Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Sierra Club: No Need for LEED

The Washington Business Journal reported this tidbit about the Sierra Club:

The greenest of green organizations, the Sierra Club, is buying an office condominium in NoMa. But it won’t be joining in the green building craze — or at least it won’t be seeking the imprimatur of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification.

The Sierra Club is under contract to buy three floors — 28,000 square feet — of J Street Development’s office condominium project at 111 K St. NE in the neighborhood north of Massachusetts Avenue.

The nonprofit’s build-out will have green and energy-efficient elements, but the space will not be certified under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. The building itself will not be certified either.

The Sierra Club declined to comment on the decision to forgo review and certification under the LEED program.
I could point out that LEED-certified buildings have lower long-run energy costs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and encourage the creation of green jobs - but why should I have to explain those things to the Sierra Club?!?

On top of this, J Street Development, the owner/builder/developer of 111 K Street NE, is not a union contractor.

So I guess one black eye is not good enough for the Sierra Club. They had to go for the twofer.

County Council: Tell Us More About Bait Cars

At a 7/28/08 work session of the County Council’s Public Safety Committee, Chairman Phil Andrews and committee members Marc Elrich and Don Praisner asked the Montgomery County Police Department for more information on successful bait car programs. Car thieves everywhere shuddered at the news.

Regular readers will remember how I declared war against car thieves after my neighbor’s car was stolen last fall. In researching the best practices for suppressing the lurking, squealing thieves, I quickly found British Columbia’s amazing website. British Columbia is one of dozens of jurisdictions in the U.S. and Canada that employs large, aggressive bait car programs to capture and deter car thieves. When a thief breaks into the bait car, its cameras begin recording, its GPS device activates and an alarm is triggered at police headquarters. The police then swoop in to capture the now-pitiful criminal and the video is posted on the Internet and other media outlets. The combined effect of apprehension, deterrence and the massive media campaigns that accompany these programs have produced double-digit declines in theft in British Columbia, Minneapolis, Dallas, Stanislaus County in California and other jurisdictions. Arlington County, Virginia reports that bait cars have helped cut its car theft totals to the lowest levels since 1965. Best of all, many bait car programs are paid in whole or in part by insurance companies. We have combined all of this information and more in the heavily-demanded Bait Car Bible available here.

The Public Safety Committee interviewed Acting Assistant Police Chief Wayne Jerman. Jerman said that Montgomery County purchased two bait cars in 2004: a 1991 Toyota Corolla and a 1995 Honda. Neither proved desirable to the car thieves, who have only committed one theft and one break-in on the cars over the past four years. Unlike other jurisdictions, the county does not promote the cars. (British Columbia’s famous slogan, “Steal a Bait Car. Go to Jail,” has been the centerpiece of its award-winning “advertising campaign.”) Jerman described the bait car programs in both Prince George’s County and Fairfax County as “successful” but did not have statistics on their performance.

Council Members Don Praiser (left) and Marc Elrich.

Chairman Andrews noted that Montgomery County experiences roughly 2,500 car thefts per year, much lower than in Prince George’s County (where it is 12,000 per year) but still, in his words, “a high plateau.” Mr. Andrews stated that vehicle-related thefts were the number one category of crime in Montgomery and handed out a reported crime list from the 7/17/08 Washington Post. Of the 120 Montgomery County crimes in that report, 56 were car thefts or car break-ins. Mr. Andrews told the Assistant Chief, “It seems to me we need to do more in this area, especially in those parts of the county where it is a problem.” He asked Jerman what more could be done to have a greater impact on car thefts.

Assistant Chief Jerman admitted that the police could use more bait cars, stating, “Two is not enough.” But he described them as “labor-intensive,” saying that each needed three officers – two to drive it to the drop-off point and another to monitor it from headquarters. The auto theft unit’s nine investigators together record a 70% recovery rate of stolen cars (but not the valuables inside), which everyone agrees is a good performance. But if the thieves were deterred from stealing the cars in the first place, how much more effective could the investigators be?

Public Safety Committee Chairman Phil Andrews.

Mr. Andrews then put his finger on the key issue: why have bait car programs worked so well in other places? Noting that British Columbia has used its program to cut its auto thefts from 26,000 in fiscal 2004 to 17,000 in fiscal 2007 – a decline of 35% – he told Jerman, “What I want to get is more details on how they do it... What have they done that has been so successful?” Mr. Andrews specifically asked for information on how funding is collected from insurance companies, how much costs are paid by the police themselves and how successful jurisdictions deploy the cars. Assistant Chief Jerman agreed to find out and the Public Safety Committee will reconvene in the fall.

It’s clear that the County Council, and Phil Andrews in particular, have heard us and are responding to our blockbuster letter from last fall. We will see whether the police believe that bait cars can work in Montgomery County. But if they can achieve the same success that other jurisdictions have seen, the county’s citizens will benefit in two ways:

1. The most common type of crime in the county will be seriously reduced.
2. Over the long run, the police may then be able to redeploy their resources to more serious problems, like home burglaries and violent crime.

As for the sniveling car thieves, I have one message for you: enjoy yourselves while you can because the good times won’t last forever. As our friends in British Columbia say:


Update: The Gazette's coverage, which includes statistics on car thefts and break-ins, is here.

Update 2: Here's an article from the Washington Post detailing the successful use of a bait car by D.C. police in March.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Transgender Bill Defenders Gear Up for a Fight

Reacting to a recent court decision allowing the anti-transgender referendum to proceed, the transgender bill’s defenders have launched a new website and are seeking staff.

