Thursday, August 30, 2007

Progressive Senators Lay Down a Marker

Governor Martin O'Malley
State House
100 State Circle
Annapolis, MD 21401

Dear Governor O'Malley:

In recent months, there has been much discussion in Annapolis about the projected shortfall in next year's budget and the need for the state to move beyond the short term budget fixes that characterized the last four years.

We strongly agree that Maryland needs a new, fiscally responsible and forward-thinking strategy to balance the state's books.

However, we are concerned that too much of the recent debate has focused on the needs of the government, rather than on the needs and aspirations of our people. The budget is a moral document that reflects our community's priorities and values. Our constituents want fiscal policies that will protect our quality of life and shape a decent future for all of our children and grandchildren.

They want assurance that our local public schools have the resources to recruit and retain great teachers for their children. And that schools will be built and maintained to relieve overcrowding and close temporary annexes permanently.

They want to be able to afford to send their children to Maryland's colleges, without putting their families in debt for a lifetime.

They want to know that quality, affordable health care will be there for their families when they need it and that the medical bills they pay will be for a system that makes sense.

They want Maryland to do its share to save the Chesapeake Bay and to reduce global warming.

They want a transportation network that reduces traffic congestion and protects both our environment and our quality of life.

And they want a tax system based on ability to pay; one that assures that all pay their fair share; and one that does not deepen the sharp inequalities that have developed between the vast majority of working families and the privileged few.

As you develop a plan to address the state's fiscal policy, we urge you to focus on these goals:

1. The fiscal plan should assure adequate funding to meet the needs and priorities of Maryland's families. It should invest in public schools and colleges, expand health care for working families, protect our environment, and reduce traffic congestion.

2. The plan should provide comprehensive long-term solutions, not quick fixes that will return the state to the same problems a few years from now. The state's revenue system must be modernized to reflect public needs and the reality of the state's economy in the 21st century.

3. The plan as a whole should be progressive, shifting the relative burden off of working families, small business, and those on fixed incomes. Maryland's current tax system puts too much of the burden on those least able to pay. That policy is not fair and leaves the state exposed to recurring deficits.

4. The plan should directly promote healthy practices in our communities and a cleaner environment. Thoughtful and effective fiscal policies will improve the health of our people and our environment at the same time as they raise revenue.

The failed policies of the recent past give us the opportunity today to bring our budget and fiscal policies into alignment with our values and real priorities. We look forward to working with you, Lieutenant Governor Brown, and our colleagues in the General Assembly on this critically important effort.

Best wishes,

Paul Pinsky
Brian Frosh
Jim Rosapepe
Rich Madaleno
Jamie Raskin
Joan Carter Conway
Lisa Gladden
Gwendolyn Britt
Mike Lenett
Anthony Muse
Jennie Forehard
Delores Kelley
Rob Garagiola
Verna Jones


Cutting Off the Counties?

One way to attack the state budget deficit is cut aid to the counties. Naturally, county leaders are less than thrilled with this idea and Gov. Martin O'Malley has expressed opposition to balancing the state budget on the backs of the county governments. However, the General Assembly seems open to the idea in theory though we'll see how they feel about it when they see the impact on their county.

Sen. Madaleno's office provided me with a table showing me how cuts totaling $652 million would fall on the counties. Montgomery would take the biggest hit by far, losing $155 million in state funding and $80 million more than the runner up (Baltimore County). At 24%, the reduction would be the largest hit in percentage terms as well. Worcester County, home to Ocean City, would take the second largest cut at 20%. On a per resident basis, the proposed spending cuts would be the second largest in the state. Montgomery would lose $166 per resident while Calvert would lose $180 per resident.

Despite their size, one can make a case that the cuts would actually hit Montgomery less hard than other jurisdictions. Montgomery would have to raise property taxes by 8 cents to recover the lost funds--as low as any jurisdiction in the state save Queen Anne's. In contrast, Allegany's property taxes would have to jump by 26 cents. Prince George's would have to raise their taxes by 11 cents to recoup the loss from the state and TRIM limits their ability to raise property taxes, so Prince George's would have to make major cuts in the county budget.

However, the question remains how this would impact residents in absolute terms. After all, Montgomery's taxes would go up less because its property is worth more. An 8 cent increase on valuable property may result in a lot more tax than a much larger increase on a property valued much less. Montgomery's legislators would want to see the numbers on how much of tax hike their constituents could expect before rushing to embrace county cuts.

