Thursday, January 31, 2008

Thank God for MCDCC (Updated)

Now I know you're shocked to read that statement from me. But I mean it, I really do!

Yes, we didn't know who the Frick was Bill. Yes, we got a bit ticked at them. Yes, we think they eat too many bon-bons in that castle of theirs. Yes, the House Majority Leader made fun of them in a roomful of bloggers. And now MCDCC Member Marc Korman wants to jack up my gas tax. But things could be worse. We could have the Prince George's County Democratic Central Committee.

Consider the silky-smooth job they did in selecting Senator Gwendolyn Britt's successor. Their pick, County Council Member David Harrington, endorsed Michael Steele for Senate in 2006. The runner-up, former Delegate Rushern Baker, refused to rule out running for County Executive. (The reigning County Executive, whom Baker ran against last time, cheered his defeat.) The only female candidate, Delegate Jolene Ivey, received no votes. Another losing candidate, Delegate Victor Ramirez, immediately vowed to run against the winner for Senate. (He told the crowd, "I’m going to ask for this seat the way I should. I’m going to come to you for your vote." So why was he running for appointment?)

But the line of the night belonged to the former Senator's husband, Travis Britt, who was also running for the seat. According to the Gazette:

Britt, [county substitute teacher Kenniss Odetta] Henry and Ramirez withdrew their names from consideration early in the meeting, with Britt citing the vicious politics – he claimed backroom deals and mudslinging were rampant – for the succession race.

"These demons are after me, but I’m going to dispel these evil spirits. I am withdrawing," Britt said to the crowd, who gave him a standing ovation.
OK, I promise here and now to never call the MCDCC evil spirits. That is, unless you select someone who endorsed Michael Steele to fill one of our seats!

The Washington Post's story makes clear that Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson lobbied hard to defeat Baker and possibly even decided the outcome. Now that's understandable: many politicians will go to great lengths to punish enemies. But the thought of how easily the District 47 appointment process was manipulated makes my skin crawl. It requires much more effort for politicians or political power brokers to manipulate thousands of real, live voters than a handful of Central Committee members. That's why so many politicians are so comfortable with the status quo. The District 47 case makes at least as good of an argument for special elections as anything MCDCC has done.


Leventhal and Trachtenberg Debate Domestic Worker Proposal

The Kojo Nnamdi show on WAMU hosted a heated discussion between Councilmembers George Leventhal and Duchy Trachtenberg over the new proposal introduced by Leventhal and Councilmember Marc Elrich to require contracts for domestic workers who work more than 20 hours.

Trachtenberg believes that the proposal is "toothless" but would encourage people to investigate the legal status of employees and thus have a "chilling effect" on employment. Leventhal countered that federal law already requires immigration status checks and that the bill adds no new checks on unauthorized immigrants and is designed to protect a vulnerable population.

Trachtenberg then argued that women who do not have legal immigrant status have been unwilling to report assaults and rapes so that it is unlikely anyone would report violations under the legislation. She then went on to say we need more "culturally appropriate services". Leventhal pointed out that failure to adopt the bill would still provide "less protection" for workers against exploitation than without the bill.


Obama/Gansler v. Clinton/Floreen

State Attorney General Doug Gansler, who is the co-chair of the Barack Obama campaign in Maryland, will debate Montgomery County Council-Member Nancy Floreen, who will represent the Hillary Clinton Campaign, on the Political Pulse TV Show on Thursday, January 31st at 9:00 p.m. and Wednesday, February 6th at 9:30 p.m. Political Pulse is on Channel 16 TV in Montgomery County.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Wynn Files a Complaint Against Edwards

Here is the latest flying across the internet about Wynn's charge against Edwards. He filed a 34 point complaint with the FEC claiming that Donna Edwards was in violation of campaign finance laws. I don't claim to know all aspects of campaign finance. But I am working on finding out more. In the meantime, here is a summary of the stories making the rounds.

The WaPo article seems to just get quotes and reacts and doesn't really explain the issue. It is complicated. But it is a disappointing piece if you want to know the story. A swing and miss from our local paper.

The Baltimore Sun did a story as well. They had the Campaign Legal Center, a non-profit that focuses on campaign finance, review the compliant. CLC dismisses the compliant.

WaPo's corporate cousin, the Gazette, also wrote about it. I can't tell where the Post ends and this one begins. Must have lifted the same key points. Strike two for Team Graham.

The DC Examiner also weighs in. It too is a simple "he said, she said" story that does nothing to explain a complicated issue. So the Post and Gazette are off the hook, sort of.

Our friends at Free State Politics (FSP), who make clear that they are supporters of Donna, trumpet the Sun article and trash the WaPo one. Author Isaac Smith refutes the charges against Donna.

Politicker MD, one of the newer blogs in the state, does a nice job of giving Wynn's side of the story. This helpful for those of us not versed in campaign finance law. In fact, I think they took the time that the Post and Gazette could have but didn't.

Finally, FSP refers back to a MyDirectDemocracy piece, which is written by Matt Stoller immediately after the 2006 primary. Matt is now with Open Left. To say Matt is a strong supporter of Donna would be an understatement. Here is Matt's post from today.

I am working on digging into it myself but until I hear from the principles I will refrain from adding anymore.

What is unusual about the story is the timing of it. We are about to get the Jan 30 FEC reports. Not certain if the January reports will be released prior to the primary.

Last week I posted that the WaPo was not covering the race. With today's news I may have to back up a bit. But considering how poorly they are covering this race, I won't back up too much.


Tom Davis to Retire

The Washington Post reports that Rep. Tom Davis has decided not to seek reelection. His wife, Jeanmarie Devolites Davis, lost reelection to the Virginia Senate last November. The seat has been trending Democratic--Bush won by 1% in 2004 compared to 7% in 2000--and represents an excellent pick-up opportunity for Democrats.


Don't Ask Me To Endorse You

Candidates are always looking for money, supporters, and voters. Money and supporters get you in front voters and voters determine the election, unless of course you live in Florida in 2000 or Ohio in 2004. In the primary I have always picked a candidate before the Iowa Caucus and I have only hit correctly twice.

Officially my track record on supporting the winning Democratic nominee for President during the primary season is so far below the Mendoza Line that just getting to the Line might take me until I am a precinct organizer in Leisure World.

See the only time I picked the winning Presidential candidate pre-primary was Bill Clinton's re-election in 1996. And the only other time I picked our nominee in advance was Walter Mondale in 1984. I am sitting on cold spell that could give "the guy downstairs" the shivers.

Why post this today? Now? See I am on the ballot in CD8 as a pledged delegate for John Edwards. He dropped out today. In fact, when I was asked to be on the ticket for him I told my friend Lynn Amano, who was coordinating Edwards for President in MoCo and across the state that maybe they should find someone else. She laughed. I filed. Edwards dropped out. It follows logically. At least in my head.

So I offer myself to the remaining candidates with the same caveat: Mario Mendoza hits better.

Fortunately, I have had some success further down the ticket. But after this post I may be kryptonite to local officials as well.


Montgomery and the Marriage Bill

Geography of Support
Montgomery legislators comprise just 32, or 17 percent, of the 188 legislators in the General Assembly. Yet a majority of the sponsors of same-sex marriage bill in both the House of Delegates (21 of 40) and the Senate (5 of 9) are members of the Montgomery County legislative delegation.

The bulk of the remaining sponsors come from Prince George's and Baltimore City. The late and great Sen. Gwendolyn Britt had planned to sponsor the bill in the Senate. It's wonderful to see that all three delegates from her district have cosponsored the bill. They've been joined by six delegates and one senator from their County.

Five delegates and three senators from Baltimore City have signed on as sponsors. District 41 is especially supportive as two delegates and the senator from this district in the northwest corner of the City are listed as sponsors. Rounding out the list of sponsors are four delegates from Howard County.

In contrast, Baltimore County Democrats are conspicuous in their lack of support. Baltimore County sends six Democratic senators and fourteen Democratic delegates to the General Assembly. However, only one Baltimore County delegate, District 8's Todd Schuler, is listed as a sponsor.