Upon looking at the website, I was struck by the fact that it did not list its backers. But the site does list a treasurer: Christine Grewell, who served as treasurer in the 2006 campaigns of County Council Member Marc Elrich and District 18 delegate candidate Dana Beyer. (Ms. Beyer, a staffer for the bill’s lead sponsor, Duchy Trachtenberg, is a Vice-President of Equality Maryland and a prominent backer of the bill.) As many donors may be uneasy about contributing to an anonymous site, more names than just Ms. Grewell’s may be helpful.

Incidentally, wouldn’t it be outrageous if the shower nuts started a pro-transgender site to collect donations? That would be one way to drain the enemy of resources! But the shower nuts are not clever enough for that and Basic Rights Montgomery is a real organization.

According to this press release from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Basic Rights Montgomery is chaired by Equality Maryland board member James R. Walker Jr., who is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the county’s Board of Elections. Equality Maryland is seeking a campaign manager and the new website’s purpose is, in part, to raise enough money to pay that person. Whoever it turns out to be, that individual could never be paid enough money to tolerate the hysteria coming from the other side.

In the end, the greatest advantage held by the bill’s backers may not be money or staff, but the referendum’s language as approved by the County Council. The language reads:

Shall the Act to prohibit discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations, cable television service and taxicab service on the basis of gender identity become law?
This ensures that every voter will be reminded of the ultimate purpose of the transgender bill: outlawing discrimination. Few Montgomery County voters will knowingly support discrimination so the shower nuts have a high curtain to climb.

Target: Eric Luedtke

Last month, I called for the revival of the state’s liberal blogosphere. That call has been answered! And the saviors of the online left are... the online right.

As I ended my series on the state of Maryland blogdom, Isaac Smith and Eric Luedtke resumed regular posting on Free State Politics. That has attracted significant attention from Red Maryland, the nexus of the state’s conservative blogosphere. Over a nine-day period from 7/17/08 through 7/25/08, conservative bloggers criticized Luedtke by name in nine posts on five different days. Luedtke’s views on transit, education and the environment made them howl like coyotes in the hills!

These Red Maryland bloggers have probably never met Eric Luedtke. Slightly-built, Luedtke has the appearance of a first-week college freshman searching for his backpack to avoid being late for class. A soft-spoken teacher from Burtonsville, he is no proponent of the two-by-four liberalism practiced by some on this blog. The laptop-toting, coffee-sipping Luedtke is about as threatening as dew on the grass.

But Luedtke is really driving the conservatives nuts as some of their criticism is strikingly personal. In one post, Brian Griffiths accuses Luedtke of promoting “racial nonsense” and says the following on accountability in education:

Luedtke, as we mentioned, is a teacher. He is a member of the teachers union. Once he reaches tenure, he is virtually unable to be fired. How's that for accountability?
This follows Griffith’s labeling of Free State Politics bloggers as “privileged Caucasians.”

All of this attention from conservatives is having an unintended consequence: they are helping to revive Free State Politics. Every time they link to one of Luedtke’s posts, they encourage their readers to visit them and pass them on. In the three weeks prior to 7/17/08, Free State Politics averaged 181 visits per day. But over the nine-day anti-Luedtke jihad, Free State averaged 268 visits per day – an increase of 48%.

On behalf of the Maryland left, I extend my sincere gratitude to Red Maryland for coming to the aid of Free State Politics. I only have one question for them: where’s the love for me?

Monday, July 28, 2008

How Low Can Bob Ehrlich Go?

In an astounding interview on WBAL last Wednesday, former Governor Bob Ehrlich blamed former Maryland Attorney General Joe Curran for the state police spying scandal and went on to tell state legislators not to “micro-manage” the police!

Following are excerpts from an interview of Governor Ehrlich by conservative talk show host Bruce Elliott on 7/23/08:

On this issue, somebody authorized 288 hours of spying on peace and anti-death penalty groups. I personally would like to know who and why. The implication from Martin O’Malley yesterday was somehow it’s the responsibility of the former administration. Thus, he is, it seems to me, kind of implying that a piece of paper crossed your desk and you signed off on this.

Yeah, which of course is silly. There’s not a whole lot to add to what I guess Superintendent Hutchins has already told the press. Police agencies are paid to protect us, Bruce. They make discretionary decisions regarding their operations. Governors do not get involved in those operations quite obviously. There are however Assistant Attorney Generals that they report to. Assistant Attorney Generals are assigned to every agency in state government. And so if Martin O’Malley has an issue with regard to the Attorney General’s actions during our administration, he should probably talk to his father-in-law [former Attorney General Curran].
A spokeswoman for current Attorney General Doug Gansler immediately denied that the state police asked the Attorney General’s office for an opinion on the investigation. Here is more from the former Governor:

OK Bob, do you have a problem with this? Knowing what you know now.

I don’t know a whole lot. I know this Bruce – here’s what I do know – that if there would be a danger to the public or a public official or something or some element occurred within these groups, the Martin O’Malleys of the world, talk radio folks of the world would be the first to ask me why weren’t the state police or the agency involved doing their job? So it’s a very interesting issue, obviously. I have no problem with the oversight. As I’ve said, that’s what Assistant Attorney Generals do. But if you really want to get into the state legislature micro-managing the state police agency, I’ve got a big problem with it...
But the former Governor is not done yet.