Additionally, some aspects of cuts could be expected to grow further in the future. Teacher retirement costs in Montgomery is expensive because we pay our teachers well compared to many other jurisdictions. It is hugely to our advantage that the State picks up the tab. If we start splitting the cost with the State, the County will be taking on a long-term burden which will rise in the future unless we cut teacher benefits--not a desirable goal in a county with a strong educational system which wishes to continue to keep and to attract excellent teachers.


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Good News: We're Wealthy; The Bad News: We're Broke

Hidden in a story with a headline on poverty rates, the Washington Post reported that Maryland has now surpassed New Jersey to become the wealthiest state in the country with a median household income of $65,144 (see related story in the Sun).

Howard County remained champagne country with the highest income in the state at $94,260. However, even Howard lagged behind our rich cousins across the Potomac in Fairfax and Loudoun Counties. Once one of the top two or three counties in the nation in terms of wealth, Montgomery has now dropped to seventh in the nation with a median household income of $87,624.

Of course, the budget deficit remains with Maryland despite our economic success. I'm sure that Montgomery Superintendent Weast would have a good explanation. Apparently, the falling SAT scores in Montgomery despite the rising success of some groups is a "perfect Simpson's paradox." And no, he wasn't talking about either O.J. or Bart and Lisa.

I'll have to remember that one the next time I need to bamboozle the media so I can make a quick getaway.


Monday, August 27, 2007

So You Want to Cut the Budget?

In previous posts, I've discussed various means of raising revenue from hiking taxes to adopting slots. Of course, we can always cut the budget too. While many tend to think that there is a lot of fat waiting to be cut from the budget, making the choice of what to cut is not always so easy in reality. Here is a list of potential cuts and associated budget savings (in millions of dollars) provided to me by Sen. Richard Madaleno (D-18):

No state employee salary increase, 62
Eliminate subsidy for retiree prescriptions, 184
Eliminate GF for PAYGO programs, 29
Close four state mental health facilities, 20
Postpone community provider increase, 47
Eliminate new program funding for disabled children, 12
Reduce positions for corrections and juvenile services, 13
Transfer park costs to Program Open Space, 16
Eliminate state grants to private colleges, 64
Eliminate support for state aided educational institutions, 7
Eliminate stem cell research fund, 23
Eliminate Heritage Tax Credit, 25
Delete support of Tourism Board & Baltimore Convention Center, 10
Eliminate biotech and film production tax credits and grants, 13
No rate increase for nursing homes, 20
Apply 2% premium to eligible Medicaid recipients, 19
Level fund higher education (15% tuition increase), 55
Transfer 50% of teacher retirement costs to local governments, 324
Level fund K-12 formulas, 137
Delete state grants for police, 44
Eliminate electric generating property tax grant, 31
Delete Geographic Cost of Education Index, 40
Cut increase in community college grant, 28
Eliminate aging schools program, 11
Delete all K-12 grants outside of Thornton formulas, 51
Delete funding for retiree health care trust fund, 100
All of these cuts combined would get us close to a balanced budget--assuming somehow that the deficit does not rise further in the wake of the real-estate crisis. Montgomery County would have to either make significant cuts of its own or raise property taxes in order to compensate for the decline in state revenue. Montgomery is the largest beneficiary by far of state funding of teacher retirement, the largest item on the list. So don't assume that your taxes won't go up if the state takes an ax to the budget.


Friday, August 24, 2007

On Political Pulse

Dr. Royce Hanson, the Chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board will be on the "Political Pulse" TV Show on Tuesday, August 28th at 9:30 p.m. Political Pulse is on Channel 16 TV in Montgomery County. Some of the topics that will be discussed include:

-The growth policies recently recommended by the Planning Board;

-Traffic congestion in the County and possible solutions thereto; and

-the Purple Line and Dr. Hanson's views on whether it should be re-routed through or near Bethesda Naval Hospital to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of employees/visitors/patients who will travel to the hospital if the operations of the Walter Reid Hospital in Washington D.C. are shifted to Bethesda Naval based on B.R.A.C. (Base Realignment and Closing).


Thursday, August 23, 2007

No More Municipalities in Montgomery?