One is tempted to blame the lack of support from Democrats from Baltimore County and the rest of the Baltimore suburbs on their representation of marginal districts. Except that even the Democrats from safe districts haven't signed on yet. Indeed, one of the leading African-American opponents of the bill hails from Baltimore County.

Missing in Montgomery
While Montgomery legislators are generally quite supportive of the bill, not all members of the delegation have signed on. And the people who are being more or less supportive aren't necessarily the usual suspects in terms of support for liberal legislation.

Sen. Rona Kramer's (D-14) aggressive defense of Montgomery's economic interests and opposition to more steeply progressive income taxation doesn't always play well with Democratic activists. However, Sen. Kramer was an early supporter of the marriage bill and she represents one of the three more marginal districts in the County.

On the other hand, Sen. Brian Frosh (D-16) has yet to sign as a sponsor even though he represents safely Democratic Bethesda and all three delegates are sponsors of the House bill. Frosh heads the important Judicial Proceedings Committee in the Senate which will examine the bill.

Sen. Rob Garagiola (D-15) and Sen. Nancy King (D-39) also haven't signed on to the Senate bill even though all of the delegates from her districts are sponsors. An odd decision in both cases. Garagiola is rumored to have ambition for higher office and will need support from activists from outside his district--this isn't a good start toward winning them over. King may face a fight to hold her seat in 2010 from Del. Saqib Ali who is a sponsor of the bill.

The only Montgomery delegates who are not sponsors of the bill are Herman Taylor (D-14), Luiz Simmons (D-17), and Ben Kramer (D-19). Rona, perhaps you need to give your brother some sisterly advice?


Do We Need A Gas Tax Increase? Part 3

In the first two parts of this series I offered some background information on the gas tax, our infrastructure needs, and some of the proposals that have been put forth to increase the tax. In this entry we will consider some of the alternatives to a gas tax increase.

The first alternative is to do nothing. This is fundamentally flawed in my view because investing in transportation has many benefits. I would like to be able to take the Metro to Dulles, spend less time in traffic, and see local transit projects built. There is also a case to be made for the economic benefits of public works projects, which create jobs in the short term and improved economic efficiency in the long term.

Another alternative is more efficient spending. Conservatives have pushed a CATO Institute idea
proposing just that. While better use of taxpayer dollars is always a good idea, CATO also assumes that many of the projects transportation dollars are used for are illegitimate, such as transit and trails.

The dissenting voices on the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission proposed increased congestion pricing and toll roads, largely managed by the private sector. Congestion pricing and toll roads do not mitigate the regressive tax issue, as many working people do not have a choice in what time of day they go to and from work. There are also large tradeoffs for having the private sector own or manage these types of projects. For example, some road privatization agreements in other states have included non-compete clauses that do not allow state governments to improve roads in the area of a privatized one. But even if privatization does occur, many projects may not be attractive enough to warrant private investment and might need government assistance.

Another alternative is to raise other taxes and put that money towards transportation. Maryland did this during the Special Session by designating half of the sales tax increase for transportation. The sales tax shares the regressive problems of the gas tax, but linking transportation to other, more progressive taxes could have merit.

In my view, the need to invest in transportation speaks for itself, so it is just a question of how to pay and when. No one wants an increase in the gas tax, but an increase at the state or federal level makes sense. The needs are huge and must be met. Also, the historical link between the gas tax and transportation funding has a proven track record. It helped us build our highways, bridges, transit systems, and more. Now it can help us rebuild them. However, there are two caveats to any increase. First, an increase should come only after it is clear that the economy is out of the recession we may be sliding into, if we are not in it already. Second, a gas tax increase should be coupled with a refundable tax credit for the lowest earners.


Van Hollen Supports Stimulus

Chris Van Hollen issued the following statement:

“Madam Speaker, I rise in support of this stimulus package for the relief it provides to over 117 million American families and the timely boost it delivers to our slowing economy.

“Let’s be clear: As a product of genuine bipartisan compromise, this legislation does not contain everything one might have included in a stimulus package. For example, I support — and I hope the President will accept — the Senate’s proposal to extend the relief in this package to low-income seniors and people with disabilities. That being said, this legislation proposes to put $145 billion into the hands of those who will use it to strengthen our economy, and it deserves our support today.

“The centerpiece of this package is tax relief in the form of rebates of up to $600 for individuals and $1200 for married couples — with an additional $300 available for every dependent child. Importantly, it extends relief to 35 million hard-working families who make too little to pay federal income taxes but do pay payroll, sales, property and other taxes. These rebates will generate $1.26 in economic activity for every dollar we put back into the economy.

“The package before us also encourages business investment by doubling the amount small businesses can expense for capital investments made in 2008 and by allowing all businesses to immediately write off 50 percent of depreciable plants and equipment purchased in 2008. Finally, it assists those facing foreclosure by increasing Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan limits to $729,750 in 2008, and it provides greater liquidity to the mortgage market by temporarily increasing loan limits for single family homes at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from $417,000 to a maximum of $729,750.

“For this initiative to be meaningful, it must be timely. Therefore, while I agree with many of the additional elements being discussed by the Senate, such as an appropriate extension of unemployment insurance for those who need it, we must not let prolonged arguments over these items delay swift enactment of the stimulus our economy so clearly needs.

“If additional steps prove necessary, we will of course stand ready to act. But for today, I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support this bipartisan agreement, and I yield back the balance of my time.


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Do We Need A Gas Tax Increase? Part 2

From Marc Korman: In my first entry on this issue background was given on the gas tax itself and the perceived need for an increase. This has led to a number of proposals at the federal, state, and local levels to increase the gas tax.

Nationally, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission just proposed a 40 cent increase in the federal gas tax in their report. As a former Congressional staffer, I have heard members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from both sides of the aisle repeatedly discuss the need for a gas tax increase.

At the state level, Governor O’Malley proposed a half cent increase to the gas tax and a peg to construction inflation during last year’s Special Session. This was not included in the final package that was passed. As noted on a recent blog entry here at MPW, Senate President Miller has also previously proposed an increase in the gas tax of 12 cents a gallon. This session, Senator Rob Garagiola from right here in Montgomery County has proposed to increase the gas tax by 3 to 4 cents in July and 3 to 4 more cents next year, though this is an effort to repeal the computer services sales tax, rather than invest the revenue raised into transportation.

Locally, the Working Group on Infrastructure Financing for County Facilities proposed that the County seek state authority for a local gas tax of 15 cents a gallon, though this idea has not gained much traction with the County Council. Ike Leggett has also promoted an increase in the gas tax, though he has suggested it as a state, not just local, initiative.

Of course, there is opposition to a gas tax increase all across the political spectrum. In the dissent to

the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and two other Bush appointees to the Commission opposed an increase in the gas tax, which I believe is largely philosophically based. Progressive Maryland has also expressed concern with an increase because the gas tax is regressive. This is certainly true. Like the sales tax and payroll tax, a gas tax is paid regardless of economic circumstance.


More on the Great Maryland Drivers License Feud

As David Lublin noted, Marc Fisher’s January 27 column carried news of alleged broken promises by the O’Malley administration over the issue of drivers licenses for illegal immigrants. But this is merely the latest incident in an escalating, internal Democratic Party feud over the issue.

The drivers license issue has a bit of history worth recalling. Maryland is one of seven states (the others being Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington) that do not require license applicants to prove legal U.S. status. On September 11, 2001, 19 hijackers, all of whom were admitted to the country legally, were able to obtain a combined 13 drivers licenses and 21 other ID cards and use them to board and commandeer airplanes. Several of these documents were obtained with fraudulent records. Among the hijackers was Hani Hanjour, who fraudulently obtained a Maryland ID card from the Motor Vehicle Administration and used it to pilot a plane into the Pentagon. Later, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission called for strong national standards applying to ID documents including drivers licenses and birth certificates to prevent terrorists from acquiring them. In 2005, the Congress passed the Real ID Act, which among other things required that states not issue licenses to individuals illegally present in the U.S. The original date established for compliance was 5/11/08 but that has since been pushed back to 2010.