OK now, Jim Brochin, a Senator you know from Baltimore County, Democrat, said the whole thing is disturbing. He is somewhat comforted by assurances made by [current Superintendent of State Police] Sheridan and O’Malley and is not considering legislation. Now that does raise an interesting question, Governor. The indications from Governor O’Malley are, well, this just took place under the previous administration and somehow stopped as if on cue when you left Government House.

It would be interesting to ask, again I’m not [unintelligible] but, what similar operations were performed by Baltimore City Police during his tenure as Mayor. But again the issue here is, Bruce, the press is doing its job, I think the Attorney Generals really need to be talked to and we need to find out exactly what they said, what interaction there was between the state police in this case and the Attorney General assigned to that agency. But the last thing I want is the Brochins or the [Senator Brian] Froshes of the world getting involved in the day-to-day operations of the state police agencies or defining probable cause. I mean, these are not exactly people I want making those decisions. I’d rather have the people we pay to make those decisions make those decisions.

Yeah, but somebody has to sign off on it, gov. I mean, somebody has to say, yes, this is a good thing. And if it was Curran who signed off on it or somebody in his office, I think that the public would like to know who did, and why, and who authorized the continuation of this kind of surveillance…

Well, where do you draw the line? Bruce, my main question, and I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you, but where do you draw that line on a day-to-day basis?

Look, I think it’s perfectly justifiable to say that if you might have a problem here, yeah, you better take a look at these groups. But somewhere within the first, you know like, hundred hours, in other words, the first two-and-a-half solid weeks of surveillance, assuming this is a forty-hour work week, that somebody would say, “You know what? These people are creampuffs…”

Well, I think it’s an appropriate thing for the last three, four, five, whatever, State Superintendents of Police and the Attorney Generals assigned to the police to give you, provide the parameters. But again, I’d be very careful about going beyond that, because I don’t want the Brian Froshes of the world telling the state police what they can and cannot do on a daily basis.
Blair Lee has criticized this blog in his Gazette column this week:

And, of course, the liberal bloggers went into lynch mob mode. Maryland Politics Watch launched a four-part series, ‘‘Inside Ehrlich’s Secret Police” and went completely over the top with this: ‘‘If you want to surrender your liberties to tyrannical government, vote for Bob Ehrlich in 2010.”
While we appreciate Mr. Lee’s regular reading of our blog, we would like to point out that we ran a five-part series, not four. Let no one claim that we devote too little attention to civil liberties here! And we will concede that at the time we made the statement he cites, it may have been premature. But we now know the following about Governor Ehrlich’s views from both his statements in the Sun and the above interview on WBAL:

1. He declines to say that there was anything wrong with the investigation.
2. He blames the former Attorney General for the spying without a shred of evidence to back up his view.
3. He believes that the state police should not be monitored by either the Governor or the legislature. In other words, the state police should be accountable only to themselves.

So now I will say it again:
If you want to surrender your liberties to tyrannical government, vote for Bob Ehrlich in 2010.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Light Rail is Catching On

A guest post by Hans Riemer.

Hi everyone, it's Hans Riemer — Silver Spring resident, political activist, regular MPW reader — and now, occasional MPW guest writer.

Some of you might remember me as the guy who ran for Council and said he was going to build the Purple Line or die trying. I’ll have you know that I’m still working on it — and I’m not going to up my life insurance policy.

Today, via Purple Line NOW, I bring you a quick update of how light rail is catching on around the country and even the world.

Now, here in Maryland, a lot of people don’t realize that the Purple Line is intended to be light rail. Light rail can be integrated into an existing community harmoniously because it is smaller scale, quiet, and incredibly modern. In Europe, you see light rail laid down right in the middle of many of the oldest and most beautiful cities.

By contrast, metro-scale rapid transit trains are expensive, loud, and, unless they are built underground, very disruptive to existing communities.

Purple Line = light rail = wave of the future:

The Houston City Council voted 13-2 to give the Metro Transit Authority permission to move forward with construction of five light rail lines on city streets. Groundbreaking for the East End line is expected next month. These lines were previously planned to be bus rapid transit, however the City switched gears based on their positive experience with Houston’s first LRT line, which is a source of civic pride.

A recent survey of 1,000 Texans about transportation issues found that a majority of participants support investment in light rail, regional rail, and high-efficiency bus systems, and also oppose the building of new toll roads. 76% of the respondents support a regional rail system connecting Texas cities. Nowhere is this amazing transformation of priorities more evident than in Dallas where the area transit agency DART is working on expansion plans to add two rail lines by 2013 for a total of 91 miles and 93 stations.

The University of Minnesota Board of Regents voted to support the Central Corridor Light Rail alignment through the heart of campus... The line is an 11 mile $892 million project, which will link downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis. Like Purple Line plans in College Park, automobile traffic will be banned from one road segment passing through the heart of campus. The project will come with $20 million worth of road improvements in the university district east of the Mississippi River.

Phoenix will become the latest Sunbelt city with light rail when it opens its first LRT Line in December. The 20-mile line connects the Phoenix to Tempe and Mesa and was initiated in 2000 when voters approved a 20-year transit sales tax by a wide margin.

The French LRT system continues to expand by leaps and bounds with the network expected to grow to 358 miles of tracks by 2015. Mulhouse, a small city in the northeastern Alsace region is the latest to open a line. “We wanted a tram that called attention to itself,” says Deputy Mayor Michel Samuel-Weis, “as a symbol of economic vitality, environmental awareness and civic improvement -- transportation as an integrated cultural concept.”