Not too long ago the County Council unanimously torpedoed an effort to schedule a vote on whether the Rollingwood Village of Chevy Chase would become Montgomery County's twentieth municipality. According to the pro-incorporation committee, over 30% of voters in the proposed village signed a petition to call for a vote on incorporation. So why did the Council turn them down flat?

Of course, it's all about the money. As the Washington Post reported:

But skeptics say that more is at stake than a seat at the political table. Tucked in among the documents for proposed incorporation is a plan that suggests rebates to residents if the town doesn't spend all its money.

That seemed particularly nettlesome to some on the County Council, whose members expressed little enthusiasm for the Rollingwood plan last week, and whose staff attorney wrote a 115-page report that highlighted alternatives.

"Does a particular group of fortunate residents have a right to have better streets?" asked George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) during the council's hearing.

Municipalities receive a share of the state income tax, so wealthier municipalities have more money. Even without exercising their right to levy additional property taxes, they can provide their residents better services. However, only one very small municipality actually uses the funds to provide a tax rebate to its residents.

The debate raises important questions about finances and local government. In Connecticut, where counties basically exist only on the map and the towns are powerful, wealthier towns use their power to zone out poorer residents by preventing the construction of low income housing and failing to provide services to help people in need.

As a result, one of the wealthiest states in the country concentrates most of its poverty in a few very troubled towns: Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, and Waterbury. These towns face a terrible dilemma. If they raise taxes to provide the services their poorer residents need, they discourage affluent taxpayers from settling in their towns even while attracting more poor residents.

Maryland doesn't face this problem. If I am not mistaken, Maryland has fewer government units than any state except Delaware. Compared to Connecticut towns, Maryland's large counties are simply too big to zone out the poor and are forced to grapple with problems generated by the poor. While I imagine many can still criticize, the large subsidized housing development located on Bradley Blvd. would simply be unthinkable if the state were divided into many itsy-bitsy municipalities.

However, municipalities in Montgomery simply don't threaten to create the same problem because towns are far less independent here than in Connecticut. The County still performs the vast majority of functions in most municipalities and gets to keep the bulk of the funding as a result. Moreover, some of the benefit to living in a municipality comes from government being closer to the people with officials who can tailor services to their residents and keep a close watch on service providers.

And it may actually be a good thing if some munis provide extra services. As Harvard Prof. Paul E. Peterson described years ago, local governments essentially compete to attract residents who pay more in taxes than they receive in services. Providing a few extras may help keep people in the County who help make sure the overall standard of services remain high for everyone.

One cannot help but wonder if the County Council also opposes more munis not just because of the money but because municipal governments institutionalize are a built-in lobby which can articulate demands for their communities and challenge the assumption of county officials--both elected officials and bureaucrats.


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Schaller on Slots

See my pal Tom Schaller on the slots debate in today's Baltimore Sun. A smart and snappy column with political advice which would be wise to heed.


Still No Specifics from Gov

Gov. Martin O'Malley delivered an address to the Maryland Association of Counties. The themes were familiar ones for O'Malley:

(1) Investing in education as a means to economic and job growth. The phrase "create a stronger workforce" was repeated about about as many times as Jewish Marylanders will say "Aveinu Malkeinu" (Our Father, Our King) on Yom Kippur next month.

(2) Greater security through the wonders of computers and greater intergovernmental cooperation (though O'Malley amazingly resisted saying "StateStat");

(3) Protecting the environment. Perhaps best summarized as "sprawl bad, Chesapeake Bay good";

(4) Investing more in transportation to reduce traffic (with the new wrinkle of preventing bridges from collapsing as well);

(5) Addressing the structural deficit.

While O'Malley couldn't resist the occasional cliche ("Our kids are competing not just with kids from New Jersey and New York, but also from New Zealand and New Delhi."), it is still welcome to hear a speech with solid themes after four years of Ehrlich. However, we're still waiting for concrete details on how he plans to address these issue.

While one might not expect O'Malley to unveil his budget plans in the middle of August, it is getting close to "make it work" time. In about 2.5 months, it will be one year since voters turfed out Ehrlich for O'Malley. Since then, we've been waiting for the governor to reveal his plan to address the state's all-too-real deficit and the problems of the state.

So far, we haven't heard much. The General Assembly basically did nothing during its annual session at the request of the O'Malley administration. Shortly after the Assembly adjourned, the administration decided ham-handedly that money needed to be sliced from the budget, thus excluding the Assembly from the budget cut process.

