverted transportation funding to avoid raising taxes. And we should not forget how Virginia has suffered for its inability to finance its transportation infrastructure.

Furthermore, let’s recall the unholy moment in which the computer tax was spawned. The creature was conjured from the abyss by the Maryland Senate for the sole purpose of not raising taxes on millionaires to the extent that the Governor originally recommended. Interestingly, no member of the Senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee will admit to fathering the wailing beast in whatever dark corner of the Senate chamber such acts are usually committed. If the Senate had adopted the Governor’s admittedly imperfect proposal, we would never have the computer tax or the current row over the millionaire surcharge.

I once blamed Senate President Mike Miller for the computer tax and the regressive special session tax package, but he proved me wrong. Back in January, I reported the following from our now-legendary blogger interview with him:

Regular readers will recall how I criticized the Senate President for the regressive character of the special session tax package. Leaping into the jaws of the lion, I asked him the following question:

“The tax package that was passed by the special session collected the majority of its revenues from raising the regressive sales tax. If you could have that one back and do it over, would you have taxed the rich a bit more to give the working people a break?”

Miller did not back down from the sales tax. He described it as “the most regressive but also the most acceptable” of the taxes, claiming that he received little protest on it. “But I wish I could have had more from the income tax.” Miller noted, accurately, that part of the Montgomery County delegation, backed by their County Executive, pushed back against the Governor’s rate increase for the top income tax brackets, thereby limiting the legislature’s ability to raise them. “You need 24 votes to pass something through the Senate and I didn’t have the votes to spare!”
And so Mike Miller is actually to the left of a good part of the MoCo statehouse delegation on this issue. That’s right readers, print those bumper stickers: MIKE MILLER: TOO LIBERAL FOR MOCO.


Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Good Idea from Virginia on Housing

According to the Post, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly is proposing to use county funds to buy foreclosed homes and sell them at below-market prices to working families.

I know that both Maryland and its two largest counties, Montgomery and Prince George's, have significant budget problems. But foreclosed homes already sell at discounts and the program's cost would merely be the difference between the low purchase price and the sale price to families. Additionally, such a program would help stabilize the property tax base by preventing neighborhood deterioration. I do not regularly applaud Virginia's economic policies but here is a good idea that should be considered in Maryland.


Friday, March 28, 2008

Maryland Ratepayers Fatten Power Industry Bosses

Maryland’s electric power industry has been in the news quite a bit lately. The Washington Post had a good wrap-up story a couple weeks ago on how Maryland consumers are struggling with rising electric bills. Politicker Maryland ran a few articles linking deregulation to campaign contributions. The Governor is announcing a legal settlement with Constellation Energy that would provide BG&E customers with a $170 rebate each. And the Maryland Senate is considering a plan that would cut electric bills by $2 a month. But none of these stories cover an important set of facts: just how well have Maryland’s electric power companies fared under deregulation?

Traditionally, power companies were vertically integrated. They owned the generating plants, the transmission facilities and the distribution lines. Deregulation was intended to create competition by separating generation and distribution ownership. Multiple generators were supposed to compete by selling power at the lowest price to commercial and retail users. Those users would order that power through the now-independent distribution companies.

After Maryland passed its law in 1999, its power industry re-organized to comply with the new regime. Baltimore Gas & Electric established a new holding company, Constellation Energy Group, and separated its generation and distribution assets into different subsidiaries. Allegheny Energy, which owned Potomac Edison in Western Maryland, followed suit. Pepco sold its power plants to a totally independent third party, national generator Mirant, and became a pure distributor. Those corporate re-organizations are one reason why deregulation is so hard to undo.

Consumer choice took effect in 2000, but to give competition a chance to develop, consumer retail rates were frozen through 2006. However, there were two problems. First, no new major competitors came to Maryland. Second, power fuel prices soared. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2000 and 2006 wholesale prices increased 44% for coal, 80% for natural gas and 116% for refined petroleum. Constellation and Pepco claimed that these input cost increases were largely responsible for the 40-70% electric bill hikes faced by Maryland ratepayers starting in 2006.

Is that true? If all the power companies were doing was passing on cost increases to consumers (something the old regulated system was supposed to restrain), we would expect the companies to report higher revenues but stable net incomes. But that is far from what is really happening. Below we report to our readers the financial results from Maryland’s four largest electric power companies in 2003 and 2007 from their Securities and Exchange Commission filings. We also report the total compensation earned by their CEOs in 2003 and 2006 (the latest year available). Judge for yourselves the real record of Maryland’s deregulation.

Constellation Energy
Parent Company of BG&E, Nationwide Merchant Generator

Stock Close, 1/2/03: $24.84
Stock Close, 3/26/08: $90.23

Revenue, 2003: $9.343 Billion
Revenue, 2007: $21.193 Billion

Net Income, 2003: $277 Million
Net Income, 2007: $822 Million

Chairman/President/CEO: Mayo A. Shattuck III
Total Compensation, 2003: $6,901,426
Total Compensation, 2006: $20,058,669

Electricity Distributor in Washington Suburbs

Stock Close, 1/2/03: $15.61
Stock Close, 3/26/08: $24.67

Revenue, 2003: $7.269 Billion
Revenue, 2007: $9.366 Billion

Net Income, 2003: $107 Million
Net Income, 2007: $334 Million

Chairman/President/CEO: Dennis R. Wraase
Total Compensation, 2003: $895,942
Total Compensation, 2006: $4,921,550

Nationwide Merchant Generator, Owner of Former Pepco Power Plants

Stock Close, 1/2/03: NA (Filed for Bankruptcy on 7/14/03)
Stock Close, 3/26/08: $35.92

Revenue, 2003: $3.856 Billion
Revenue, 2007: $2.019 Billion

Net Income, 2003: Lost $3.835 Billion (declared bankruptcy)
Net Income, 2007: $1.995 Billion (includes $1.562 billion from discontinued operations)

President/CEO in 2003: S. Marce Fuller
Total Compensation, 2003: $3,231,071

Chairman/President/CEO in 2006: Edward R. Muller
Total Compensation, 2006: $8,646,648

Allegheny Energy
Generator and Distributor in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Western Maryland

Stock Close, 1/2/03: $7.76
Stock Close, 3/26/08: $50.39

Revenue, 2003: $2.182 Billion
Revenue, 2006: $3.307 Billion

Net Income, 2003: Lost $355 Million
Net Income, 2007: $412 Million

Chairman/President/CEO: Paul J. Evanson
Total Compensation, 2003: $7,652,138 (includes “make-whole payment” of $6,397,330 connected to leaving another power company in mid-year)
Total Compensation, 2006: $9,329,832

Now I suppose we could recover some of these executives’ plunderings from Maryland ratepayers through a millionaire surcharge but some people might argue against that. After all, if any of these looting bosses – excuse me, these upstanding members of the community – actually live in Maryland, we don’t want to drive them out of the state, right?


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Just Say No to Both

Sorry, Adam. I gotta disagree with you on this one. The computer tax is a terrible tax. However, I think the rest of the legislature must have started chuckling to themselves when Sen. Rob Garagiola proposed the surcharge on millionaires to replace it. Here's why I think Sen. Rich Madaleno is right and neither tax is a good idea.

1. You're replacing one tax which targets Montgomery County with another that does exactly the same. No wonder the rest of the legislature is willing to go along if Montgomery's delegation says yes.