Montgomery and Prince George’s county voters and legislators are remarkably unified on the Purple Line. It doesn’t take an engineer to see that the problem we face in the Washington region — the state’s economic engine — is that our regional transportation plan was originally designed largely to get people in and out of DC. But today, more people are moving around the region rather than to and from the center. The Purple Line should be the start of a new approach to transportation in the region—and just a start.

Inside Ehrlich’s Secret Police: Part Five

Among other things, the state police spying scandal reveals immense differences between Governor O’Malley and former Governor Ehrlich. Voters would be wise to remember their contrasting reactions in 2010.

Governor O’Malley has said that his administration “does not and will not use public resources to target or monitor peaceful activities where Maryland citizens are exercising their First Amendment rights.” Nevertheless, Paul Gordon faults him for not pushing corrective legislation. That could be a mistake because legislation might be an effective way to keep the state police from causing further trouble on the current Governor’s watch. Even so, Governor O’Malley has a powerful incentive to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past: political survival. He has fragile relations with some parts of his base and if he sanctions another police investigation of peaceful protestors – especially after promising not to do it – his relationship with the left will be irreparably damaged.

Former Governor Ehrlich, on the other hand, is unburdened by relationships with the left or any concern for civil liberties. The Baltimore Sun reports:

Friday, Ehrlich said on WJZ-TV that he was “sympathetic” to the principle that police should not spy on groups when there no evidence of wrongdoing.

But he added, “We pay state police to make decisions, and obviously they bring discretion with them to their jobs every day, so their job on a daily basis obviously is to weigh the relative value of intelligence they've received and to make decisions accordingly.”

A governor or police chief risks being blamed for not doing his job if an activist “cell” or organization takes actions that put people at risk, Ehrlich said. People could ask, “‘Why weren't you doing your job? Weren’t you supposed to have intelligence operations out there to monitor this sort of situation?’” he said in the television interview.
Put aside for a moment whether the non-violent death penalty activists were a “cell” that “put people at risk.” Governor Ehrlich could have said what his former State Police Superintendent Thomas E. Hutchins had the decency to say: “Whatever occurred during my tenure I obviously am responsible for.” Instead, the Governor’s statements hint that he would tolerate, and maybe even encourage, these sorts of activities if he were ever re-elected. That provides a compelling rationale for why he should never be allowed to hold elected office again.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Court Sides with Shower Nuts (Updated)

Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Robert A. Greenburg ruled today that the anti-transgender ballot referendum could go forward. But his opinion was based on one narrow issue: the timeliness of the challenge. Equality Maryland is vowing to appeal.

Judge Greenburg rejected an argument from Equality Maryland that the voter's name be entered on a petition exactly as it appears on the voter registration rolls. I agree with that reasoning as few voters carry their registration cards and petition gatherers should not be expected to carry hundreds of thousands of voter registration records with them. But he also ruled that the Board of Elections applied the wrong standard for calculating the petition threshold necessary to trigger a referendum. And he said that the Board had a greater responsiblity for verifying signatures than acting as "something more than that of a bean-counter."

So if the judge believed that the Board applied the wrong standard for gathering a sufficient number of names for the petition and that the Board did not perform due diligence on the signatures, then why should he let a technical issue like timeliness rescue an otherwise faulty petition? After all, this ruling allows the Board to make future mistakes on petition thresholds and encourages future ballot groups to slip in dicey signatures. If the signatures are suspect and the wrong standard for certifying them is applied, why allow the referendum to stand under any circumstance?

One way or another, Montgomery County voters will not support discrimination. Even the shower nuts sensed that when they objected to the wording approved by the County Council for the ballot. But if Judge Greenburg's decision is upheld, the will of the voters will only be expressed after great sums of money - and great amounts of vitriol - are expended.

Update: Jim Kennedy at Teach the Facts has more details on the ruling.

In Praise of Phil Andrews

Margarita-drinking penguins surf off the sandy beaches of Antarctica. Osama bin Laden sips matzo ball soup in Tel Aviv. George W. Bush admits the Iraq War is a mistake. But in an even more unlikely event, I am praising Montgomery County Council Member Phil Andrews for winning a spending increase in this year’s budget. These are strange times indeed.

Regular readers know that I am a career trade unionist. During the last county budget round, I vigorously disagreed with Mr. Andrews’ recommendation to cut two percentage points from the public employees’ cost of living increase. I went out of my way to demonstrate how the unions’ contracts were affordable on this blog. And still Mr. Andrews faced down three hundred chanting, stomping union members and told them, “Employees need to do their part… It would be unfair to expect taxpayers to pay a tax increase to fully fund employee contracts that would be 8% next year.”

But Mr. Andrews is no mere budget cleaver. While he was pursuing labor savings, he was also trying to restore another part of the budget that was of utmost importance to the county. In his original budget plan, County Executive Ike Leggett proposed doing away with the police department’s community service officers (CSOs). The CSOs maintain regular contact with community leaders and citizens inside their districts and train them to implement Neighborhood Watch programs. My neighborhood had just started a watch program and feared seeing them abandoned just as we were creating one. Moreover, many African American, Latino and immigrant leaders protested losing an important communication channel to the police. The total savings from the elimination of the liaison officers was only projected to be $623,000 (out of a $297 million deficit).