By early September, the Governor ought to be prepared to tell the people how he plans to lead the State. Otherwise, the low-level grumbling that O'Malley is simply Ehrlich 2.0 (someone who doesn't want to do much but better-looking with real hair) may start to grow a lot louder.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Losing it at the Airport

U.S. Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA) has been accused of assaulting a United employee at Dulles Airport. According to the account in the Post, Filner didn't exactly punch anyone's lights:

Filner, who represents the San Diego area, "attempted to enter an area authorized for airline employees only" while in the United Airlines baggage claim office and "pushed aside the employee's outstretched arm and refused to leave the area when asked by an airline employee," according to a Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority police statement.
Filner didn't show good judgment in entering an employee-only area. After all, disobeying the most minor airport functionary might lead to a full body cavity search in today's security climate.

However, having recently flown Untied across the country, I bet I can guess why Filner may have entered the sacred space behind the counter and beyond the door. On my return from Portland, the bags from my flight still had not been unloaded nearly an hour after my flight landed. When I went to inquire, the baggage claim employee disappeared for awhile before coming back with a response. It doesn't help that they tend to be abrupt and just declare it will be another 10-15 minutes, including to the even less fortunate passengers who had already waited 90 minutes for their bags (and were still waiting when I left).

Of course, waiting for bags in the airport doesn't even compare to being trapped on the tarmac waiting to takeoff. I had that pleasure on the flight going to Portland. They rushed to load the plane and then promptly told us that the "federal government" was preventing us from taking off due to weather. Of course, the "federal government" hadn't forced United to load the full flight. We took off 2.5 hours late--I really treasured the extra time in that middle seat during the cross country flight. Meal service is no longer free (and nothing was served during the delay which took place during the dinner hours) so I was glad I had brought a sandwich with me.

Delayed flights are increasingly common around the country. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Washington's airports are among the worst in the nation. While 30% of flights fail to arrive on schedule at National, 29% don't get there on time at Dulles, and 23% aren't on time at BWI. At all three airports, this is an even worse record than in 2000--the full year of air travel before the 9/11 attacks. Your chances of a delay get progressively worse later in the day--dipping well below 50% at some point.

And no, not all airport problems are due to weather or even the "federal government". The United international check-in counter at Dulles is a daily scheduled disaster. It is overcrowded with incredibly long waits virtually every day. I've waited 45 minutes in the premier/business class line to check in for an international flight though that's nothing compared to the folks in the economy line. Unfortunately, checking in online is often impossible for an international flight. This happens every day so it isn't like United doesn't know this is going to happen.

Not all airport experiences are completely bad. When United managed to lose my bags coming home on a transatlantic flight, I found the baggage claim employees in customs and after customs both helpful and polite. Flight attendants usually seem to be trying to do their best under relatively trying circumstances.

Still, I'll be curious to see if Rep. Filner and his colleagues take more useful action about air travel when the proposed Passenger's Bill of Rights comes up for discussion. After all, unlike most of us, Rep. Filner actually has the power to do something about it.


Meanest Obituary Ever?

Not one kind memory about the Queen of Mean in her obit in today's Washington Post. Sounds like Scrooge was more fondly remembered.


Monday, August 20, 2007

Environmental Checkup

While the current administration continues to fight serious efforts to combat terrorism or global warming by reducing our energy consumption, we can still take still can take small steps at home to cut energy use. Wasting energy is an expensive habit, so one of the nice benefits of cutting down is you save money over the long term. Here are a few things I did this summer:

(1) Replace Ordinary Light Bulbs with the New Fluorescents
The new light bulbs may look strange but they use just a fraction of the energy of ordinary light bulbs. We tried out just a few of the new bulbs at first but have now replaced most of the bulbs in the house. I've heard all of the complains about the new sorts of bulbs. We found that it just takes some experimentation to figure out the ones you like.

I recommend going with the "soft white" bulbs as these produce light just like regular bulbs. The "natural" or "daylight" bulbs produce daylight type light which some like but may clash with the light produced by other bulbs in your home. "Cool" light appears most like traditional fluourescent bulbs and we didn't care for it.

Some of the fluorescent bulbs don't produce quite as much light as their regular equivalents so you may want a slightly stronger bulb on occasion. If you replace a 60-watt bulb with a fluorescent which is supposed to be equivalent to a 75-watt bulb, however, you'll still use far less energy (and the wattage on the fluorescent is much lower so don't worry about the wattage being too high for the socket). Nevertheless, we found that using the fluorescent bulbs rated to be equivalent to regular bulbs worked find in virtually every case.