2. The recession is just beginning. Unlike the federal government, Maryland cannot just endlessly borrow more money to cover expenses since it must balance its budget. Do we really want to do all the painful tax increases at once? Perhaps legislators ought to take another look at the budget or some of the other alternatives you've proposed as well.

3. Del. Tom Hucker's argument is politically appealing in the Democratic primary but doesn't make economic sense for the State. While it is hard for people to escape higher federal taxes by leaving the U.S., getting out of Maryland isn't too hard. At what point do the very wealthy start retiring even earlier to Florida or moving across the Potomac to Virginia. Just because they can afford to pay the tax doesn't mean that they are going to pay it. And I don't want to bash the very wealthy: I like having wealthy taxpayers live here--even at lower tax rates they still pay a heck of a lot which means others can pay less or we can have more services.

4. The federal tax cuts which favor the wealthy referred to by Del. Hucker are soon to end under existing federal law--the Republicans set it up that way because it is the only way they could claim that they would balance the budget over the long term. This shift becomes even more certain with Democratic majorities in Congress and if a Democratic president is elected next year.

5. Progressive or regressive is measured not at each level of government but the whole scheme of taxation. State taxes tend to be much less progressive than federal taxes precisely because the states compete for them. Moreover, you have to compare how progressive states are not just in terms of taxes but in spending. We do well here.

6. I don't buy that the governor's tax package was incredibly regressive (or necessarily regressive at all). Yes, the sales tax went up with wealthy people tend to spend more and pay more of it even if it ends up being somewhat regressive. However, the income tax change was progressive. The sin taxes are voluntary, after all.

In short, Rich is right on this one. Interestingly, both Rob and Rich deserve kudos for taking stands against their immediate political self-interest. I can't imagine that a surcharge on the wealthy gets Sen. Garagiola that many kudos in his affluent and marginal legislative district. Similarly, Rich represents a very Democratic district and doesn't gain any points in the critical Democratic primary for suggesting that there are costs to the same proposal.


NoCo and the Computer Tax: BFF

So you’ve never heard of NoCo and BFF and don’t understand how they relate to the computer tax? Read on!

The Washington Post is reporting that Governor O’Malley is floating a deal to get rid of the much-hated computer services tax. He proposes to replace its revenue with three sources: a surcharge on millionaires increasing their income tax rate to 6.25% from 5.5%, “diversion” of transportation funds and more budget cuts. Senator Verna Jones (D44 – Baltimore City) proposed to pay for repeal through a high-earner surcharge alone, but the Governor would like to rely on multiple sources instead.

Why is the Governor treading so carefully with the rich? Why, it’s because of our politicians in Montgomery County!

Here is County Executive Ike Leggett’s reaction to the Governor’s plan:

Leggett said he favors a repeal, partly because the planned tax significantly affects the thriving technology industry in the Washington suburbs. Leggett said, however, that he opposes raising the top personal income tax rate because a large number of wealthy Marylanders live in Montgomery and that he is wary of cuts to transportation funding.

"I want to be supportive of resolving this, certainly as it relates to this computer tax, but Montgomery County cannot be the sole source of solving a statewide problem," he said.
Even blogger hero Senator Madaleno was lukewarm:

Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery) acknowledged that the number of those who would be affected by the millionaires' tax is small. "But this is a class of people who generate a lot of tax revenue for Maryland and Montgomery County," Madaleno said. "To create a disincentive for them to stay would be damaging to the rest of us."
Senator Brian Frosh and Delegate Tom Hucker were more accepting of the surcharge, but there are enough MoCo legislators who agree with the County Executive that the delegation has become a significant hurdle to repeal. Many MoCo legislators don’t want the computer services tax. And they don’t want a millionaire surcharge. And they don’t want transportation cuts. That is why, by the power vested in me as the author of this blog post, I am officially changing the nickname of our county from MoCo to NoCo.

Now there are alternatives and I laid one out a couple weeks ago. An extra point hike in the corporate tax rate, combined reporting and installation of the Governor’s original upper income tax rates would pay for the computer tax repeal. And the first two components would spread the pain more evenly across the entire state than a straight surcharge. Plus, all three components are progressive taxes and would partially mitigate the special session’s overwhelmingly regressive tax package.

But if NoCo politicians do not offer an alternative soon – whether it looks like mine or not – we all know what is going to happen. The Governor will make a deal with the General Assembly leaders and the delegations from Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Prince George’s County. Some variant of his proposal will pass because the pressure to repeal the computer tax is reaching a fever pitch. And guess where the diverted transportation money will not be going? You guessed right: some project in NoCo will have to wait a few more years. And who is going to be shedding tears for us in other parts of the state? You guessed it: absolutely no one.

And what if NoCo’s politicians successfully resist repeal? NoCo and the computer tax: Best Friends Forever. And there you have the title to this post.


Illegal Robocalls in Council District 4?

MCDCC Vice-Chairman Alan Banov reported receiving a negative robocall in connection with MoCo's County Council District 4 race. This is quite curious considering that he is a District 5 resident.

Mr. Banov left the following comment on one of our recent posts:

The other night I found a message on my voice mail from a robo-call to the effect that Nancy Navarro takes money from developers and if she does that, who would she listen to if she is elected. There was no "authorization" line on the message I heard, so I don't know if there was one in the beginning. Does anyone know who is sending out that message? I have no idea where Nancy Navarro is getting her money or whether the message is true or false, but I am concerned about an anonymous negative robo-call.

Disclaimer: I don't have a dog in this race (I don't live in District 4). If I did, I might or might not vote for Nancy Navarro. I haven't decided what I would do.
Mr. Banov then supplied the following partial transcription. He did not have the complete first sentence:

"… the upcoming County Council special election, please remember:

Nancy Navarro will take campaign moneys from developers. When you get her campaign mail and phone calls, ask yourself: If Nancy takes developer money, will she represent the people or just the developers?"
Maryland’s election law mandates authority lines for all campaign materials, which specifically include "oral commercial campaign advertisements." If these robocalls are going out without authority statements, they are illegal under state law.

This reminds me more than a bit of Al Wynn's robocalls. As I remember, they did not help him very much. But at least they were openly authorized and not anonymous.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

More on County Council District 4

Here’s our latest roundup for D4 residents and MoCo political junkies. (Yes, we know that you junkies need help, but in the meantime, keep reading our blog!)

Dan Reed at Just Up the Pike has posted an interview with Nancy Navarro. Once again, Dan shows off his knack for picking out the most interesting, and even the most provocative, statements from his interviewees.

Progressive Neighbors has posted interviews with Nancy Navarro and Don Praisner. These interviews contain the most detailed positions on issues so far released by either candidate. They even address our beloved CARR bill! Progressive Neighbors did not endorse in the contest.

Navarro has wrapped up the vast majority of union endorsements in the county. The only union to have endorsed another candidate is the Montgomery County Federation of Teachers, an American Federation of Teachers local union, which is supporting Don Praisner. MCFT has no contracts with the county and should not be confused with the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA), which represents county teachers and has endorsed Navarro.

Steve Kanstoroom and Pat Ryan have websites up. Don Praisner has completely redone his website and it is much improved.

The recent County Council committee changes hinge on who wins the District 4 race. If the winner disagrees with Council President Mike Knapp’s assignments, they could change next year.

Kevin Gillogly and I are working on a joint post about last week’s candidate forum. Hurry up, Kevin! We know you are still grumpy because of your decision not to run, but that is no excuse for not covering this race for our all-important readers. The Gazette’s coverage of the forum is here. They missed the central exchange in the debate over the relationship of the education budget and the county’s deficit, but we will cover that for our readers.