Mr. Andrews, Chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, would have none of it. He declared:

The officers in these positions provide a crucial link between the department and the public and often are the main link between community members, HOAs and other groups... A relationship has developed between the CSOs and folks in the respective district that very much needs to continue.
Mr. Andrews promptly formed an alliance with Police Chief Tom Manger and guided the restoration of the CSOs through every step of the budget process. Other spending hikes and cuts would come and go, but the CSOs survived. Yes, Mr. Andrews wanted to limit spending in some areas, but he fought hard to fund a program he believed made sense. And as the summer crime season begins, the CSOs are working with my neighborhood and many others to greet the criminals with wary eyes in every house.

But that is not all. Last year, a group of nine civic associations in Silver Spring, Wheaton and Kensington representing 4,440 households wrote to the county asking for implementation of a bait car program. As we detailed in January, bait cars are decoys rigged with cameras and GPS devices by the police to catch car thieves. We asked Mr. Andrews to consider the idea, but that was before the budget crisis dominated Rockville. However, he never forgot about us and has scheduled a Public Safety work session on the issue on July 28. Perhaps he will agree with us that bait cars are a cost-effective way to fight vehicle crime and perhaps he will not. But the fact is that none of our associations are located inside his district and he had no direct self-interest in helping us. He listened to us anyway.

One of Rockville’s most brilliant lobbyists once told me, “I communicate with everyone. Someone might disagree with me nine times in a row, but they could be with me the tenth time.” And so it is with Phil Andrews. Even his detractors admit that he will tell you exactly what he thinks without hesitation and will stick to his word. Crime-weary neighborhoods are lucky to have him in Rockville; the criminals are not.

Inside Ehrlich’s Secret Police: Part Four

The Maryland State Police file on anti-death penalty protestors contains a chronological record of the state’s spying on liberal activists but little else. There is much, much more to this story that must be discovered.

1. Who Ordered the Investigation?
Former Superintendent of the State Police Tim Hutchins claims that Governor Ehrlich did not know about the investigation. If that is true, then who targeted the anti-death penalty protestors? Was it Hutchins or someone closer to the Governor? Did anyone on the Governor’s staff know about it or condone it?

2. Why Go After Anti-Death Penalty Activists?
On page 14 of the file, even one of the spies admits, “Most death penalty protests in the past have not been violent.” And yet the state labeled the investigation “Terrorism: Anti-Government.” No allegation was ever made that these activists were linked to al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban or any other terrorist group. If the police wanted to investigate a violent group, what about anti-immigration activists? After all, the Gaithersburg day laborer center was set aflame a year ago and Casa de Maryland has been targeted with bomb threats. Did the police simply prefer to investigate liberal groups?

3. What Was the Involvement of Other Organizations?
The spies regularly shared their findings with other law enforcement organizations including other branches of the state police, the Department of General Services Police, the Baltimore City Police Department Intelligence Unit, and the Annapolis City Police. What did these agencies do with the information? The involvement of the Baltimore City Police is especially important because Martin O’Malley was the Mayor of Baltimore at the time. If the city police used information passed on by the state police to launch their own investigation, then former Mayor O’Malley bears as much responsibility for them as former Governor Ehrlich has for the state police.

4. Were There Other Investigations?
The spying on anti-death penalty protestors began in March 2005, well after 9/11. Were there other investigations in the interim or did the state police wait three-and-a-half years before deciding that terrorism was a problem? If peaceful anti-death penalty activists were targeted, was any liberal group safe?

All of these questions and more require a thorough public investigation. The Church Committee played a vital role in curbing abuses by the CIA and FBI after the excesses of the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps Senate Judiciary Chair Brian Frosh will subject the state police to similar scrutiny in his upcoming hearings.

There is one last dimension to this story: what does it say about Governor O’Malley and former Governor Ehrlich? We will explore that in Part Five.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Inside Ehrlich’s Secret Police: Part Three

In November 2005, the spies became concerned that death warrants signed for Wesley Baker and Vernon Evans would stir the protestors to increased militancy. After a meeting of the Baltimore Coalition to End the Death Penalty on November 15th, an agent of the Secret Police wrote this:
There were approximately 30 people at the “emergency” meeting which was called because of several pending executions. Gov. Ehrlich signed a death warrant for Wesley Baker for the week of December 5th and a death warrant is likely to be signed for Vernon Evans soon with a possible execution date in early 2006. Crips founder Stan “Tookie” Williams is also scheduled to be executed in California on December 13th. Attendees at the meeting included family and friends of Baker and Evans, people from Amnesty International, the National Socialists, students from Goucher College and members of the public. Emotions were high at the meeting with increasing inflammatory rhetoric about “making noise” to try and stop the executions.

Intelligence indicates that attendance at the below listed events is likely to be large with some events drawing several hundred people. Information about the events is being widely posted on the Internet, at many college campuses, in area churches and through leafleting sessions around the state. Although most death penalty protests in the past have not been violent, the potential for disruptions and problems continue to exist due to the strong emotions the issue illicit from people on both sides of the debate. Members of the family of Baker’s and Evans’ victims have not been outspoken in the past about either their support or anti-death penalty feelings.

Finally, eight months of hard work by the Secret Police would pay off. The anti-death penalty activists were set to launch possibly violent protests and the spies had a list of them. To date, the spies had put in 144 hours of investigative work. They had attended 17 events and meetings on a covert basis, using secret email accounts and false identities. At last they were poised to jail Max Obuszewski and his socialist allies once and for all.

Unfortunately for the spies, the protests would happen but the violence would not. At a November rally outside the Governor’s Mansion, the spies reported, “There were no disturbances at the protest and no problems were detected by the covert troopers. The protestors left the scene without incident."