Yep, they are more expensive than regular bulbs though we found good prices at Home Depot on packets of them. Moreover, you'll save money over the long term and you won't have to change the bulbs nearly as often because they really last.

(2) Replace Old Windows
This one took a bit of hard swallowing because replacing windows is expensive. Our home is relatively old and the panes upstairs were original to the house complete with lead weights as frames and just one pane separating the inside and outside of the house. Unfortunately, single-pane windows don't insulate very well.

We replaced our upstairs windows with modern double-paned windows. The newfangled windows have a vacuum separating the two panes, which provides much better insulation and thus saves money on heat and air conditioning. They also keep out a bit more noise than the old windows. It will take time to recoup the money on this one, but it should pay for itself over time as well.

(3) Check Your Doors for Drafts
The doors on our house were old. Besides letting in quite a bit of air (and the occasional bug) at the bottom, they weren't quite square on their frames anymore. Making sure that the doors are properly sealed on all sides is a pretty simple and relatively inexpensive way to prevent drafts which are the equivalent to have large holes in the side of your home and can really jack up your heating and cooling expenses. We're also hoping for fewer visits from members of the insect community.


Post Takes on Perez Report

The Washington Post says Tom Perez's new report on slots in Maryland "lacks horse sense". Perhaps most interesting is their critique of the idea that will capture revenue lost to gambling in other states by operating slots:

At the heart of Mr. Perez's argument is the point that the state is "leaving money on the table" because tens of thousands of Marylanders are already going out of state to play slots. He estimates that Maryland residents are spending as much as $400 million a year on slots in neighboring Delaware and West Virginia, thereby contributing $150 million annually in budget revenue to those states' coffers.

On its face, that is a potent argument, particularly as Maryland faces the legal obligation of closing a budget deficit of $1.5 billion in the fiscal year starting next summer. On closer examination, the idea that the state could easily recapture $150 million in supposedly "lost" revenue is shaky. For one thing, it would take several years before a full-fledged slots program is up and running. For another, some people would continue to play slots out of state for reasons of personal preference or geographic convenience. Moreover, rather than representing new revenue, some or much of the money spent in Maryland slots parlors would inevitably be diverted from existing in-state businesses or pursuits, including restaurants, souvenir stands, movies or the state lottery. That explains why the chamber of commerce in Ocean City, to cite one example, is vehemently opposed to slots.

In his report, Mr. Perez gives short shrift to other valid concerns about the massive expansion of gambling that slots would represent -- that they act too often as a tax on the poor; that they foster corruption; and that while pumping money into the pockets of wealthy horse breeders and track owners, they in fact do little or nothing to keep bettors at the track or increase the public's interest in racing.

One suspects that the Post isn't going to change its mind on this one.


Friday, August 17, 2007

In Case You Missed Jon Stewart

The future Veep explaining his views on occupying Iraq . . . in 1994.


On the Conservative Mortgage Crisis Meme

The standard conservative response to the mortgage crisis is about the same as Herbert Hoover's initial response to the Great Depression: do nothing. As George F. Will more or less said on "This Week" last Sunday and wrote in his regular column, the government should not reward people who bet on the upward housing price spiral and lost. In short, they took a risk and they should face the consequences. We're only encouraging more defaults if we do anything to help the dolts who got themselves into trouble.

If only it were so simple.

The housing price rise was stimulated by strong demand for new housing. While a number of factors undoubtedly drove housing prices upward, easier access to credit was surely one of the more important ones. More people had easy access to money so more people had money to spend on buying houses and prices rose.

Credit was made much cheaper--artificially stimulating demand and jacking up housing prices--through several factors, including:

(1) Loans requiring no down payment. People who "buy" homes with these loans start with no equity in their home. If prices decline, it becomes hard to refinance since they already owe more money than the value of their home. Moreover, portions of these loans usually have extra-high rates because of the extra risk.

(2) Lending too much. When I bought a home, I was amazed at how much money lenders were willing give me. Indeed, brokers offered around twice as much debt as I could reasonably expect to service without radical life changes. Since many loans are sold within days of closing, brokers generate income by lending money but feel no long-term responsibility for the ability of the borrowers to service the loan.