It is commonly believed that the 9/11 Commission recommended denying drivers licenses to illegal immigrants. But as the commission’s successor organization, the 9/11 Public Disclosure Project, makes clear on its website, that is untrue. The project authors state:

Specifically, we did not make any recommendation about licenses for undocumented aliens. That issue did not arise in our investigation, as all hijackers entered the United States with documentation (often fraudulent) that appeared lawful to immigration inspectors. They were therefore “legal immigrants” at the time they received their driver’s licenses… Whether illegal aliens should be able to get driver’s licenses is a valid question for debate.
But President Bush and the Republican Congress explicitly set up Real ID requirements to block licenses for illegals anyway. Soon enough, the states began calculating the costs of bringing their license systems into compliance with Real ID requirements and began to balk. Maryland estimates its costs at $60-80 million. Seventeen states and counting have passed legislation and/or resolutions opposing Real ID, including Maryland. But the federal requirements remain and that is causing political turmoil.

Maryland Secretary of Transportation John Porcari originally proposed installing a two-tier license system to deal with Real ID. Legal residents could obtain Real ID-compliant licenses while illegal immigrants could obtain non-compliant licenses that still conferred in-state driving rights. But Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez (District 18) rejected this approach, telling the Washington Post, “In this climate, that's a scarlet letter… Any policeman could call [federal] authorities.”

Delegate Gutierrez need not have worried about Porcari’s proposal because Governor O’Malley swiftly killed it. The Governor declared, “We should not allow Maryland to become an island virtually alone on the East Coast” by issuing drivers licenses to illegals. He called instead for one license program that was completely Real ID-compliant. O’Malley was no doubt paying heed to the painful experience of another blue-state governor who proposed, then backed down from, a plan to license illegals.

Gutierrez responded by accusing the Governor of “betrayal” and even told Post columnist Marc Fisher, “The governor did not keep his promise… This is what he promised me when he was begging for my vote for the slots referendum, which I gave him. And that is the last time I do that.” That should make for interesting reading for the many anti-slots voters in District 18.

This issue is turning into a significant internal feud within the Maryland Democratic Party. Each side has something important to lose.

On one side is the Democratic establishment. Over the long term, the state party benefits by strengthening its ties to immigrant voters, especially Latinos. These voters are often socially conservative and will require economic reasons to vote Democratic. It would be wise for politicians to remember that immigrants often belong to large, mixed households that include legal immigrants, illegal immigrants and citizens. Measures that target illegal immigrants tend to antagonize their entire families, and many members of these families are citizens who vote.

On the other side is the state’s Latino leadership. As mentioned above, Delegate Gutierrez has used terms like “scarlet letter” and “betrayal” in describing the administration’s policies. (One can only imagine what is being said in Spanish-language media.) This sort of hot rhetoric, flung about in the newspapers like searing frying pans, may very well earn the enmity of both the Governor and the Secretary of Transportation. And that may prevent the District 18 delegation from obtaining movement on its urgent transportation priorities. In fact, many of Delegate Gutierrez’s constituents are undoubtedly viewing the growing rift with unease, if not dismay.

And so the two sides have a strong incentive to compromise, perhaps using something resembling MDOT’s original proposal as a starting point. But neither side is showing much inclination at the moment. Happy memories of a new state-financed immigrant services center in Langley Park are rapidly fading. Should the feud escalate, it will create bad consequences for state Democrats, immigrants, and quite possibly, District 18 residents.


Monday, January 28, 2008

Stopping the Gazette, the Examiner, ... and Neighborhood Association Newsletters

The General Assembly is taking up a bill designed to regulate the distribution of regional free unsolicited newspapers. Perhaps unintentionally, it would also likely affect small community association newsletters and other neighborhood publications, as well.

People in my Forest Estates neighborhood have recently been talking a lot about free newspapers like the Gazette and the Examiner that we find left on our lawns regularly, whether we want them or not. Many people take the paper in and read it. Others have no interest in reading it but — being responsible citizens and good neighbors — take it in anyway and dispose of it properly. And far, far too many people let the newspaper sit on their property for days and weeks at a time, allowing it to become litter.

Several of my neighbors have told me that despite requests to one of these newspapers to stop delivery, the paper keeps getting delivered. This is a problem on many levels. It’s a problem for people who keep receiving something they don’t want and have asked not to get. It’s a problem for people who don’t want to live in a neighborhood strewn with litter. It's a problem when that litter degrades the environment. It’s a problem when vast amounts of paper are being wasted.

So here comes Del. Tanya Shewell (R – Carroll County) to the rescue. Her bill, House Bill 357, would regulate distribution of unsolicited newspapers, circulars, etc, like the Examiner and Gazette. The Shewell bill covers any "circular, newspaper, magazine, paper, or booklet that is published at regular intervals and distributed to the public" that is "delivered to a residential address in the state without the prior consent of the resident."

That definition would seem to include community association newsletters, as well as a number of other small-time neighborhood publications.

The unsolicited publications must tell people how they can have further deliveries stopped. Continued delivery would then constitute an “unfair or deceptive trade practice” and be punishable by a fine.

I expect some significant First Amendment issues to be raised in connection with this bill. The targeted newspapers are often engaged in political speech, which receives the highest level of protection under First Amendment jurisprudence. Unlike unsolicited telephone calls (which directly intrude into the home and can be regulated), a newspaper left on the front yard is minimally intrusive. (Those who don't care if it sits on their yards for weeks at a time apparently don’t feel at all intruded upon.) So I expect some interesting constitutional issues to be debated in Annapolis in the coming weeks.

I expect a groundswell of support for the bill from annoyed newspaper recipients and environmental activists. But if the large newspapers can keep the bill from being amended to exclude the neighborhood groups, they may form a coalition that could keep our free newspapers coming for a long time to come.


My Photos from the Obama Rally at AU

Sen. Barack Obama

The Entry Line Stretched Off Campus and Way Down Massachusetts Ave.

The Crowd in Bender Arena Enjoys the Warm-Up Act

Students Standing Up for Change

Barack Obama, Ted Kennedy, Patrick Kennedy

Barack Obama and Caroline Kennedy


Do We Need A Gas Tax Increase? Part I

From Marc Korman

It seems that at all levels of government, there has been some type of push for an increase in the gas tax. Given the serious potential for a recession and gas prices already around all time highs, this may be surprising. Why is there such a push for an increase in the gas tax and do we need it? In this three part blog series I will attempt to shed some light on this issue.

The first blog entry will set the stage by providing some general background information. The second blog entry will discuss the various proposals that have been made. The third and final blog entry will consider the alternative proposals.

The simple answer to why gas tax increases have been proposed is that we need a massive investment to maintain our current infrastructure and build new projects. Close to home, many of us want to see some type of Purple Line and Corridor Cities Transitway built, as well as an increase in funding for Metro maintenance to minimize crippling delays. Regular old roads also need continuous investment. There was an unfortunate reminder of the needs when the 35W bridge in Minnesota collapsed last year.

To understand the issue, some context and facts are needed. Historically, transportation projects have been funded through the gas tax, starting way back in 1919 when Oregon started taxing motor fuel. The federal government followed in 1932. The gas tax works as a type of user pays system so that those who are filling their tanks and driving on the roads are paying the cost. There are two major exceptions to this: First, the gas tax can also go to non-surface road transportation projects like transit. Though the amount spent on alternative transportation is nowhere near the amount spent on roads. Second, at times gas tax revenue has have been diverted from transportation. In the early ‘90s, the federal government used the gas tax for deficit reduction. Here in Maryland, the diversion has gone to the general fund.

At the federal level, the gas tax has been 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993, with 15.44 cents per gallon going towards the Highway Trust Fund and 2.86 cents per gallon going into the Mass Transit Account. In Maryland, the state gas tax is 23.5 cents a gallon, .1 cent lower than the state average. Marylanders pay a combined tax of 41.9 cents per gallon of gasoline whenever they go to the pump.