At a November meeting held to discuss plans for Wesley Baker’s execution, the spies reported, “No plans were discussed at this meeting to cause any civil disruptions during the run-up or during the week that Baker is scheduled to be executed.”

At a December rally at Supermax, the spies wrote, “There were at least 100 people at the protest which lasted approximately 1 ½ hours. The group held signs and marched in circle in front of Central Booking before walking around the prison and then ending with speeches by activists and politicians who are against the death penalty. Traffic was not disrupted and no protestors caused any problems.”

All told, the Secret Police attended seven meetings and five rallies between November 2005 and May 2006. They found no violence, no disruptions and no illegal activity of any kind. The file does not state why the investigation ultimately ceased, but it may have been due to simple boredom. The spies attended 28 different events and invested 288 hours of time with no return.

The 46-page file from the hidden vaults of the Secret Police generates more questions than answers. We will ask those questions in Part Four.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Ban the Monster Trucks!

I had one reaction when I heard about County Council Member Mike Knapp’s new bill prohibiting large trucks from parking in residential neighborhoods: it’s about time! Just look below to see why.

This fearsome charter bus has been the source of much conflict in my neighborhood. Yes, this is the same neighborhood mentioned in the Post article, but since I live here and they do not, I have the pictures! The above monster bus is owned and parked by a resident on the street outside of his single-family home. It is a giant monolith that dominates the block. The woman across the street keeps the curtains in her living room shut because if she opened them, this would be her view – her only view. But for all the wars fought by the neighbors to eject the lumbering mastodon, they have been stymied by one fact – it is perfectly legal under current law for the owner to park it where it is.

Want more? For years, a boat was parked in the street only two blocks away from the above monster bus. The boat was left there for so long that it sank into the asphalt. Lord only knows what it took to get it out.

One reason why many of these vehicles are parked in neighborhoods is that their owners are running businesses out of their homes. That’s legitimate so long as the business use does not infringe on the residential character of the neighborhood. (The Montgomery County Board of Appeals regulates business locations in residential areas through its issuance of special exceptions.) But some types of businesses, especially ones engaged in heavy industrial activities, simply do not belong in residential neighborhoods.

My own industry, construction, is an example. Many contractors operate their record-keeping operations out of their houses. So far, so good. But when they park heavy vehicles on residential streets and use their backyards as material storage sites, that’s an issue. They may protest that compelling them to use commercial parking is an unreasonable business expense. But their competitors can and do maintain commercial lots, sheds and storage facilities and pay for them through overhead markups on their bids. By using neighborhoods as industrial parking lots, some contractors are gaining an unfair cost advantage over their competitors at the expense of their residential neighbors. Mike Knapp’s bill would put a stop to it.

There should not be a civic association in the county that should not favor this bill. So go ahead and write the council! As for me, I am going to tell the poor lady on the back end of the above monster bus that she may someday be able to see the sun again.

Inside Ehrlich’s Secret Police: Part Two

Max John Obuszewski is not an ordinary liberal. The 63-year-old Baltimore resident has a long history of anti-war and anti-death penalty activism. He has participated in multiple anti-Iraq War protests at the Capitol. His Internet mailing list was named the best in the Baltimore metro area by the Baltimore City Paper in 2000. He even wrote a piece for film director Michael Moore’s website criticizing spying by the National Security Agency and was arrested for protesting there. In fact, Obuszewski told the Sun that he had been arrested at least 70 times for protests going all the way back to the Vietnam War.

Now here was a target worthy of the attention of the Secret Police. Obuszewski was no mere socialist from Takoma Park; he was a nationally-known, almost professional protestor. He was a big fish. He had to be watched.

So the Secret Police began gathering information on Obuszewski. Here is what they found:

The heavily redacted portions of the first two pages raise questions. What did the spies find out about Obuszewski? How did they collect it? Did they search his trash? Did they tap his phones? Did they obtain his financial information? Did they follow him around in his private life? Did they watch his friends and neighbors? We may never know. That’s why they are called the Secret Police!

Despite the spies’ obsession with Obuszewski, they were not rewarded with evidence of illegal activity. To the contrary; the protestors were consistently peaceful. After a 5/24/05 meeting, the spies wrote this about their plans to support Vernon Evans at a court hearing:

The group is planning to meet up outside of the Court of Appeals and “pack the courtroom.” They said they would likely wear armbands to show their support for Evans. The 60 minute oral arguments in Evans’ case are scheduled to start at 1000 hours so the group said anyone who tries to get into the small courtroom should get there at approximately 0915 hours. The people who can’t get in are going to try and stand silently near the courthouse holding signs protesting the death penalty… The group was very firm about any protests being silent and non-disruptive because they were worried about damaging Evans’ case.

But Obuszewski wanted a loud protest outside the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s office. That piqued the interest of the spies, who reported:

The MSP Annapolis Barrack, Department of General Services Police, Baltimore City Police Department Intelligence Unit, and the Annapolis City Police were informed about the above events.

Through November, the Secret Police went on to monitor Obuszewski and the other anti-death penalty protestors at two courtroom hearings, one rally and nine internal meetings. Unfortunately for the spies, no illegal activities occurred.

1. At a 6/6/05 Supermax rally, the spies reported, “There were no problems observed at the event.”

2. At a 6/7/05 court hearing for death row inmate Wesley Baker, “There were approximately 10 to 15 anti-death penalty activists who were inside of the courtroom and none caused any problems. There were several additional protestors outside of the courthouse who held signs against the death penalty and they were joined by those in the courtroom when the hearing was over. No problems were observed.”