(3) Interest-only mortgages. The hot lending instrument of the decades, interest-only loans are tempting because the payments are lower. However, the buyer doesn't acquire an asset as with more traditional mortgages.

(4) Adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs). Once upon a time, Americans used to almost always buy homes with fixed-rate mortgages. While not as new as interest-only loans, higher prices led a lot more borrowers to turn toward these mortgages because the lower interest rates are more affordable--in the short term. The payments can become much more expensive if interest rates rise, even as modestly as they have recently by historic standards.

(5) The combo platter. Of course, many of the above options were often wrapped into a single loan. As housing prices soared, more Americans sought more complex loans which have turned out to be unaffordable just to get into the game.

I am not sure how government should respond to this crisis in terms of either how to help people in danger of losing their homes or to prevent it in the future. The one measure which strikes me as immediately sensible is eliminating the mortgage-home-interest tax break for new interest-only loans taken out to buy properties of greater value than currently owned by the homeowner since the point of the tax credit is to help people acquire a home.

As we do figure out how to handle this problem, it is important to remember that most people borrowed money to have a place to live--not as a means of cashing in on the country's housing price boom. And the boom made the American dream of owning your home that much riskier. While this doesn't mean that the federal government, or the Federal Reserve, should rush to bail out borrowers or lenders with bad loans, it does mean that the question deserves a far closer look than implied by conservative pundits.


Slot Politics of Ehrlich and O'Malley

Until we learned that Bob Ehrlich had far more passion for campaigning than for governing--something we really ought to have known from his many years as a backbench congressman--one of the great puzzles of the newly elected Ehrlich administration in 2003 was his utter failure to exert himself at all to promote his central campaign promise to bring slots to Maryland.

No slots bill was even introduced into the General Assembly until 60 days into the session when disgusted Democratic Senate President Mike Miller, an avid slots supporter who was dying to help the Republican governor achieve a shared goal. Ehrlich's lack of action was all the more bizarre because Maryland's governor is arguably the most powerful in the nation.

Martin O'Malley has been playing his budget cards close to his vest but he has pulled off a political coup in the laying the groundwork for bringing bringing slots to Maryland. As has now been widely reported, former Montgomery Councilman (now Labor Secretary) Perez was sent on a fact-finding trip to neighboring states to highlight the dollars that Maryland gamblers lose there. Can anyone imagine a less likely advance man for slots than Tom Perez?

Yet, O'Malley has somehow placed the earnest Perez in exactly that role. Comptroller Peter Franchot has lashed out shrilly at Perez but this only guaranteed more press time to Perez's point that the Maryland treasury loses money when Marylanders gamble elsewhere. Moreover, it places liberal Franchot in the awkward position of fighting with a well-known and respected liberal from his home county.

Weirdly, Franchot may be getting more press but aiding rival Doug Gansler. Both politicians have (fairly or not) earned reputations as showhorses rather than workhorses. While Franchot is constantly in the press--sometimes for being in the press so much--newly elected Attorney General Gansler has generally kept his head down even as works at his job and forges alliances around the state. Gansler's recent endorsement of Obama may help him continue alliances with prominent African-American politicians which served him extremely well in the competitive 2006 primary for his current job.

Meanwhile, whether or not one wants to see slots arrive soon in Maryland, we can rest assured that the current governor's political skills are far from atrophied. Slots opponents should prepare themselves for a much tougher fight this time. Although it was not central to his campaign, O'Malley appears to be ready to roll the dice in his effort to minimize any tax increase needed to balance Maryland's budget.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

Maryland GOP Following Old Dominion into Oblivion?

Republican State Sen. Alex X. Mooney has the look of a man prepping for his congressional campaign. Not too surprising as Roscoe Bartlett, the conservative Republican incumbent in the Sixth District, is 81 and may be pondering retirement as Republicans seem likely to wander further into the minority wilderness in 2008.

Mooney's idea of leadership, other than engaging in ritual gay bashing, appears to be following in lockstep with Grover Norquist--Republican anti-tax icon--in signing up his fellow legislators to take the pledge against any new taxes even as the state faces a deficit of $1.5 billion. Funny that this idea didn't occur to Mooney during the Ehrlich years even as the GOP governor hiked a variety of taxes.