The idea that we need a massive investment in infrastructure has been put forth at all levels of government. Nationally, one study by the Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young forecast a $1.6 trillion infrastructure investment deficit between now and 2010, though this goes beyond surface transportation and includes needs for sea and air ports. The state Secretary of Transportation, Keep Maryland Moving, and regional business groups are all advocating for an investment of $600 million in Maryland’s Transportation Trust Fund to meet our state needs (up from $421 million expected to be budgeted in FY08). Here in Montgomery County, the Working Group on Infrastructure Financing for County Facilities believes $1 billion is needed to meet local transportation needs. Transportation needs do not exist in a vacuum, as meeting these needs can increase economic activity, improve the environment where mass transit is involved, and improve quality of life by reducing congestion.

Another reason cited in support of a gas tax increase is that it will reduce consumption. This may or may not be true, as many people consider gasoline a relatively inelastic good, meaning demand does not fluctuate much as prices increase. Of course, there must be a limit of how high prices can go before having an effect. When gas prices rise there is also increased interest in alternative energy, which is beneficial to the environment.

In the next blog entry, we will look at the proposals that have been made.


Come Back Home

The best thing I can do is give back your love
Let you go away feelin' free as a dove
If you find you're a long ways from home
And somebody's doing you wrong
Just call on me baby
And come back home

Call Me, Al Green, 1973

Some debates remind me of a food fight, some a Texas Hold 'em poker tournament and still others make me feel the love. This debate should have been dubbed: I'm a Long Ways From Home (No More Foreign Wars) Debate. That should not be surprising as it was put on a coalition of peace activists. It got me thinking of the classic Al Green song "Call Me" (1973 Hi Records). Green sings of finding love closer to home. The candidates were singing the same hymnbook as well, although not always the same song.

That is not to say that there were not sparks flying at the Stella Warner Building (MoCo Council Building). There were some. But food fights won't win votes most places, especially among peaceniks.

This forum was sponsored by Peace Action Montgomery County and five other groups. The topic was Congress' role in US Foreign Policy. It included all candidates for Congress in District 4 and District 8 regardless of party, giving us 11 candidates (1 Green Party, 3 Republicans & 7 Democrats). Terry Kester of WPFW 89.3 FM did his best to moderate such an unwieldy format.

Moderator Terry Kester and CD4 Democrat Dr. Michael Babula

Where Did All The Republicans Go???
What struck me was how even the GOPers were equally critical of the Bush Administration's forays in foreign policy. Then again the three of them (Peter James and Robert Broadus in CD4, and Jay Roberts in CD8) are from the Libertarian wing, anti-intervention wing. I fully expected one of them to announce how they were from the Republican wing of the GOP. Sorry Deaniacs.

The only other non-Democrat was Gordon Clark (Web site under construction). In fact, Mr. Clark is not even on the ballot for the Greens in CD8. The previous candidate must have stepped down. Clark scored some points with his critique on Global Warming.

Since this is a Democratic politics blog and it is there that I will return.

Vollmer Spars With Van Hollen
Ok it was MoCo styled sparring. Nothing major. Chris Van Hollen's (campaign site) opening statement went after the Bush Administration for its "policy of slogans: 'Bring It On', 'You Are Either With Us or Against Us'" and for considering "diplomacy a dirty word". Immediately challenger Deborah Vollmer (see picture on the right) claimed his words and actions did not match calling them "very mixed". She even generated a laugh from the audience when she pointed out that threaten incumbent Al Wynn (campaign site) voted against the September 2008 Omnibus Spending bill with $190 billion for the war while Rep. Van Hollen voted for it. That is the basis for her campaign and she delivered a solid shot at him. But is was neither a knockout nor was she able to hit a combination either. Chris was eager to respond but was unable to because others had to give their opening statements. Ok no more fighting terms during a peace forum.

The rest of the District 8 portion of the debate was mild. Van Hollen and Vollmer agreed more often than they differed. Dr. Lih Young (2006 Senate candidate site) was also there. It was my first time seeing her. She described herself as a "perennial candidate since 1994". While that may not have been her best choice of words it does fit. She has run 11 times in the past 14 years. I couldn't remember one thing that she said that was noteworthy. Sorry.

Un Wynn able?
Al Wynn was the only Democratic candidate to fail to attend, along with six Republicans most of whom I don't recognize. According to organizer Fran Pollner, Wynn Congressional office never responded to the initial invitation as well as follow up requests. Once the date was set Wynn's office said he had an 'unalterable schedule'. According to his web site, he was at the same Women's Legislative Briefing that Rep. Van Hollen attended.

This was clearly not Wynn's best constituency. Having to highlight the changes in his votes would have put him on the defensive. So it does make sense as a campaign operative. However based on the audience response to Deborah Vollmer's opening statement, he probably could have faired better than he thought.

CD 4 Democratic candidates from left: Dr. Michael Babula, Donna Edwards & Jason Jennings

Wynn, Edwards and the Dynamic of the Underdogs
Almost all of the attention is on the top two candidates, Donna Edwards and incumbent Al Wynn. Rightfully so. Still there are four other candidates who are running. They are: Dr. Michael Babula, Jason Jennings, George Mitchell and George McDermott. Two points were of interest. No candidate was in favor in the war. All wanted us to come home. Second, was how often I heard the others take a shot at Donna Edwards and almost leave the incumbent untouched. It wasn't every time and it wasn't by all but it was a consistent pattern. I recognize that as an underdog you need to highlight differences with those ahead of you. But it sure did seem as though Edwards took more shots than the absent Wynn. The usual response was something along the line of "they are cut from the same piece of cloth". True or not on this charge, the consistency of the refrain had a talking points smell to it.

To be fair, I will explore the positions of the CD4 Democratic candidates during my upcoming interviews with them. But for now I was struck by this general theme of these four. In the meantime, I think these two sites (WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi Show and the Gazette) have nice voter guides on all 6 Democratic candidates in CD4. Take a look and form your own opinion.

Final Thoughts
The only people who seemed to be undecided in the room were the news reporters and the organizers. Disclosure: I live in CD8 and I support Chris Van Hollen.
The lack of undecideds is normal for debates. The news coverage by the MSM was again weak. I sat next to the Sentinel reporter. There was another reporter who could have been the Gazette but it wasn't the WaPo. I think the WaPo is failing in their coverage of the race in CD4.

You want the shortest version of the debate?
There was more love than spin. A universal request to come back home from Iraq. Now if only we can get Al Green at one of these things. If he does call me.


Sunday, January 27, 2008

What Ana Didn't Get for Slots

According to Marc Fisher's column, Gov. Martin O'Malley broke a promise to Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez to back retaining driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants:

In the 2006 campaign, the governor won the Hispanic vote with appearances such as one at Casa de Maryland, the immigrant advocacy group in Takoma Park, where he told reporters that "I don't believe that at the state and local level that we should exacerbate the problem by enacting policies that put up . . . barriers to getting a driver's license or getting to and from work or home." Unlike the previous governor, who famously called multiculturalism "bunk," O'Malley seemed intent on embracing Hispanic immigrants, even if they arrived illegally.

So advocates such as Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery) and Kim Propeack, Casa's director of political action, accused O'Malley of a "betrayal" -- both women used the word -- when he announced last week that Maryland would no longer issue licenses to people who cannot prove they are here legally. As of 2010, when the federal Real ID law kicks into effect, even people who have long held Maryland licenses will be denied renewals.

"The governor did not keep his promise," Gutierrez says. "This is what he promised me when he was begging for my vote for the slots referendum, which I gave him. And that is the last time I do that."


Town of Chevy Chase FAR Incentives

This post outlines the incentives for which homeowners can receive a higher FAR and thus build a larger house under the proposed ordinance currently before the Town Council. It relies heavily on the Land Use Committee's report and the worksheet on calculating FAR provided by the Town. (In a previous post, I explained Floor-Area Ratio (FAR) and how it is measured for purposes of the Town of Chevy Chase's proposed ordinance.)