3. At a 9/2/05 court hearing for death row inmate Vernon Evans, “The people in the courtroom did not cause any type of disturbance during the arguments and no problems were observed. Four members of Evans’ family were also in the courtroom and also did not cause any disturbances. There were no problems observed outside of the courtroom and the group left after the hearing was concluded.”

The vast majority of the spies’ time was spent in meetings with the Committee to Save Vernon Evans, often attended by fewer than ten people. Typically, the attendees discussed publicity around the Evans case, publicity around the death penalty issue generally and sometimes participation in other protests (like those against the war in Iraq). Violence was not discussed. Nevertheless, the spy would sign each report with the simple statement, “Due to the above facts I request that this case remain open and updated as events warrant.” But why?

The spies would soon have their work put to the test. We’ll find out how in Part Three.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Inside Ehrlich’s Secret Police: Part One

Much has been written about the spying undertaken by Maryland’s State Police against liberal activists. But the most revealing story is contained in the actual documents unearthed by the ACLU. What did the police do? Why did they do it? Come with us down to the secret vault as we reveal the inside story of Bob Ehrlich’s Secret Police.

The 46-page file is remarkable for its lack of context. It does not begin with a rationale for the espionage that began on March 14, 2005. It does not state who ordered it or why. It does not state the names of the officers involved in the investigation or their superiors. At the top of the first page, it merely states that the first entry is a “Supplement to Intelligence Report Initiated by Analyst Sparwasser.” So on March 13th, there is no spying. On March 14th, suddenly there is. Or so the files of the Secret Police would have us believe.

The first entry is a report by an agent who attended while “undercover” a meeting of activists in Takoma Park about death-row inmate Vernon Evans. The spy’s report is humdrum: the meeting attendees discussed putting out flyers, going to other meetings and events and soliciting donations. The report contains no evidence that violent acts, crime or terrorism was discussed by anyone at the meeting. Nevertheless, the report states, “After the meeting, [redacted] set up a covert e-mail account, was accepted on the Maryland Campaign to End the Death Penalty Yahoo List Serve and also contacted a man who attended the Takoma Park meeting about attending future meetings.” Accepted as a confidant by the anti-death penalty group, the spy had established a regular channel of information that would enable continuous monitoring and reporting on the group to superiors.

The Post article discusses an individual named “Lucy” who was later suspected by the activists. Was “Lucy” the spy writing these reports? It is hard to tell from the documents, which redact any mention of an officer’s name. The reports could have been written by one spy, two spies or many spies. The Secret Police protect their own identities just as they track the rest of us.

The very next day, a spy attended another organizational meeting in Baltimore. There the sisters of inmate Vernon Evans, convicted of murder and languishing on death row, discussed their communication strategy with politicians and the press. They did not discuss bombing, or shooting, or subversion, or terrorism against the government. They only discussed how to save their brother from being put down by the state. The spy reports, “The goal which many of the attendees stated was a moratorium on executions until a study promised by Governor Ehrlich about racial disparity in the judicial system was completed.” Apparently, that was enough to justify further spying and the espionage continued.

Interestingly, the report states, “Further intelligence will be added as it is developed. The above information was relayed to MSP Executive Protection Section and Baltimore City Police Intelligence Section on 3/16/05 by [redacted].” Did the Secret Police really worry that the anti-death penalty activists posed a physical threat to Governor Ehrlich?

Two more reports follow on meetings attended by the spy “in a covert capacity:” a town hall meeting in Takoma Park and an anti-death penalty rally at Baltimore’s Supermax facility. The spy named as many attendees as he or she could identify, including “exonerated inmate Shujaa Graham,” “Mike Stark, a socialist and organizing member of the Maryland Campaign to End the Death Penalty” and Vernon Evans’ “sister, Gwen Bates.” The spy wrote, “Each speaker mentioned the April 9th rally at Supermax but no one advocated any kind of violence or disobedience.” But still the Secret Police persisted. After all, at any gathering of socialists, exonerated inmates and liberal activists, violence would be the inevitable result. It was just a matter of taking more time, gaining more trust, working into the inner circle of the activist leadership and their nefarious true purpose would be exposed.

Finally, the spies’ persistence would be rewarded. Because attending the Supermax rally was none other than Max John Obuszewski, a person who would quickly become the central figure in the investigation. We will find out how the Secret Police dealt with Obuszewski in Part Two.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Ehrlich Does Bush Proud

The Post carries news that the administration of former Governor Robert Ehrlich had the Maryland State Police conduct surveillance on "local peace activists and groups opposed to the death penalty." Do you know what this means?

If you want to extend George W. Bush's spying policies, vote for Bob Ehrlich in 2010.

If you want to surrender your liberties to tyrannical government, vote for Bob Ehrlich in 2010.

If you want the state police to record your first amendment activities, vote for Bob Ehrlich in 2010.

If you want government agents to join your listservs and file secret reports on you to their superiors, vote for Bob Ehrlich in 2010.

Hmmm... if you are a liberal who cares about civil liberties or a conservative who cares about the free exercise of individual rights without government interference, vote against Bob Ehrlich in 2010!

Africa Against the Purple Line

As regular MPW readers know, the Purple Line has many opponents, including residents of Chevy Chase, supporters of SSTOP and a few homeowners with “No Trains on Wayne” signs in Silver Spring. But now a new combatant enters the field of battle… an entity based on the tiny African island of Madeira?!??!!