Mooney sent off the following missive to his colleagues:

Dear Legislator,

You are invited to join the more than thirty-five Maryland Legislators who have signed the taxpayer Protection Pledge sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform in Washington, D.C. Enclosed is a copy of the Pledge form. You can return the form to me. You will join the nation's signers on the web site

The pledge is a promise you make to your constituents. It is not an oath to an organization. It is a statement by you to your voters. You are telling your voters you believe the rate of taxation is high enough to support the government we have. The pledge tells the people who vote for you, you are intending to protect them from an expansion of the size, scope and cost of government.

Grover Norquist, President of ART observed, "No one lost the last election by promising to reduce government spending." ART and President Norquist campaign ceaselessly in Washington and all state capitols for a reduction in the intrusion by government in our lives. ART recognizes the damage done by taxation and works to rein in spending everywhere.

The Taxpayer Protection Caucus will work with you to make the voters aware of your commitment to not spend their money. We have a history and plan. Join with other elected officials from Maryland who are keeping their promise to reduce the burden of government.

Support the rallying point for new candidates for the 2008 elections. Pledge signers can be proud to present a position favoring taxpayers. With all the confusion presented to the voters seize this opportunity to rally together and present a united front. We can prevail united. We can be effective now with a common position opposed to expanded government.

Sign your pledge today, I will forward it to Washington tomorrow.

Senator Alex X. Mooney
Frederick and Washington Counties
The Republican lemming, who notably did not outline his plan for slashing state spending in the letter, has three Democratic followers so far: Sen. Roy Dyson (D-29), Del. John Wood, (D-Dyson's district), Sen. Norman Stone (D-6), and Sen. George Della (D-46).

Della is the really shocking name on this list. He represents an utterly safe Democratic district in Baltimore City (67% for Cardin, 65% for O'Malley, 71% for Franchot, 73% for Gansler). Baltimore City isn't exactly know for being last in line at the State's fiscal trough either.

The others Democrats all represent more marginal districts. The Baltimore County district held by Stone barely voted for O'Malley over Ehrlich (50% for O'Malley), while the Southern Maryland districts held by Dyson and Wood went for Ehrlich by solid margins (41% and 40% for O'Malley, respectively). However, one can work to hone one's moderate image without signing conservative tax pledges crafted by DC Republican politicos.

You may recall that the "no new taxes" drumbeat has not fared so well south of the Potomac in recent years. Republicans went to the mat before caving before Gov. Mark Warner's--and the electorate's--demands to modestly raise taxes to prevent further cuts in state funding and to increase education funding. The electorate punished Democrats by electing more of them to the Virginia legislature and electing another Democrat to the governor's office. Warner is so popular than Democrats are praying for Warner to jump into the Senate race. Former Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore, whose life work appears to be to eliminate Virginia's car tax, has left the presidential race to return to oblivion.

Back in Maryland, Republican legislators and the Gov. Martin O'Malley both appear to be marching on to the slots bandwagon as a solution to the state's fiscal woes. Republican House Leader O'Donnell unveiled GOP support for slots as part of their proposal to balance the budget without raising taxes or explaining specifically what they would cut instead of raising taxes. The GOP must be desperate in its search for funds to balance the budget as I thought many members of the Republican caucus were opposed to slots on moral grounds. Showing Democrats still like a good intraparty rumble, Comptroller Peter Franchot lashed out at Labor Secretary Tom Perez's report on slots as lacking objectivity.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A King Sized Democracy

For political junkies, Christmas was last night. In an overcrowded 3rd story room in Kensington, the Democratic Central Committee gathered to determine who would represent Montgomery Village, unincorporated Gaithersburg, Washington Grove, and parts of Darnestown and Germantown in the State Senate.

Under state law, whenever there is a vacancy between elections the local political party of the resigning member selects a name and forwards it to the Governor. The Governor has two choices: appoint the name selected by the local county party or send it back. So last night was election night for District 39 and that duty fell to the twenty-three members of the Democratic Central Committee and not the 100,000 residents of District 39.

Having worked two Iowa Caucuses where you have a 2:1 ratio of observers to actual voters at many precincts; this was no different where almost fifty people were watching the proceedings.

Opening Remarks
Each candidate had five minutes for an opening statement. Newcomer Saqib Ali had the strongest speech. The rhetoric and style was solid and his theme was clear “now is the time to take a stand.”