Del. Dwyer Terrorizes Committee Witnesses

Del. Don Dwyer (R - Anne Arundel) has found a new way to simultaneously silence those who disagree with him and strike terror into a community whom he seems to despise: Threaten to have them arrested when they come to Annapolis to testify on a bill.

According to the Annapolis newspaper The Capital, Dwyer's latest over-the-top conduct occurred at a March 20 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, which he is a member of. The subject was a bill that would require proof of citizenship or legal residency to get a driver's license. One of the organizations opposed to the legislation and bringing people to testify against it was Casa de Maryland.

According to The Capital:

Casa de Maryland provides services to immigrants regardless of their status, and representatives at past rallies have refused to say whether their supporters were in the country legally. ...

"This is a building of law and order," [Dwyer] said. "I think we ought to maintain it."

So during the hearing, Dwyer announced that he had called the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (formerly INS) to come and arrest anyone there who was not in the country legally.
ICE agents declined to come to the hearing because they cannot inquire about someone's immigration status unless they see a law being broken, according to Mr. Dwyer's staff. ...

Mr. Dwyer said he was not trying to stop people from testifying, but he was wondering what rights an illegal immigrant would have before the committee.

"If they are here illegally, I'm not sure they have any rights," he said.

"I'm not sure they have any rights." It scares me that a legislator actually believes that there are people in our society who have no rights.


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Lost in the Lava Tube

The Blue Lagoon

Jet lag from flying from the east coast of the U.S. to Iceland ought to be terrible. The difference in time between Annapolis and Reykjavik was only four hours when I went. The flight is too short to sleep much even if you can sleep on planes so you have to begin your new day in Iceland just as your old one in the U.S. ends.

However, I didn't have any problem. The bright sun and bracing Icelandic wind (umbrellas are a clear sign of tourists as they are useless if it's raining) kept me wide awake despite the lack of sleep. Unlike I when I went to Madrid, I didn't make the mistake of trying to visit an art museum--the ultimate soporific--and just stuck with coffee and walking around.

Iceland has a population of around 300,000 and is the sort of place where everyone claims to know everyone else. Even if that is an exaggeration, there are usually only two or three degrees of separation instead of the six claimed for the rest of the world.

Still, it was a bit of a surprise when two people came up and said hello with a look of recognition on the streets of Reykjavik. It turned out it was two nice Americans from the Embassy who had seen a picture in advance of my visit. However, that never happened to me in any other country!

Despite the small population, I still managed to take a wrong turn. On Saturday, I took a tour of a lava tube. March isn't exactly high season in Iceland so the only two people on the tour were a Finnish woman and myself.

Tourists hoping to encounter Icelanders in the form of tour guides may end up disappointed. My tour guide was a Canadian expatriate. A Polish man was driving one of the other vans.

There are a lot of immigrants in Iceland--one of the locals working for the American Embassy is originally from Bosnia. (Side note: do you know many people who can speak Bosnian, English, and Icelandic?) Strong economic growth is drawing immigrants to Iceland and literally changing the face of this heretofore homogeneous island.

Historically, Iceland was so homogeneous that it was considered the ideal place for genetic research. deCode genetics has the genetic records of everyone in Iceland. Genetic analysis has already indicated the accuracy of the Icelandic sagas about the settlement of the island.

Today, about seven percent of Iceland's population are immigrants. When I visited Iceland around sixteen years ago, I can't recall seeing a single nonwhite face but seeing a black person on the streets of Reykjavik is not so rare anymore.

Much like Ireland but even more so, Icelanders are still getting used to the idea of immigration into their tight knit formerly-poor-but-now-rich island country. Incorporating newcomers is still a relatively new idea--as is hearing Icelandic in a foreign accent.

My genial Canadian tourguide took us inside a lava tube. Water seeping in through the entrance created amazing temporary stalactites (or is it stalagmites?) in the form of icicles dripping down from the ceiling and even connecting to the floor on occasion.

When the guide directed us to go on our own to the other exit, we figured it had to be tourist proof or he wouldn't let us go on our own. Wrong. Caves are confusing places and we somehow managed not to go the right way.

When one is lost in a cave, one's first thought is that this is not a good time to panic. The cave is small, the guide knows it well, and will come find us. (The second thought is that this is an excellent time to panic.)

Eventually, about 90 minutes after we entered the cave as it turned out, we ran into the guide hunting for us just as we finally figured out the route back to the entrance. "All's well that ends well" though we were both mighty glad to see the light coming from the entrance.

On the ride over, the guide told us how only one drunk tourist and one who spoke no English got lost and were quickly found among the hundreds he had taken through the lava tube. Well, he now has to double his count of lost tourists. (No pre-caving alcohol here and I speak good Englush.)

Needless to say, the Blue Lagoon, a wonderfully hot bathing mudhole made out of the runoff from a geothermal power plant, was extremely welcome relaxation at the end of the day. It has become one of Iceland's major tourist attractions since it is a lot of fun and located between Reykjavik and the airport.


Maryland’s Democratic Presidential Primary Record

From Marc Korman: Previously, we examined Maryland’s track record in presidential elections. Today, we take a look at Maryland’s Democratic presidential primary record since World War II.

According to the Maryland Secretary of State, Maryland’s first partisan presidential primary was in 1912. The practice did not become a regular quadrennial occurrence until 1952, with the exception of 1968 when the state did not hold a primary because of an overlapping state constitutional convention. From 1912 until 1984 Maryland held its primary in May. From 1988 until 2004 the primary was held in March.

A total of thirteen presidential primaries have been held in Maryland since World War II. In seven of those primaries, Maryland voted for the eventual Democratic nominee. That number climbs to eight if you count 1964, when home state Senator Daniel Brewster was standing in for incumbent President Lyndon Johnson.

Of the seven races where Maryland voted for the eventual Democratic nominee, only two went on to win the fall election. They were Kennedy and Clinton. If you count Brewster in 1964, three went on to win the general election. Two of the three were incumbent presidents, Clinton in ’96 and Johnson in ’64.

Of the eight races Maryland Democrats voted for the eventual Democratic nominee, six have come since 1980 beginning with the vote for Jimmy Carter over Ted Kennedy and continuing until 2004 with the exception of Tsongas’ victory over Clinton in 1992. Maryland Democrats’ new found ability to pick the eventual nominee probably reflects the trend, until 2008, of party nominees being picked earlier and earlier in the cycle.


Monday, March 24, 2008

Maryland News of the Weird

The Washington Post story on Confederate pride in Cumberland, Maryland was one of the strangest stories I've read in awhile.

As when I taught in South Carolina, defending one's "heritage" is apparently the cri de coeur of those who would wear or fly the Confederate flag in Cumberland:

Deana Bryant allowed her 16-year-old son to wear a shirt emblazoned with the flag to school one day last week in open defiance of the ban. Speaking from behind the grocery counter where she works, Bryant said the flag is not about racism.

"It's his heritage," she said, her blue eyes flashing.
Except that it's most certainly not the heritage of Cumberland. Western Maryland was a hotbed of Union sympathy during the Civil War. During the debate over secession, he rump Maryland legislature reconvened in Frederick, located east of Cumberland in Western Maryland, and wisely voted to stay in the Union--after pro-Confederate legislators had been arrested--precisely because this was Union territory.