The Basic Idea

Through the use of incentives, the permitted FAR can rise from .30 to .45 for additions and .50 for new construction. The central goal of the incentive program to encourage the construction of new homes that fit with the existing character of the Town yet provide homeowners a great deal of flexibility in deciding how to construct their home. There are a variety of incentives and homeowners can select which ones, if any, they would like to meet in order to receive additional FAR.

A key advantage of this approach is that it avoids the creation of some sort of design or review board which would rule on the aesthetics of each home. At the same time, it provides a set of incentives to construct homes which fit within the Town's current character for people who would like to receive additional FAR (i.e. build larger homes relative to the lot size).

Homeowners can build any home they like which is already permitted under existing law and meets the new height limit--two feet lower than the current County limit--at an FAR of .30. They can construct an even larger home depending on how many additional incentives are met. Some incentives are quite easy to meet; others will probably be met by relatively few people but exist to promote a particular goal (e.g. historic preservation).

However, one can receive the maximum permitted FAR by meeting different combinations of incentives so no one has to meet all of them or is expected to do so. For example, additional FAR is awarded for several different types of garages, for example, because there are multiple types which fit within the existing character of the Town.

One hopes that the use of well-defined bright-line incentives would help limit the number of variance hearings. If a proposed construction plan meets the incentives, it receives the additional FAR. Variances would not be granted for an inability to meet a particular incentive because no home (or lot) is expected to be able to meet all of them and there is a choice among incentives. Of course, nothing would prevent the Town Council from granting variances if the proposed plan furthers the general goals of the ordinance. And don't forget that all homeowners are guaranteed a certain minimum square footage no matter how small the lot.

Proposed Incentives in the Ordinance

The biggest incentive is for building an addition instead of tearing down the old house and building a new one. The permitted level of FAR rise by .05 for construction of an addition.

Additionally, homeowners can receive credits, and an increase in FAR of .01 for each credit, for a variety of other criteria listed below. Again, one doesn't have to meet all, or even most, of the criteria. Instead, one can pick and choose. No matter how many criteria are met, the maximum FAR is .45 for a completely new home and .50 for home with an addition.

Tree Canopy (2 points are possible)
  • Retain all healthy shade trees over a certain size.
  • Plant a new shade tree. (You must also retain all healthy shade trees.)
Open Space (5 points are possible)
  • No more than 10% of the front yard is covered by non-vegetative surface.
  • No more than 40% of the lot is covered by non-vegetative surface.
  • Building coverage (buildings, pool, deck, for example) if 25% or less. (If the coverage is 20% or less, you may get a credit for this incentive and the next one.)
  • Building coverage (buildings, pool, deck, for example) if 20% or less. (If you meet this requirement, you also get a credit for the previous one.)
  • Donation of a conservation easement.
Building Elements (18 points are possible)
  • Historic landmark designation.
  • A two story or less house, rather than a two and a half story house.
  • The roof gable orientation is the same as others on the block if 60% of the block has a similar orientation.
  • No portion of the front wall is more than 34 feet long. If a house is more than 34 feet wide, you may still receive a credit if there are indentions along the front of the house that mean no one wall surface is more than 34 feet.
  • No portion of either side wall is more than 34 feet long. If a house is more than 34 feet deep, you may still receive credits if there are indentions along either side of the house that mean no one wall surface is more than 34 feet. (Each side of the house could get a credit, so two credits are possible.)
  • An unenclosed front porch with a minimum size of 6’ deep and 10’ wide.
  • An unenclosed side porch with a minimum size of 6’ deep and 10’ wide.
  • A wraparound porch where the front portion meets the standard and the side portion is at least 50% of it (2 credits).
  • An entry feature that is at least 3’ deep and has a roof. (If the front porch standard is met, you also receive this credit.)
  • A one story element of at least 8’ x 10’ (a small enclosed room) on the front, side or back of the house (up to 4 credits possible).
  • No projections (porches, stoops, bay windows, etc.) are made into either side yard setback other than a chimney.
Garages and Driveways
  • A walkway goes from the front of the house to the street and is not part of a driveway.
  • A shared driveway is maintained and there is no other driveway on the lot.
  • A side entry attached garage is maintained or built. (Note that credits may be received for only one of the three garage standards.)
  • A detached garage of no more than 240 square feet is maintained or built.
  • Only one story above a front loading cellar garage.


Saturday, January 26, 2008

Out of Carolina

Off-the-cuff thoughts on the night of the South Carolina Democratic primary

Racial Poll Responses
After New Hampshire, there was much hand-wringing that white Americans were lying to pollsters and saying that they were voting for Obama even as they cast ballots for Clinton because they didn't want to admit that they didn't want to vote for a black candidate. In South Carolina, pegged Obama at 43% and the Real Clear Politics average had him at 38%. In case you didn't catch the news, Obama won 55% of the vote in tonight's Democratic primary.

By the way, before we break out the new storyline of anti-female bias (and how do you explain away New Hampshire?) or anti-white male bias, let's observe that Clinton and Edwards both performed within a couple of points of the pre-primary prediction by both and Real Clear Politics. The undecided voters--black and white--swung hard to Obama who "routed" his two opponents according to the AP.

More thoughts after the jump

Campaign Tactics Shifting?
As the Wall Street Journal reported a few days ago, the Clinton campaign relied on a more traditional strategy of endorsements from well-known church leaders and politicians, including paying $135,000 in consulting fees to state Sen. Darrell Jackson who is also the pastor of an 11,000 member church in Columbia. In contrast, Obama's campaign--which originally offered Sen. Jackson a consulting contract of $5000 per month--relied on an untested strategy of building his own political organization, a page taken directly out of his own history as a community organizer. (See the very end of this story in the Washington Post as well).

More Hillary, Less Bill
Hillary won New Hampshire as appeared more human and more sympathetic as the fighting underdog. People forgot she was the establishment candidate and saw her as someone who was smart and hardworking. She answered tough debate questions with in-depth knowledge and aplomb. So why did the campaign dump that strategy and unleash attack-dog Bill? Put the candidate back front and center where she belongs. Which leads to my:

Worst Play of the Evening
The first major "candidate" speech after the primary was by Bill Clinton who spoke rather endlessly--it reminded me of his State of the Union addresses--early in the evening. It reinforced the impression that the Clinton campaign has forgotten which Clinton is the candidate--a theme media pundits were glad to bring home to the audience in their commentary.

Racial Politics Doesn't Pay--Especially among Young Democrats
Amazingly, the "first black president" was booed by Democrats at Obama's rally tonight in the wake of a campaign criticized as focusing too much on race as Bloomberg reports:

The former president also drew fire today by comparing Obama's South Carolina victory to that of another black politician who won the state's Democratic presidential primaries in 1984 and 1988. ``Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice,'' Clinton said, according to the New York Times.

The comment ``just compounds'' the negative attacks on Obama that turned off South Carolina voters, said Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta. ``The implicit comparison is that Jackson won but he didn't win the nomination,'' Black said. ``That is just another round of trying to devalue what Obama has achieved.''

In South Carolina, thousands of supporters waiting for Obama to speak began booing when a video popped up of the former president speaking in Independence, Missouri.
Some may write this off as simply a pro-Obama crowd but this is a stunning reversal for President Clinton. Indeed, the Clinton campaign turned off both black and white voters. According to MSNBC, Obama pulled 78% of black voters and 24% of white voters. In contrast, Clinton received just 36% of the white vote and 19% of the black vote. Note that Obama received more white votes than Clinton did black votes.

Clinton fared especially poorly among young whites. She won just 27% of non-black 18-29 year olds compared to 52% for Clinton. One little reported fact is that native-son John Edwards won a higher share of the white vote than Hillary Clinton (40% to 36%). Clinton still owes South Carolina African Americans--without her 19% of the black vote she would have been relegated to third place as in Iowa.