Gene Counihan was next. It was the first time I laid eyes on him. Although I knew what to look for since at least three people said he looks like Santa Claus. Counihan, a former delegate who lost to the incumbent Hogan in 1994 Senate race when P.J. was still a Republican, pointed out that his experience as a legislator – twelve years – was more than the combined experience of his opponents. Since his defeat, Counihan has been a lobbyist in Annapolis. Unfortunately, he lost track of his five minutes and missed his chance to summarize his position. I was left hanging how he would reach his “big finish”.

Rounding out the opening remarks was Nancy King, who was a School Board member for eight years prior to becoming a member of the House of Delegates. She was the most causal clutching her clip board close to her chest and speaking directly to the Central Committee. She emphasized that Annapolis is about relationships and she has some very good ones with members in both chambers. She told them that education was her area of expertise and without getting on to the Senate Budget and Tax Committee she wanted to remain in the House where she is a key chair on Education matters.

After the opening remarks, I had scored it for style and rhetoric as Ali with Counihan and King a distant second and third respectively. On content, I liked Counihan combination of numbers and its impact slightly over a tie between King and Ali.

Who dances the best: The Q&As
The Q&A was a series of eight (maybe more) questions about a range of issues. Basically, it was a chance to see how well they could think on their feet. There was a question on slots, specifically why Nancy King supported them and the rest did not. King said she wanted to keep all options open. On education, all favored GCIE though no one had a specific plan of how to protect it.

On transportation, everyone talked about the key projects for upcounty, especially the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT). For me, the 800 elephant in the room was the ICC and how financing it will be a brake on almost every other major road improvement in the county (according to Ike’s comments at a Town Meeting in Olney in December 2006). Without a massive increase to the transportation trust fund you either build the ICC or you improve roads, metro, the Purple Line and the CCT. But you can’t do both under the current transportation trust fund financing. However, since no one wants to be the bearer of bad news no one mentioned it and the Central Committee passed on asking it.

Counihan could talk of how he worked to swing District 39 from being all Republican after the 1994 races to being all Democrat today. He even recruited Nancy King to the Democratic Party. King talked of how she came in first in both the general and primary while spending a mere $7800 because she is constantly in the community talking to people. Her husband mentioned how a trip to the grocery store is longer because she is always talking to residents about local concerns.

A (non-voting) youth member of the Central Committee asked about the role of youth. This was directed primarily at Nancy King, who as a Delegate, tried to take away the youth vote from the School Board. She gave a very good reason: she was part of the School Board when they were selecting a new Superintendent and there were 3 for a candidate and 3 against. One person was not present leaving the youth school board member, who had not done any of the vetting of the candidates to decide. She felt that was too much pressure to put on teenager.

Grading the Q&A, I had it very close but if you forced me to choose I would rank them Counihan then King and Ali. But it could just as easily be reversed. King was the most conservative of the three and she had to explain her positions on more issues. Ali brought abundant energy and the freshest ideas. Counihan had a nice command of the issues and the facts behind them.

Recap the voting
The Central Committee would nominate the first person to get a majority (12 votes) and failing that then drop the lowest vote getter in the second round – basically Instant Runoff Voting. In the first round, with 23 votes and 12 votes to win, Saqib Ali got 9 votes, Gene Counihan got 6 votes, Nancy King got 7 votes and one vote came back blank. Counihan was out.

For round two, again 23 votes with 12 to win, Saqib Ali got 9 votes, Nancy King got 13 votes and one vote came back blank. So it looks as though one person did not like any of them or all of them and couldn’t decide. It seems as though all of the first round Counihan votes went to King. So Nancy King is the newest Senator.

The final image I had of the night was seeing an ashen Saqib Ali. His father, who was quietly sitting in the back of the room all night, walked up to him and gathered Saqib in a warm, full embrace. Anyone would appreciate that gesture after an emotional evening. Maybe if this vote was delayed for two years, Saqib could have had more of a record to highlight. Counihan did well but he might have been a few years too late. King, like the three porridges, was just right.

More for political junkies in September
Next month the Central Committee gets to select King’s replacement for Delegate with Central Committee member Kirill Reznik, possibly Gene Counihan again and maybe former County Council candidate Hugh Bailey as the leading players. Also the Central Committee will select the replacement for Marilyn Goldwater in District 16 from a slew of candidates. That means twice as much fun for us junkies.

My wish is the Central Committee for these major events selects a room that can accommodate everyone and not pack all into such a tiny place. Still I thought the process was fair, open and transparent.