Cumberland, after all, lies right on the Maryland border with West Virginia--a state formed because it refused to join the rest of Virginia in secession. Like West Virginia, there were few slaves or free blacks in Allegheny, so going to war under the banner of "States Rights" to protect the "peculiar institution" of slavery sensibly lacked appeal in this part of the world.

Appalachia was a hotbed of Union sympathy not just in Maryland and West Virginia but all the way down the mountain chain. Even the foothills in Alabama and Mississippi were the most pro-Union portions of these states. Ever wonder why western Maryland votes so Republican? It is the region's "heritage" dating back to its staunch support for the Union in the Civil War.


Urban Iceland

Reykjavik at Sunset

The last time I visited Iceland, I spent almost no time in Reykjavik, the capital, and lots traveling around rural areas of the island. Recently, I traveled back to talk about the upcoming U.S. elections. I spent most of my time in Reykjavik and got a view of urban Iceland this time. Here are some random thoughts on one of Europe's most interesting countries:

Reykjavik may be the most expensive capital city in the world, outpacing even its Nordic rival of Oslo, Norway. Remember that virtually everything has to be imported across the Nordic Sea and the country has a standard VAT rate of 24.5%.

The staggering prices make it hard for an American traveling on the weak dollar to drown their sorrows. I saw ordinary glasses of wine going for $32 per glass (not bottle) and a beer usually sold for around $10. It is far cheaper to buy hardcover editions of books by Icelandic authors in the United States than to buy paperback ones in Iceland.

Finding dinner for less than $50 was tough, though I did find a marvelous place by the harbor where you could point to the fresh catch, including whale, and they'd cook it for you. I had some of the largest and best scallops of my life for around $21--not a bad deal even in America.

Icelanders really love their cars--I can tell because the number of them had clearly increased since my last visit some 16 years ago and they are willing to fill up the tank at several multiples of the U.S. price for gas.

Declining US Influence
In retrospect, American influence could only decline from the period after World War II. We had established a military base at Keflavik, where the major international airport is located, and the presence of thousands of U.S. soldiers brought American culture and dollars in large dollops to the then-relatively isolated and poor Iceland.

Icelanders are no longer isolated or poor. No Icelander in 1940 or 1950 would have believe how wealthy Iceland--now home to two of the world's billionaires--would become by 2008. Despite the comparatively harsh conditions of their climate, they have built one of the most successful and connected countries on the planet. In addition to regular air connections via Icelandair, Icelanders are avid consumers of cell phones and the internet, easily outpacing Americans on both counts.

The base at Keflavik was always controversial in Iceland, NATO's only member without its own standing army. However, the Icelandic government never asked the Americans to leave. In the end, Iceland was surprised when the U.S. closed the base in 2006 and mourned the loss of jobs.

The former base location now serves as a source of cheaper housing (yup, it's expensive too), albeit with a longish and expensive commute (don't forget the price of gas) to Reykjavik. Icelanders also enjoy that they don't have to pass through a foreign military base to enter or to leave the country's major airport.

The U.S. still maintains the largest foreign embassy in Iceland. Nonetheless, the twelve Americans still constitute the smallest American embassy in Europe.

Rising EU Influence
Iceland falls increasingly within the orbit of the European Union. Iceland is a member of the European Economic Space (EES) so it already has adopted three-quarters of EU laws and regulations and already contributes to EU cohesion funds. It is also a member of the Schengen zone, permitting free movement among participating European nations.

Historically, the desire to protect its exclusive fishing rights around the island to continue to subsidize farmers heavily precluded serious consideration of an EU application. Moreover, it took Iceland until 1944 to achieve its independence from Denmark, so giving up sovereignty remains a sensitive topic.

Nonetheless, Iceland increasingly thinks about the advantages of joining the EU. The Icelandic krona is a small and volatile currency--it varied from 66 to 70 kronur to the U.S. dollar while I was there. Icelanders would like to adopt the Euro in the hopes of better containing currency fluctuations and inflation but have been told unequivocally that they would need to join the EU to do so.

Despite sitting astride North America and Europe, Iceland is culturally closer to Europe. Iceland retains close linguistic and cultural ties with the Nordic countries. Though the tie with Denmark was severed in 1944, all Icelanders continue to learn Danish is school and many still spend time studying in Copenhagen.

Just before my arrival in Iceland, a poll showed that 55 percent of Icelanders support joining the EU--the first time any poll showed majority support for the idea. However, the current government--as shotgun marriage between the right-wing Independence Party and the left-wing Social Democratic Alliance (SDA)--has agreed not to apply for EU membership during this parliament, so don't expect a quick application.

However, the SDA may choose to make joining the EU the center of its platform in the hopes of forming the anchor of the next government. It will be interesting to see if the SDA can use the EU question to overturn the usual dominance of the Independence Party which is divided over this question.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

The County Executive’s Bathroom: An Investigative Report

Greetings readers. I am joined live at the scene of the soon-to-be-constructed County Executive’s bathroom by special MPW correspondent and County Council staffer Dana Beyer. As you know, the Washington Post reported that the project would cost $65,000 and county staff said it was necessary for the security of the County Executive. Ms. Beyer has been investigating the project. Dana, what can you tell our readers about the new bathroom?

Dana Beyer: Well Adam, I have been unable to access the bathroom for three reasons. First, it is still under construction. I have seen several carpenters and plumbers hauling in platinum and gold fixtures but they won’t let me see what they’re doing.

Carpenter: Youse have to have a union card to get in! Widdout one… fuhgeddaboutit.

Former County Executive Candidate Bob Fustero: Do you hear that? I was right about those unions!

Dana: The second reason is that the transgender bill is still tied up by Citizens for a Responsible Government so I might not be allowed in even after it’s built.

Michelle Turner, CRG Spokeswoman: We have to protect the children from Dana! Errr, assuming any are actually allowed in the County Executive’s bathroom…

Adam: Dana, what is the third reason?

Dana: After the Post article, the County Executive’s office became quite sensitive about the project’s cost. So they instituted a fee schedule for access to pay for it. The fees operate on a sliding scale depending on exactly how one uses the bathroom.

Adam: Can you give us the details?

Dana: I’d rather not. After all, this is a family blog. I understand the fees are quite expensive and council staff are not paid enough to afford it.

Michelle Turner: That’s not a problem for us. We’ll just take it out of the per diem we receive from the Family Research Council.

Adam: Look! We now have a special guest – it’s County Executive Ike Leggett!

County Executive Leggett: Who are you people and what are you doing here?

Adam: Sir, we are reporting on the bathroom project. It’s part of our effort to follow your example in maintaining transparency in county government.

Leggett: Security, get them out of here!


Saturday, March 22, 2008

Domestic Partnerships: Mike Miller's Extended Dance Mix

As I said in my comment to David’s post below about the domestic partner home ownership bill, Andy Harris was in top form during the debate. But so was Mike Miller.

How this debate ends up will determine whether thousands of innocent people will be allowed to own their own home. It will determine whether thousands of people will continue to live in fear of losing their home if their partner dies.

Friday morning, as debate on one round of consideration of the bill wound down, after attacks against innocent gay people by Andy Harris and Alex Mooney, the Senate bell seemed to be malfunctioning. So, while waiting for it to ring, he started to sing the gay disco classic "Ring My Bell." I laughed, but my partner was furious. As he pointed out, for us and many others, this bill matters. It's about people’s lives. But Miller acts like it's all a game.

Sorry, Mike, but our lives aren't a game.