The 24-News Media Despises the Clintons
I couldn't help but be struck by how unrelentingly negative the coverage on both CNN and MSNBC was of the Clinton campaign. One exception was Donna Brazile on CNN who rightly noted the inherent strengths of the Clinton campaign as the challenges faced by the Obama campaign as Super Tuesday approaches even as she gave Obama his due for his strong victory in South Carolina.

The Edwards Factor
Edwards finished a strong third and above the 15% threshold for receiving delegates. One pundit (me) says he still just might play king or queen-maker at the Convention. As someone on CNN put it, he got a ticket out of South Carolina to Super Tuesday. It may not be a first-class ticket but he has one.

Whether he hurts Clinton or Obama more, I don't know. Does he split the anti-Clinton vote? Or does he appeal to more moderate whites who would otherwise vote for Clinton. Despite his populist rhetoric, Edwards did best in South Carolina among moderate and somewhat conservative whites. On the other hand, Edwards received almost no black votes in South Carolina.


Gender in the Montgomery State Legislative Delegation

District Men Women
14 1 3
15 3 1
16 3 1
17 3 1
18 3 1
19 4 0
20 2 2
39 3 1
TOTAL 22 10

The table above shows the share of women in the Montgomery delegation by district. The Gazette reported on the decline in the number of women in the General Assembly:
Maryland boasted the highest percentage of female legislators in the country in 2005 and 2006, when 67 of the 188 state lawmakers were women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. The state now ranks 8th, with 59 women in the General Assembly.
Much of the decline has occurred in Montgomery. In District 15, Republican Jean Cryor was defeated by Democrat Craig Rice in the 2006 general election. District 16's Marilyn Goldwater retired and Bill Frick was appointed to the vacancy.

District 18 has gone from three to one female legislators due to the retirement of Sen. Sharon Grosfeld and the death of Del. Jane Lawton. Rich Madaleno won the seat vacated by Sen. Grosfeld in 2006; Al Carr was appointed to fill the vacancy in the House.

In District 19, Dels. Adrienne Mandel and Carol Petzold competed unsuccessfully for the open Senate seat in 2006. They were defeated by Michael Lenett; Petzold and Mandel were replaced in the House by Ben Kramer and Roger Manno.

District 20 saw Sen. Ida Ruben defeated by Jamie Raskin; however, Heather Mizeur won a seat in the House leaving the District 20 delegation evenly split between men and women. In District 39, Del Nancy King was elevated to the Senate upon the retirement of P.J. Hogan. She was replaced in the House by Kirill Reznick.

In sum, there has been a net decline of six women in the Montgomery delegation of 32 members of the general assembly since the end of the last General Assembly in 2006. The net losses occurred in just four of the eight legislative districts: Districts 15, 16, 18, and 19. Districts 18 and 19 experienced a net lost of two women with District 19 becoming the only all-male delegation from Montgomery.

Of course, the decline in women did not result in a total loss for diversity. African Americans filled two of six seats previously held by women in Districts 16 and 18. The first openly gay member of the House moved up to the Senate in District 18.

Still, I think it is safe to say that the trend is opposite of what one might have expected in Montgomery County. We've gone from a delegation evenly split between men and women to one where women compose just 31 percent of the delegation.

The share of women in the General Assembly will decline further if the Prince George's Central Committee chooses a man for the vacancy caused by the recent death of Sen. Gwendolyn Britt. Del. Jolene Ivey is a candidate for the seat though one wonders whether the goal of promoting her husband's candidacy for County Executive in 2010--as well as the presence of several serious male candidates--may slow down her own advancement.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Congressional District 4 and 8 Forum in Rockville on Sunday

This comes from Mike Hersh, coordinator for Montgomery County Progressive Alliance:

Don't miss the Montgomery County Congressional Candidates Forum on foreign policy this Sunday!
Topic: The Role of Congress in U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, Iran, and National Security

Sponsored by: Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), Democracy For America (DFA), and Montgomery County Progressive Alliance (MCPA)
Who: Democratic Candidates for Congress from the 4th and 8th Congressional District
When: Sunday, January 27, 2 – 4 p.m
Where: County Council Office Building, 3rd-floor hearing room, 100 Maryland Ave., Rockville. From Rockville Metro Station (red line) 1 block N on Maryland Ave.


Should State Legislators Hand Over Their Salaries?

According to the Baltimore Sun, Senator Bryan W. Simonaire, Republican of Anne Arundel, is proposing to give the legislature the option to reduce its own pay. Currently, legislators’ pay is determined by a state commission, and the legislature can vote their recommendation up or down. Simonaire would like to allow the legislature to cut their own pay if the state’s finances suffer (as is currently happening). But is this such a good idea?

I’m not convinced that it is. I know quite a few politicians pretty well. They may be motivated by a lot of things, but pay is not one of them. After all, the typical state legislator makes just over $43,000 per year for a 90-day session and endless nights of putting up with crazed civic activists (like me). They would get a whole lot more money (and less aggravation) from continuous non-legislative employment, believe me. And the savings available from eliminating their salaries altogether amount to only $8 million out of a $15 billion general fund.

But the compensation question is an interesting one. In my industry – unionized construction – we have fixed scales for journey workers. But on certain jobs, we negotiate shared bonuses for the workers that are tied to targets. So if we meet our schedule dates, the workers would get a bonus. If we meet our safety goals, we would get another bonus. And if we keep absenteeism below a certain specified level, we’d be paid even more. Because the profitability of the contractors increases in line with our performance, they are more than happy to make these kinds of deals with us. In our case, bonus payments are made to groups of workers because construction is a team industry. So too is politics.

So why not have a bonus system for politicians? If all the legislators within a particular district get something important done for their constituents, let’s throw ‘em a bit of extra dough! So here’s my bonus schedule for my beloved District 18 delegation:

Install new sidewalk on west side of Connecticut Avenue in Kensington: $10,000 bonus

Bury power lines in Montgomery Hills: $20,000 bonus

End evil train horn noise in Kensington and Forest Glen: $30,000 bonus

Get special elections for legislative vacancies in MoCo: $40,000 bonus ($20,000 more for banning MCDCC members from appointing themselves)

Get funding for underground, deep-tunnel Purple Line: $50,000 bonus

Get new Metro entrance at Intersection of Death: $100,000 bonus plus Adam agrees to not send any email for a year.

So what are you waiting for? Come on guys!! Let’s get cracking!!!


WAMU Covers the 4th District

A hat tip over at FSP to Isaac Smith for posting the announcement of the radio debate between to the two principle contenders in this race. It will be live at noon on Friday.

Now when will WaPo begin their coverage?

Here is the link to the WAMU site. To hear the radio click on the show over on the right. It starts around 19:50 and ends at 45:00.


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Post Punks Pols & Us

The Washington Post (WaPo) is the preeminent political newspaper in the county. WaPo sends out teams of reporters to cover the smallest detail of the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire primary. But they give a rats ass about local races. WaPo has punked us.

Right here under their nose they have the seminal race for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. Eight term Congressman Albert Wynn represents the establishment wing of the Democrats; Donna Edwards is running from his left and with bloggers and activists by her side. There are another four candidates, perhaps smelling blood in the water, also vying for the seat. They had the closest race in the country just 16 months ago. So where is the coverage? Where are the heavyweight reporters and above the fold coverage?

So the Post, I have one question: "What is it good for?" Absolutely nothing.

In 2002, WaPo had three above the fold pieces on the Van Hollen, Marc Shriver and Ira Sharpio race before the primary. They had polls on the race. Their corporate cousin, the Gazette, had at two polls leading up to the primary.

Politicians love polls. Readers of political publications love polls. WaPo puts polls in any race of note. So one question: Have you seen a poll on the biggest Congressional primary in the country, that being the 4th Congressional District of Maryland?

WaPo what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again, y'all.

How come WaPo gave us three major pieces on Congressional District 8 in 2002 and all we get in this election season is a bunch of Metro pieces.