This comes after Miller told the press last year that he thinks that same-sex couples don’t need the legal rights that come with marriage (or even those lesser rights that would come with civil unions).

Now, it would be one thing to say that gay people are evil marriage-hating child-molesting monsters who shouldn’t have rights as couples. In that case it doesn’t matter that we need them – it’s a simple issue of not deserving them.

But as far as I know, Miller has never sided with the Christian Right (or its political arm, the modern Republican Party) on the “gays are out to destroy society” canard.

So maybe it was just a stupid, thoughtless comment based on complete ignorance. But I don’t think so – Miller is not stupid, and what he says is based on careful thought and crafty political strategy. That’s why he’s been able to remain Senate president almost since the colonial era.

But when he makes flip comments that couples like me and my partner don’t need rights – or when he sings gay disco classics as his fellow senators work to deprive us of our rights and our homes - he needs to know how he comes across to people who lives are affected by the bills he shepherds through the Senate chamber.

Some of us were listening to the floor debate barely able to breathe, waiting for the outcome.

Flip brush-offs and 70s flashbacks are fine when you’re considering bills to designate walking as the official state exercise or Smith Island Cake as the official state dessert.

But not here.


Thanks Rona, Equality Hits the Housing Market

According to the Washington Post, the Maryland Senate has passed a bill granting same-sex couples property rights equivalent to married couples:

Same-sex couples would be eligible for property benefits enjoyed by married couples under a measure to which the Senate gave preliminary approval yesterday.

The bill exempts members of same-sex couples from paying recordation taxes and state and county transfer taxes when they transfer a home or other property to their partner or partner's family members. The measure also applies to opposite-sex unmarried couples.
Our own Paul Gordon explained why this matters in a press release by Equality Maryland:
Paul Gordon of Montgomery County told legislators that he still isn’t listed on the deed to the home that he shares with his partner because of the prohibitive transfer taxes that same-sex couples have to pay, but that married couples and a slew of other relatives are exempt from.

“My partner Rick and I met back in 1992, a couple of years after he’d bought a house in Silver Spring,” Paul testified. “That house – our home – is still in his name only. And I live in fear that I could lose it if something happened to him. In 2005, I told a House committee how Rick and I had just spent three weeks as a family with his mother in intensive care and decided as a family to end her life-support. But Maryland says that Rick and I are not a family. Maryland says we are no different than two total strangers. And when I testified in 2005, Maryland was forcing us to choose: If we wanted to put my name on the title of our home, that meant we could not afford a gravestone for Rick’s mother. We picked the gravestone, and three years later, I still have no ownership interest in my own home, and I could lose it if something happens to Rick,” Paul stated. He added, “Current law imposes a financial punishment on innocent families and puts us at risk of losing our homes. It’s cruel. It’s wrong. And you can put a stop to it.”
Meanwhile, Alex Mooney continues his hysterical opposition to this mild measure:
It advanced after vigorous opposition from conservative Republicans, who said the General Assembly should not deny needed revenue to local governments to give unmarried couples a tax benefit.

"Do we really want to encourage people to shack up to promote the homosexual agenda?" asked Sen. Alex X. Mooney (R-Frederick). Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County) said the bill is "really just about money" same-sex couples are seeking to save in property transactions.

But the bill's lead sponsor, Sen. Rona E. Kramer (D-Montgomery), said the financial security of couples who happen not to be married is at stake. Someone who is not on the deed of his home could lose the property if his partner dies, Kramer said.
Mooney actually appears to believe that people will turn gay or lesbian due to this measure. For everyone I know, sexual preference isn't determined by state property tax law. Perhaps Alex is different from the rest of us.


Friday, March 21, 2008

Getting to Know the Real Montgomery College

A reprint of a forthcoming Montgomery County Sentinel column by Wayne Goldstein.

Montgomery College is in the news these days in some very unflattering ways. The first is because the communities who live near the former Maryland College of Art and Design (MCAD) on Georgia Avenue, now owned by the Montgomery College Foundation, want this land to become a park. Although the College and its Foundation were given the MCAD site for free, they want to sell the land to developers for as much money as possible. The second is what is being called "Montgomery College’s Union Busting Campaign" documented this week in a four part series where the College is being accused of interfering with the right of adjunct professors to consider joining a union.

I think it's time that a new generation of county leaders and residents be introduced to what I call "The Real Montgomery College." From 2000-2002, I was part of a group who fought to stop the College from building its Cultural Arts Center in South Silver Spring's historic Jesup Blair Park because of the irreversible damage that would be done to the park's remaining old growth oak trees and to the setting of the last of the historic Blair family mansions. Against all odds, our group, with the timely help of others, successfully pressured the College to relocate this building to the corner of Georgia and Burlington Avenues, where it is being constructed today.

As I searched for ways to stop the College's building plans for the park, I began to do research about the College that soon became an exhaustive pursuit of the history of how the College grew its campuses and its buildings. What I found were some very embarrassing, even shameful moments in the College's history, as well as long periods of near-reckless behavior where the College fought everyone to try to get its way. By 2002, I had written a 100,000-word manuscript titled "The Real Montgomery College" covering the time period from the early '40s through 2002. In part, as a result of sharing this long-forgotten history with those concerned about the College's behavior in 2002, more people and institutions stood up to the College and forced it to make changes it did not want to make. And now, in 2008, it looks like the College is once again starting to spin out of control, so it is time to once again tell some of those shameful stories of the past.

For decades, the College has complained about not having room to expand its Takoma Park campus, a problem it continues to struggle with to this day. It might surprise you to know that this problem could have been entirely avoided, except that past College officials intentionally chose to ignore the obvious. In 1946, Montgomery Junior College [MJC] began evening classes in World War II surplus government building at B-CC High School. By 1950, the College was ready to move to its own campus. It ended up preferring the former Bliss Electrical School in Takoma Park.

"In June [1950], "The [Montgomery County] Board [of Education] discussed further the purchase of Bliss Electrical School for the [MJC[" Then on 7/11/50, "...the Board directed that negotiations be proceeded with for the purchase of the property..., including all land, buildings and equipment... Mrs. Baylor [a board member] voted for the purchase of the property, after stating her position as follows: 'I have prepared a statement in regard to my position in connection with the proposed purchase of the Bliss Electrical School, which I would like to have inserted into the minutes of this meeting. First, the campus of approximately 7 acres is, according to all educational standards, inadequate for a Junior College. A minimum of 35 acres is desirable. [Emphasis added] Second, the proximity to the B & O Railroad with its accompanying noise is detrimental to carrying on a school program... However, I want it noted that the proposal for the purchase of the... property has been approved by a committee from the Advisory Council of the Junior College, by the Civic Federation... and by Dean Price. It appears obvious that unless the Bliss Electrical School is purchased, the [MJC] is doomed to struggle along in its present inadequate quarters. With this in mind, and considering the other factors, I will cast my vote with the majority of the Board.'"

The College's leaders, knowing the site was far too small for the College's needs, rationalized the decision based on the price and on their hope that they could always use local parks and schools for all of their athletic programs. Within 5 years, they had outgrown the campus and began looking for ways to expand it, including buying adjacent residential properties as they became available. One did become available, the Grabill Property:

"...The following resolution was adopted [4-2]...That the Grabill property at 703 New York Avenue... is needed as additional property for the [MJC], and... that the Superintendent be authorized to make the purchase of this property in the name of the Board of Education... from the estate in an amount not to exceed $17,000." 5/14/57 School Board meeting: "The Superintendent announced that the Grabill property on New York Avenue.., for which the Board had been negotiating for use by the [MJC], had been sold to another party."