The Post should be ashamed of its coverage of Fourth District. No polls. Nothing more than the short bios. One reporter coverage. Heck, even NOW took 20 minutes to cover the race on Friday. And they wonder why readership is down.

By not covering the race, WaPo tells us a lot of what it thinks of the race -- and us. So where is the poll coverage of the pols.

WaPo, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Listen to me.


"I Was Just Following Orders"

Decades ago, a critically important principle in support of the rule of law was established: “I was just following orders” is not an excuse for breaking the law. When a person is directed by a government official to break the law, his obligation is to the law, not to that government official.

But that principle came under attack today, not just by the usual suspects, but by Barbara Mikulski, of all people.

As you probably know, Congress has been debating whether to grant retroactive immunity to the telecom companies who collaborated with the Bush Administration and facilitated clearly illegal spying on Americans. By shutting down all ongoing and future lawsuits against the telecom companies, Bush and the Republicans want to make sure that no one will be able to use the judicial process to uncover the extent of their illegal spying.

To do that, they have to make “I was just following orders” a legitimate excuse to break the law. Considering that this is an administration that came to power through a Supreme Court opinion that itself assaulted the very idea of the rule of law, this is no surprise.

But Mikulski’s support of “I was just following orders” was a surprise, at least to me. I have long respected Sen. Mikulski and been glad to have her representing me in the United States Senate.

I had thought that when a fundamental issue like the rule of law was at stake, we could count on our senator to do the right thing.

I guess I was wrong.

It may be years before we uncover the extent of the Bush Administration's many violations of federal law, to say nothing of the U.S. Constitution. Barbara Mikulski has made that important task even harder.


Mike Miller (and Kumar Barve) Meet the Bloggers: Part Three

In Part Two, I recounted the Senate President’s remarks to our rag-tag band of bloggers. In this part, let’s find out what the number two leader in the House had to say.

Kumar Barve, the House Majority Leader from District 17 (Rockville), is a fluid and intelligent speaker. His low-key style reflects the cool, technocratic politics still practiced in some parts of Montgomery County. While he is not as flamboyant a character as the belly-laughing, fist-pounding Miller, he has a tack-sharp mind, a dry wit and ample patience for blogger grillings.

Here’s what Delegate Barve had to say, as best as my scrawling hand could record:

On Governor O’Malley
“Martin O’Malley is a gambler. He likes to take calculated risks. He sealed 188 people in a pressure cooker and said, ‘Take as long as you want in there!’ And the special session produced a very good product.”

On Taxes and Spending
Barve described the last couple decades of state fiscal management as a “roller coaster,” noting that the state had swung between tax hikes and tax cuts. “I wish we could find a level of taxation we’re comfortable with and stick with that, but that would probably violate human behavior!” As Barve correctly observes, it’s too tempting to dispense tax cuts in good times, making tax hikes in bad times more necessary.

On Embattled State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick
“The Governor and the leaders want her to go. I assume that’s going to happen.”

On the Computer Services Tax
“The House got rid of the computer sales tax but it came back. It’s bad public policy. It’s unwise to tax businesses that are mobile,” Barve stated. “But unless we’re willing to find $200 million in extra revenues, it will be very difficult to get rid of.” And why was the computer industry vulnerable? “In politics, when something unpleasant has to be done, it’s usually done to whoever squirms around the least!” Barve noted that Senator Rob Garagiola (D-15, MoCo) had a proposal to replace it with a gas tax, “but that is a non-starter.” Added to Mike Miller’s comments, Barve’s opinion indicates that the computer tax is not going anywhere because there is no other way to raise the money.

On Marriage Equality
“I personally don’t think marriage equality is going to happen in the way we’ve sponsored the bill. But domestic partnerships will pass.” Senator Madaleno, the prime backer of marriage equality in his chamber, chimed in, “You start with what you want, and you fight for what you can get.”

On Filling Legislative Vacancies
I asked the House Majority Leader whether he would favor a bill allowing special elections to fill vacancies in MoCo and forbidding the practice of Central Committee members appointing themselves to state legislative office. The latter point actually made him laugh. “My goodness, if you took that away from them, no one would serve on the Central Committee!” Barve snickered. “We’d have to pay them to serve!” Barve indicated that he would vote for special elections on a statewide basis, but not for MoCo alone. He favors having every county use the same system for filling vacancies.

The Majority Leader’s sardonic suggestion that Central Committee members have to be paid to abstain from appointing themselves may be cynical, but it also may be true. The fact that the highest-ranking state legislator in MoCo holds this opinion of MCDCC should make them think long and hard about how they conduct their vacancy selections.

On the Democrats’ Relationship with Latinos
“I don’t think the Democratic Party is in danger of losing the Latino community. One of the problems from a strategic perspective is that many of the groups we support have the lowest turnout rate. But things are changing. People of color are noticing how bad things are under Republican rule.”

On Whether the Delegation is Bringing the Bacon Back to MoCo
I asked Barve this question: “The Gazette recently reported that of every dollar paid by MoCo residents to the state, only 15 cents came back to the county. The state average is 30 cents. When county officials and residents accuse the delegation of not bringing the bacon back to MoCo, how do you respond?”

Barve answered by pointing out the geographic income disparities of the state. “We generate an enormous amount of income. Eighty-five percent of the richest people in the state live in Montgomery County. And if you earn $200,000, no matter where you live, you are going to be taxed. A lot of social programs go to where poor people are living, like in Baltimore City. And it’s the job of government to help people who desperately need the help, wherever they live.”

I understand this argument but only up to a point. MoCo may be wealthier than the state average, but it is not universally wealthy. There are pockets of poverty even here. There are lots of needs for school aid, school construction and transportation. Our state transportation priorities list is full of projects that have sat in limbo for many, many years. The BRAC projects alone will likely demand hundreds of millions of dollars to be effectively implemented. I for one would like to see my MoCo state legislators throw their weight around a bit more than they currently are.

And now we get to David Lublin’s Big Question, which was asked of both Senate President Miller and House Majority Leader Barve. Correct me if I’m wrong, David, but the Big Question went something like this:

“In 2006, the Democrats had as good a year as it gets. George Bush was President. We were fighting an unpopular war in Iraq. The Republicans had hopelessly mismanaged the response to Hurricane Katrina. So the Democrats won a lot of extra seats. In 2010, those things will not repeat themselves. Bush will be gone and the Democrats will be held responsible for whatever is going on. You are more likely to lose seats than gain them. So how can you motivate Maryland’s progressive voters for the next election?”

Uncharacteristically, Mike Miller dodged this one. He flatly disagreed that the party would lose any seats and contended that Governor O’Malley’s progressive record would serve the Democrats well. Kumar Barve also refused to concede that the party would lose any seats. He responded, “In Maryland, we have modest taxation and very low poverty. Maybe we should point out how bad things are in other states that are run by the Republicans.”

Is this really a winning message for 2010? We may have raised your taxes, but the other guys are worse? Is that going to motivate liberals to turn out to save Democratic seats in purple districts? I hope we’ll have a better message than that, but I guess we’ll see.

Until then, let’s credit Senate President Mike Miller and House Majority Leader Kumar Barve for willingly sitting in the Bloggers’ Hot Seat. They were good sports and did their best to deal with an unlikely gathering unseen since the Mos Eisley Cantina. Let’s see if any more politicians have the mettle to do the same.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Mike Miller Meets the Bloggers: Part Two

In Part One, we laid the scene for you: on one side of the table sat the fearsome, powerful old bull, the indomitable Senate President Mike Miller. On the other side sat a gangly, geeky band of bloggers, united only by their common desire for a post-meeting trip to Ram’s Head Tavern.

A few comments on the Senate President. For more than twenty years, Mike Miller has reigned over the Senate with a gregarious combination of ego, fear and patronage. His personal magnetism is so overwhelming that he could likely charm a bird out of its nest and onto his open palm. But if the bird voted the wrong way on a must-have bill, the hapless creature would be quickly crushed and tossed to the back of the Senate chamber. This demonstrates the Miller Rule, which is a simple one: “Work with me and prosper. Work against me and suffer.” Most Democratic Senators respond to this rule predictably, although there have been exceptions.