"Here's how this institution, at their 6/11/57 meeting, responded to having the object of their desire snatched from their outreaching hand: "The Superintendent and Dean Deyo... briefed the Board on the action to date in connection with the proposed acquisition of a site adjacent to the College for future use. They stated that they felt this land is valuable to the school. In view of the fact that neighbors have purchased the Grabill property during the period of negotiations between the Board and the owners, the Superintendent remarked that he felt condemnation proceedings should be recommended." [Emphasis added]

The School Board voted to have condemnation investigated as a possible action. Miraculously, without any outside intervention at all, the College realized that it should not abuse the condemnation process, and the motion was rescinded on 1/27/58. This may have been the last time in the past 50 years that Montgomery College did the right thing without being forced to do so by others.

As to the issue of relationships between College leaders, professors and students, consider this: "5/10/78: "The faculty at [MC] has voted overwhelmingly to recommend to the college's board... against renewing the contract of college president William C. Strasser when it expires on June 30 of next year... Students, incensed over next year's calendar which crams exams into 3 days scheduled to run from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. are circulating a petition opposing Strasser... Of the 246 faculty members who responded [to a poll], 225 (91.5 %) were opposed to renewing the president's contract, 14 were for renewing... and 7 had no opinion. The poll also gave Strasser low ratings in several areas. On a scale of one (low) to 10 (high), the majority of faculty members against renewing Strasser's contract gave him 1.5 for leadership, 2.8 for administrative ability, 1.1 for communications and 1.8 for public relations. The poll... conducted in Feb. and sent confidentially to the board... also listed the 3 most important problems facing the college as apathy and morale, Dr. Strasser, and lack of communication...

"Several members of the [MC] Student Senate are distributing a petition asking the board... not to consider Strasser as a candidate... Several thousand students have already signed the petitions. The goal is 6000 signatures (about half of the Rockville campus enrollment) to be presented to the board... Previously [Strasser] had been censured by the faculty (1968), asked to resign (Dec.,1976) and hung in effigy by students (Nov.,1977)."

11/8/78: "The president of [MC], William C. Strasser, will step down when his current 5-year contract ends on 6/30/79... Strasser has been president... since 1966. He presided over a great expansion in the college's enrollment, offerings and the addition of a third campus--but will also be remembered for tremendous friction with the faculty and students... during his tenure... The friction at [MC], according to some faculty members, led to the state legislature's unprecedented vote last spring to allow collective bargaining at MC, which is not authorized at any other community college in Md..."

Today, adjunct, untenured Montgomery College professors are paid $880 per credit hour taught, normally as three credit hour courses. Full-time, tenured faculty can earn as much as $3,038 per credit hour. It is also reported that adjunct professors do not have health benefits or defined benefit pensions. Montgomery College's uniquely bad behavior over the decades has caused a number of "unprecedented" votes and actions by other government entities. I hope that all who seek to hold the College to the same standards as all of us will find assistance in this and future installments of "The Real Montgomery College."

Wayne Goldstein is the President of the Montgomery County Civic Federation and is one of the grand-daddies of civic activism in this county.


Hitting the Loo in Style

Readers, I just could not resist this Post article about the County Executive's new bathroom. Among other things, it contains some intimate details about the "private business" habits of several of our current and former politicians.

A variation of an old joke comes to me. What can you do in a $65,000 bathroom? Apparently, whatever the hell you want! And if that didn't make you grimace, check out the crude attempt at irony in our labels to this post.


Maryland’s Democratic Presidential Primary Record

From Marc Korman.

Previously, we examined Maryland’s track record in presidential elections. Today, we take a look at Maryland’s Democratic presidential primary record since World War II.

According to the Maryland Secretary of State, Maryland’s first partisan presidential primary was in 1912. The practice did not become a regular quadrennial occurrence until 1952, with the exception of 1968 when the state did not hold a primary because of an overlapping state constitutional convention. From 1912 until 1984 Maryland held its primary in May. From 1988 until 2004 the primary was held in March.

A total of thirteen presidential primaries have been held in Maryland since World War II. In seven of those primaries, Maryland voted for the eventual Democratic nominee. That number climbs to eight if you count 1964, when home state Senator Daniel Brewster was standing in for incumbent President Lyndon Johnson.

Of the seven races where Maryland voted for the eventual Democratic nominee, only two went on to win the fall election. They were Kennedy and Clinton. If you count Brewster in 1964, three went on to win the general election. Two of the three were incumbent presidents, Clinton in ’96 and Johnson in ’64.

Of the eight races Maryland Democrats voted for the eventual Democratic nominee, six have come since 1980 beginning with the vote for Jimmy Carter over Ted Kennedy and continuing until 2004 with the exception of Tsongas’ victory over Clinton in 1992. Maryland Democrats’ new found ability to pick the eventual nominee probably reflects the trend, until 2008, of party nominees being picked earlier and earlier in the cycle.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

On Political Pulse

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett will be on the 'Political Pulse' TV Show on Channel 16 to discuss budget released on March 17th which addresses the County's $300 million budget deficit. Mr. Leggett also discusses other issues, including the 5th anniversary of the Iraq War, the Clinton - Obama Primary and the State Legislative Session which is proceeding in Annapolis. The interview will air on: Thursday, March 20th at 9 p.m.; and Tuesday, March 25th at 9:30 p.m.


Montgomery College’s Union Busting Campaign: Part Four of Four

In Part Three, we began examining the FAQ sheet that Montgomery College sent to its adjunct faculty to spread propaganda about unions. We demonstrated how the administration tried to make SEIU Local 500 look like an intimidating, coercive organization and how they tried to attach questionable generalizations about unions to the local. Now, we expose how their questions and answers serve a third tactical objective:

3. Scare the workers and make them think the union is not worth it.

Q. How long does it take for a union to negotiate a contract?
A. Recent studies show that contract negotiations usually take more than one year when employees are represented by a union, and that unions are successful in negotiating an agreement within a year only 25% of the time.

Q. Will I have to walk a picket line?
A. That is a possibility. Although there is a “no strike” provision in the law, a union may require members to picket in an effort to get its point across. Many unions also require their members to serve picket duty at other companies where they have a strike. The SEIU is known for its frequent picketing of businesses that it is trying to get to accept its positions.

For example, look at the article in the Washington Post on February 18, 2008 titled “A Stubborn Union Storms the Gates at Carlyle Group,” which reported on the SEIU’s picketing on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Post noted that picketers “swarmed through the Carlyle building, jumping on and off elevators, running up stairways and trying to get into Carlyle offices in an effort to confront [a] Carlyle co-founder… After some heated moments, security and D.C. police escorted the union from the premises.”
The FAQ sheet neglects to mention that many first contracts are not reached because of “union avoidance” programs of the kind that Montgomery College is now running. And the SEIU action at Carlyle, a troubled company by any measure, involved a campaign at nursing home chain Manor Care. Local 500 does not organize nursing homes and did not participate in the picket action against Carlyle. And Local 500 does not require picket duty of its members because most of its employers are in the public sector and in Maryland are are not subject to strikes. Montgomery College is well aware of this but nevertheless tries to smear Local 500 by talking about the actions of a different SEIU group on a different campaign.

As someone who has been fighting law-breaking employers for more than 13 years, I’m accustomed to this sort of misleading propaganda from private-sector employers. But now a public institution has hired a “union avoidance” attorney to apply these same tactics to county employees – all through our tax dollars. How many thousands of dollars is Montgomery College spending on its union-busting campaign? How many students could be educated with that money? And why is Montgomery College being allowed to pay a “union avoidance” lawyer hundreds of dollars an hour at a time when the county is projecting a $297 million budget deficit and is raising property taxes to pay for it?

What will Montgomery College do next? Union-busting campaigns usually do not end with FAQ sheets. Common tactics include captive audience meetings, one-on-one interrogations by supervisors, promised improvements (which may or may not actually materialize), threats of job cuts and even firing union supporters. Is this what the college’s adjunct professors have to look forward to?

Montgomery College’s union busting campaign is an absolute abomination in a progressive county like Montgomery. Adjunct professors and any other public employees should be free to choose, or not choose, union representation without being subjected to taxpayer-subsidized propaganda and fear. The County Executive and the County Council should immediately take measures to terminate Montgomery College’s “union avoidance” attorney and compel the school to let its employees make their own labor decisions in peace.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Legislative Vacancies: Annapolis Update

Last Friday, the Senate Education Health and Environmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on a bill to reform how legislative vacancies are filled in the General Assembly.

It got a cool reception.

The current system to fill state legislative vacancies is … well, it has problems. For some background, check out this December 13 post of mine, or this dramatic tale of Adam’s, based on a true story.

Sen. Rich Madaleno is sponsoring a constitutional amendment to reform the system, with the wise counsel of people like our resident blogger and political scientist David Lublin. The proposed amendment wouldn’t overhaul the current system; party central committees would still make legislative replacements. But under the amendment, if the vacancy occurs during the first two years of the four-year term, then the committee-selected replacements would be temporary. Voters would elect a permanent replacement during the midterm election (which, in Maryland, is the same as presidential election years) to serve until the end of the term.

So when Madaleno offered his testimony in support of the bill last Friday, did anyone speak out against it? Nope.

But the committee’s reaction was cool at best. It would seem unlikely that the bill will be going anywhere this session. It may be for the same reasons that Madaleno had predicted back in December. Legislators just don't see this as a problem. The rapid loss of so many Montgomery County state legislators within a year of the 2006 election is not the norm, and many delegates and senators may see it as "just" a Montgomery County problem.

I also suspect that few, if any, constituents or lobbyists talk to delegates and senators about this issue. So the only thing that many legislators would get for supporting this bill would be a group of angry Central Committee members.

Interestingly enough, and previously unbeknownst to me, a similar bill was introduced back in 2003 by Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D - Howard County). It got a committee hearing and was never heard from again. My guess is that we'll see a replay of that fizzle this year.

But that's okay. Even if the amendment were passed tomorrow and approved by the voters in November, the first midterm where it could come into play would not be until 2012. So there is no rush: We’ll get the same result even if the amendment doesn’t pass until 2010.

So Madaleno will have to talk it up among his colleagues in the Senate over the next couple of years. Perhaps he’ll have a House ally in Bobo. Whatever he does, certain bloggers certainly won't be quiet about this issue until it is resolved.

For those of you who keep track of these things, here's a transcript of Madaleno's committee testimony:

SB693 is a constitutional amendment that would require vacancies in the General Assembly that occur during the first half of the four-year term to be filled by a special election to coincide with the presidential election. The relevant party central committee would still nominate a replacement to serve until the results of the special election are certified.

Unfortunately, both chambers of our General Assembly have lost members this past year due to a variety of circumstances. We have had three vacancies in the Senate and five in the House of Delegates. The remainder of these terms will be filled by a person who was appointed, not elected. Current law provides that the county central committee of the vacating member’s party to nominate someone to the Governor to fill the remainder of the term. This system has served us well for many years, but the recent spate of reshuffling in our legislature so early after an election has left many of us reviewing this process. Our constituents are troubled by the idea that a person could be appointed to a position so early in a term without any input or say from the majority of the people they represent.

In Montgomery County, the overwhelming majority of those on the parties’ central committees do not live in the district whose Delegate or Senator they are choosing. Although central committee members are elected, most voters are unfamiliar as to what a party central committee does and who the candidates are when they see them on an election ballot. In addition, citizens who are not registered to the same party as the legislator being replaced have no voice at all in electing the body that is making the selection for them.

While these flaws might be acceptable for someone filling a vacancy on a short-term basis - and even that is a debatable proposition - they are not acceptable for selecting a replacement who could serve out the remaining three or even four years of a term, not when there is an opportunity for the voters to cast a ballot in the midterm elections. To deny voters this opportunity is inconsistent with the basic principles of electoral democracy. I urge you to give SB693 a favorable report.


Montgomery College’s Union Busting Campaign: Part Three of Four

When Montgomery College administrators sent a memo to adjunct faculty warning them against joining SEIU Local 500, they attached a document called “Typical Questions That Are Asked During a Union Organizing Campaign.” An FAQ document is a typical opening shot in any union busting program. Provided by the “union avoidance consultant,” the FAQ sheet spins the labor law, spreads misleading propaganda and scares the workforce. Montgomery College’s document is no different and seeks to accomplish the following tactical objectives:

1. Make the union look like an intimidating, coercive organization. Here are a few questions and answers in the FAQ sheet designed to do that:

Q. Do I have to let a union representative into my house?
A. No. A union representative has no more right to enter your house than any other paid salesperson.

Q. Do I have to sign a union authorization card?
A. No. You don’t have to sign such a card to teach at Montgomery College. Under the law you have the right not to join a union and no one can threaten or coerce you into joining.

Q. What difference does it make if I sign a union authorization card?
A. If you and other part time faculty feel pressured to sign a card and actually do so, it increases the chances that the union will be able to file a petition for an election. If that should happen, you should expect even more pressure from the union to vote for it if an election is held.

Q. The union organizers say that everyone else is joining the union. Why shouldn’t I join too?
A. It is a common organizing tactic of unions to claim that “nearly everyone has signed” union membership application cards and they want only a few more employees’ signatures to make it 100 percent. Actually, they may have very few people signed up and they use a “don’t be last” approach to get enough signatures to legally petition for an election. Many employees sign to keep from being bothered and needled by the organizers. This is why the law relies on the secret ballot vote as the true test of employee’s choice.
So union representatives are “paid salespersons” who threaten, coerce, pressure, bother and needle workers. And management is the voice of reason merely informing workers of their right to be left alone.

2. Make questionable generalizations about other unions and insinuate the specific local union in the organizing campaign is guilty of them. Here are a few examples from the FAQ sheet:

Q. Will it cost me anything to belong to this union?
A. In all likelihood, yes. Unions collect monthly dues, and besides that there are a lot of other charges such as initiation fees, assessments and contributions to organizations and causes a union may sponsor or support. Unions also fine and suspend members who violate any of the union’s many by-laws and rules forbidding any “disloyalty” to the union.

Q. What can the union fine its members for?
A. It depends on the union’s internal rules. Most union constitutions and by-laws provide that the union can fine you for almost anything – for not attending union meetings, for trying to come into work if there is a strike, or for talking back to an officer of the union.

Q. Is it true that a union may require its members to pay more than dues each month?
A. Yes. The union may require a member to contribute to the international union, as well as to pay charges for political contributions, informational clinics, building funds and other special project funds. If a member refuses to pay these special assessments, your union membership may be suspended or you may be fined by the union or even expelled by the union.
The FAQ sheet does not mention that the federal Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 guarantees union members the right to vote by secret ballot on local dues and assessments. Union members also have rights to free speech, due process in any disciplinary procedures and to sue their unions in court.