We asked Miller a lot of questions, and he gave us a lot of answers. For the benefit of our readers, I did my best to keep up with the exchange. Following are the Senate President’s responses to a few of our prods and pokings. If anyone else in the room recollects it differently, please comment and we’ll adjust the record.

On Governor Ehrlich
A few people remember that at the beginning of Governor Ehrlich’s term, Miller was ready to establish a pragmatic working relationship with him. But that approach ran into problems. “Ehrlich was a nice guy, but he didn’t work, and the state suffered,” Miller grumbled. He was “surrounded by yes-men” and rarely came out of his office. “All he did was put bandages on things!” The old warhorse was clearly relieved to see him gone.

On Governor O’Malley
Miller gave O’Malley lavish credit for moving to act on a deficit that he inherited, even if it cost him politically. “O’Malley knew his numbers would go in the toilet no matter what he did, so he did the right thing.” Miller attacked some of the Governor’s opponents, criticizing them for being “mean-spirited” and spreading rumors. “The Governor is a very progressive person,” Miller insisted. But he warned, “This Governor, in order to get his numbers up, will have to do some things you won’t like.” As an example, he mentioned a new emphasis on crime prevention, not always the highest priority of liberals.

On Slots
As perhaps the greatest champion of slots in the state, Miller’s views are well-known. “We have got to have that money!” he cried. The Senate President predicted that a possible recession would hurt tax revenues, thereby making slots money all the more necessary. “We need to get the slots bill passed whether you like it or you don’t like it!” Miller thundered. So in case you were wondering if Mike Miller had changed his mind on slots, the answer is NOPE!

On Transit
I asked Miller if he had a choice to fund the Washington suburbs’ Purple Line or Baltimore’s Red Line, but not both, which of the two he would pick. I was sure he would dodge this one, but to his credit, he did not. “The Purple Line!” he declared. “You know, I was a University of Maryland – College Park graduate.” Miller pointed out that he proposed a 12-cent gas tax last year but he could not round up enough votes for it. “We need to move forward as quickly as we can on mass transit.”

On Illegal Immigration
“There aren’t more than 2% of the people that understand immigration,” Miller snorted. “If you crack down on illegal immigrants too much, they’ll just bring their families over here.” The Senate President does not support the draconian measures implemented in parts of Virginia, saying, “John McCain tells the truth on this issue.” As for drivers licenses, Miller says, “The Governor has spoken on this. He considers this a national security matter. It’s a tough issue.” Miller did not contest the Governor’s decision to abide by the federal RealID law and end the state’s practice of issuing drivers licenses to illegals.

On the Regressive Nature of the Special Session Tax Package
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!” For the record, let’s stipulate that nobody – absolutely nobody – knows more about getting 24 votes in the Maryland Senate than Mike Miller.

The Senate President has a point and perhaps I was unfair with him. It is true that a substantial portion of MoCo legislators pushed back against the top income tax rate hikes but did not criticize the sales tax. If that part of the MoCo delegation did not protest the tax hikes on the rich, there would have been less need to rely on the more regressive elements of the package. And who knows? Perhaps there would have been less pressure to resort to the much-hated computer services tax.

So while I don’t agree with Miller’s assertion that the sales tax increase is in any way “acceptable,” I will no longer criticize him as primarily responsible for encouraging regressivity in the tax package. There’s plenty of responsibility to go around for that.

On the Computer Services Tax
“The computer tax is not a good tax, but it’s $200 million and I’m going to fight to keep it!” The principal reason for keeping it? “No one can agree on a replacement.”

So other than David Lublin’s Big Question, which I’ll address in Part Three, that’s what I have from Mike Miller. Even though many liberals occasionally disagree with the Senate President, let’s give him his due. He implemented a tough agenda of deficit reduction on the Governor’s behalf. He is more straightforward in answering questions than most politicians. And he keeps a lid on the natural parochialism that might otherwise prevail in the Senate through a hardened mix of guile, intimidation and pragmatism. With a weaker Senate leader, the special session may very well have failed and the need to raise taxes this year would be much greater. So you may not like Mike Miller. But you should respect him.

Even though Senator Jamie Raskin of District 20 (Silver Spring/Takoma Park) attended our blogger fest, we did not flay him as we did his colleagues. In Part Three, you’ll hear from House Majority Leader Kumar Barve.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Understanding Chevy Chase's Proposed FAR Ordinance

Much of this summary is based on the Town of Chevy Chase’s Land Use Committee’s report. The clarity of the report greatly assisted my efforts.

This post explains the concept of FAR and how it is measured in the Town of Chevy Chase's proposed ordinance.

The Basic Idea

The Town of Chevy Chase’s Land Use Committee has proposed a building ordinance which would limit the maximum size of homes based on Floor Area Ratio (FAR), the gross floor area of a building divided by lot size. FAR limits the bulk or volume of a building but allows for more flexibility in building design than limits based primarily on lot coverage or height which tend to result in box-like structures.

The base FAR proposed for Chevy Chase is .30 which would permit a 3,000 square foot home on a 10,000 square foot lot. The Land Use Committee has proposed giving bonus FAR for homes that adhere to certain performance standards or incentives. New construction (i.e. teardowns) could have an FAR as high as .45 which would allow for a 4,500 square foot home on the same 10,000 square foot lot.

The Committee has proposed a maximum FAR of .50 for houses with additions. At this FAR, one could construct a 5,000 square foot home on a 10,000 square foot lot. The purpose of a higher FAR for homes with additions is to provide an incentive to retain existing homes and preserve the Town’s character.

Why FAR Tends to Underestimate What You Can Really Build

The figures cited above tend to underestimate greatly the permitted floor space within any building except on really large lots. Here is why:

Minimum of 2,500 Square Feet Allowed
No matter how small your lot, you can still construct a house of 2,500 square feet. Small lots are thus protected and given a bonus over large lots in terms of permitted floor space.

Below-Ground Floors Usually Don’t Count Toward Allowed Floor Space
Many below-ground areas thought of as basements by most people are legally classed as cellars. In general, if over one-half of the below-ground level is below the average elevation of the finished grade, this area is classed as a cellar as does not count toward your allowed floor space.

For example, my home contains a finished basement. Since it is clearly well more than 50% below grade, it is legally classed as a cellar and doesn’t count toward my total permitted floor space.

Unenclosed One-Story Porches Don’t Count Toward Allowed Floor Space
Porches are part of many existing homes in the Town. In order to help protect them and encourage their inclusion in new construction, the Committee recommended that unenclosed one-story porches not count toward your allowed floor space.

First 240 Feet of Detached Accessory Structures Don’t Count
This exemption is designed to encourage the preservation of detached rear garages which are characteristic in many parts of the Town. Caution: If you build an addition which attaches them to your home, then the first 240 feet will count as they are no longer an accessory structure.

Attics Count Only If They Have Structural Headroom of 6 Feet, 6 Inches
In other words, more traditional short attics don’t count toward the floor space limit.

Many Projections from the Home Don’t Count
For example, bay windows don’t count toward the allowed floor space unless they run from the bottom to the top floor of the house.

A Couple of Important Caveats Which Limit Home Size

Maximum of 5,000 Square Feet Is Allowed
Even if your FAR theoretically allows you to build more, you can only build up to a maximum of 5,000 square feet. However, remember that this limit excludes all of exceptions mentioned above which do not count toward the limit. A below-grade basement, for example, could greatly expand the useable space in such a home.

Two-Story Rooms Are Counted Twice
Even if a floor isn’t laid, two-story areas (defined as 14 feet or higher) are counted twice under the recommendation, so you don’t get a break for cathedral ceilings. This makes sense since the goal of the Committee’s recommendation is to limit the bulk of homes. You can’t double your home size by having extra-high ceilings in every room.

My second post on the proposed ordinance discusses incentives which permit a homeowner to receive a higher FAR.