SEIU Local 500’s bylaws specifically guarantee all members the right “to receive a fair and open hearing in accordance with the provisions of these bylaws on any charge brought by him/her or against him/her.” Furthermore, SEIU Local 500’s bylaws do not require political contributions (which are voluntary) and specifically allow member votes before raising dues or assessments. But of course, Montgomery College is not going to tell its workforce these facts.

We’ll finish looking at the FAQ sheet in Part Four.

Correction: An adjunct professor wrote me to state that not all adjuncts receive $880 per credit hour as the Gazette reported and I cited in Part One. According to this adjunct:

Please take note of the fact that $880 per ESH (estimated semester hour) is the MAXIMUM that an adjunct can presently earn at Montgomery College. The minimum is $810 per ESH. The next level, $850 per ESH, can only be obtained after a teacher has taught at least 6 semesters (three years) and has accumulated a certain amount of professional development credit by taking various workshops. In three more years, the teacher can advance to $880 per ESH; once again professional development credit has to be earned. These courses must be taken during the adjunct's own time, so of course there's no compensation. Also, it's up to an adjunct to petition for the next pay level by submitting the appropriate form along with proof of professional development credit to his or her respective department. There is no such thing as automatic advancement. If an adjunct doesn't follow the above procedure, he or she will remain at the same pay level indefinitely.
So after six years and much training on the adjunct’s own time, the professor may earn up to $10,560 for four courses in a semester. Nice.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Montgomery College’s Union Busting Campaign: Part Two of Four

On March 3, Mary Kay Shartle-Galotto, Executive Vice-President for Academic and Student Services and Marshall Moore, Vice-President for Administrative and Fiscal Services sent a memo warning adjunct faculty not to support SEIU Local 500. This document has the fingerprints of a “union avoidance consultant” all over it. The memo begins:

As some of you may already know, organizers of the Service Employees International Union Local 500 have approached the part-time faculty at Montgomery College and have asked them to sign union authorization cards. If a sufficient number of part-time faculty sign these cards, the union intends to submit a petition for a representation election to the State Commissioner of Labor.

Montgomery College has always maintained good relationships with its full-time faculty and staff unions; however, the College does not believe that the unionization of part-time faculty would best serve the interests of this faculty base, the College, or our students. There are many complicated facets to this issue - and some misunderstandings - that part-time faculty members should understand and reconcile before they commit themselves to union representation. Unions can promise a lot - namely wage increases, better benefits, job security - but the union may not always be able to deliver everything it intends. Faculty should also be aware of the sizable fee/cost factor involved with any union membership.

Part-time faculty members are a diverse group of people with many different goals and priorities. We have faculty who work for a variety of different industries and institutions, and this diverse, real-world perspective is something we highly value in this faculty base. Unionization would almost necessarily standardize the treatment of this population, which could result in difficulties with the assignment and scheduling of classes, not to mention possible difficulties involving full-time faculty relationships.
So Shartle-Galotto and Moore admit to maintaining “good relationships” with their other unions but nevertheless say “the College does not believe” that unionization would be in the interest of adjuncts. Why not? They refer to “many complicated facets to this issue – and some misunderstandings.” They talk about the “sizable fee/cost factor” of unions but avoid mentioning that U.S. union members were paid on average 30% more than non-members last year. They also do not want their adjuncts to know that while 69% of U.S. unionized employees have access to a defined benefit pension plan (which the adjuncts do not have), only 15% of non-union workers have similar access. And their discussion of “standardizing” the workforce omits the fact that any employee classifications are a subject for collective bargaining in which the employer has full rights of participation.

Later in the memo, Shartle-Galotto and Moore claim that adjuncts received an 8 percent salary increase in the 2007-08 academic year. They neglect to mention that the college's adjuncts receive as little as one-third of regular faculty pay for the same work. They also fail to mention that their hired “union avoidance” attorney, Darrell VanDeusen, could be making more in 30 hours of billing (perhaps $12,000- $18,000) than adjuncts can make teaching four courses in a semester ($10,560).

But Montgomery College is not merely selectively releasing information. They attached a list of “frequently asked questions” about unions to their memo which was probably drafted in consultation with VanDeusen. We’ll take a look at that list in Part Three.


Monday, March 17, 2008

Paying for Roads One Way or Another

Yes, I know everyone is talking about MoCo’s budget crisis, and don’t worry – we will too. But this Post article on a report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) calling for a comprehensive toll network caught my eye.

According to the article:

The [COG] study, which will be presented to the council of governments' Transportation Planning Board, includes three scenarios. The first would add a series of new toll lanes to every freeway in the region, with tolls applying only to drivers on those lanes, a proposal that is seen as unworkable. The new roads and overpasses would be so costly and eat up so much land that it is essentially a non-starter.

"We can't build a duplicate highway network; it ain't gonna happen," [COG transportation director Ronald] Kirby said.

The report lays out two other scenarios that would add tolls to existing highways:

One would add tolls to all District river crossings and existing freeway lanes in the city, where there is no room for new or expanded lanes. The plan would, in effect, connect the 1960s-era highway network that was discontinued in favor of Metrorail. For example, the stretch of New York Avenue from the District line to the Third Street tunnel, which connects U.S. 50 and Interstate 395, would be tolled. Similarly, the stretch of Independence and Maine avenues that joins the Arlington Memorial Bridge and Southeast/Southwest Freeway would be tolled.

The most comprehensive scenario, which has captured the imagination of planners and government leaders, would toll every regional highway, plus all the regional parkways, including the Baltimore-Washington, George Washington, Rock Creek and Potomac, Clara Barton and Suitland parkways.

According to the report, the most comprehensive tolling network would raise $2.75 billion a year, increase transit use by 6 percent, boost carpool rates by 4 percent and result in a relatively small -- 1.2 percent -- increase in vehicle miles traveled, which is how traffic planners measure the amount of driving.
Why are we talking about tolls? Because there just aren't very many alternatives to pay for massively expensive but necessary transportation projects. Neither Maryland nor Virginia have done very well at this. In last year’s special session, the Maryland legislature voted to allow the gas tax to increase along with construction costs, thereby generating an extra $400 million annually for transportation. But $250 million will go to maintenance, leaving just $150 million – roughly equal to the cost of one average interchange project – for new projects statewide each year. In Virginia, a plan to allow an unelected board to levy taxes for transportation unraveled when the state’s Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. Politicians in neither state have shown much willingness to further increase gas taxes, so COG is proposing tolls as an alternative.

I have never actually met a person who loves tolls. I mean, not just one who tolerates tolls, but one who has formed a pro-toll fan club, collects toll-related memorabilia, has opened a toll museum and worships toll collectors like rock stars. That said, EZ-Pass has made paying tolls less painful than it used to be.

But think about it like this: one way or another, we will pay for our road network. We can pay for it through a gas tax. We can pay for it through tolls. We can pay for it by privatizing roads (as Indiana has done) and then watching the private operators jack up the tolls over time. Or we can pay for it by sitting in congestion, burning needless gas as our cars idle and further pollute the atmosphere. The first two options present costs that are obvious and up-front whereas the last two have costs that are hidden or deferred. Nevertheless, I find the first two options preferable to the last two because at least they do not increase greenhouse gas emissions or enrich plutocratic investors.