In case you missed it, a new anti-Purple Line website has recently popped up, this one run anonymously. When Action Committee for Transit reported that it was registered to a firm based on the autonomous Portuguese island Madeira, I checked it out. Sure enough, gave the following information about the registrant:

Now, the bikini-clad residents of Madeira have little obvious reason to protest the Purple Line (unless ACT plans to relocate after MoCo’s project is done). Most Purple Line opponents, including MPW blog-father David Lublin, denounce the project openly. Activist Pam Browning owns the domain under her own name. So who would have the incentive to start an anonymous anti-Purple Line website through the ultra-secretive Domain Discreet registrant service?

Could it be… the Columbia Country Club? Regular readers will remember how the club vowed to start a “grass roots campaign” to protect its lovely golf course from those awful Purple Line trains (and their uncouth riders). This follows a long history of cooperation with former Republican Governor Robert “I Love Golf” Ehrlich to block the rail project. After being outed by the Post, the club finally admitted responsibility for the new website. Eric Luedtke covered ACT’s wine-soaked reply outside the club gates. And just to throw gasoline on the fire, Silver Spring trail activist Wayne Phyillaier noted the club’s squatting on nearly three acres of Capital Crescent Trail right-of-way to add to their already-luxurious golf course. Does the county even know about the club’s erection of a giant, hideous fence on public land?

Picture from Finish the Trail Blog.

As you can see from the following excerpts from its 2005 filing with the IRS, the club can draw on significant amounts of resources to fight the Purple Line. In the year ended September 30, 2006, the club reported revenues of $13.3 million, net income of $2.5 million and net assets of $25.5 million (of which $5.7 million is in cash). The club has minimal liabilities of $2.3 million and its property is not encumbered by a mortgage.

But all of this hugely understates the club’s influence. Its members are among the wealthiest people in the Washington metro area and have donated thousands of dollars to politicians, including Ehrlich. Club President J. Paul McNamara even had his employer, United Bankshares, pay his club dues for years.

For all of its wealth and power, the club’s Madeira affiliate has constructed a truly sorry website. It has just five pages, stock graphics, no contact names and no actual pictures of the Capital Crescent Trail. Considering that in its most recent reporting year the club spent $165,452 on laundry and linen, $25,110 on uniforms, $38,325 on decorations and $65,093 on china and silverware, we would expect it to offer more than a bargain-basement website.

Neighborhood residents have every right to oppose the Maryland Transit Administration’s proposed Purple Line alignments if they wish. But any participation by the country club will hurt their cause. No non-club members will see protection of their golf course as a legitimate reason to block a transit project. If the Columbia Country Club really wants to help the Purple Line opponents, it should give its members one-way tickets to Madeira.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Put Up Your Dukes!

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Woman’s Club of Chevy Chase for a night of the best in political entertainment!

In the red corner, standing at five feet, eight inches and weighing in at 145 pounds, originally from Buffalo, New York and now fighting out of Takoma Park, Maryland… with a record of one win, no defeats and one disqualification… Maryland’s Secretary of Labor, Thomas E. Perez! (The crowd goes wild.)

And in the blue corner, standing at six feet even and weighing in at 175 pounds, originally from New Haven, Connecticut and now also fighting out of Takoma Park, Maryland… with a record of six wins and one defeat… Maryland’s Comptroller, Peter V. Franchot! (And the crowd goes wild.)

Wouldn’t this be great? Well, it won’t happen exactly in this fashion, but Carole Brand advises us that the Secretary of Labor and the Comptroller will be holding a public debate on slots. Courtesy of Ms. Brand, here are the details:

Wednesday, September 10 Forum on Slots

As you know, the November election will bring to the ballot a referendum on expanding slot machines in the state of Maryland. This proposal has evoked strong arguments for and against it, and the Woman's Suburban Democratic Club of Montgomery County is hosting this forum to help you explore this issue and its implications for our state.

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot will take the anti-slots position, and Maryland Secretary of Labor Tom Perez will take the pro-slots position. Bruce De Puyt of News Channel 8 will moderate the discussion.

The forum is free of charge and open to all. Questions will be taken from the audience.

Date: Wednesday, September 10, 7:30 - 9:00 p.m.

Place: Woman's Club of Chevy Chase
7931 Connecticut Avenue
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Contact Carole Brand,

Wheaton: Ready, Aim, Aim, Aim….

A Guest Blog by Holly Olson.

On June 30th, the International Downtown Association (IDA) presented its study findings on redevelopment in Wheaton. IDA is a membership association for professionals in the field of downtown revitalization, commercial district management, and economic development. In addition to conference events, IDA provides consulting and information services to downtowns worldwide.

In the case of Wheaton, IDA evaluated redevelopment opportunities within the Wheaton area, with a special emphasis on how County property and facilities could serve as the impetus for revitalization. A panel of experts was convened, focus groups and one-on-one interviews were held with various community stakeholders, and a report was delivered with their findings.

As those that have been involved in the Wheaton redevelopment effort know, studies in Wheaton are nothing new. In fact, we’ve actually had lots of studies (some of which I list below).

Wheaton Business Survey, 2005
Wheaton Metro Station Area Pedestrian Safety Evaluation, 2004
Wheaton Public Safety Audit, 2004
National Main Street Visioning Study, 2000 (PP presentation)
• MTA Sponsored Study by Nelessen Associates, Wheaton MD Options for Redevelopment, (PP presentation)

So, does the IDA report offer new enlightenment? Is it the Holy Grail for Wheaton redevelopment? The short answer is that we’ll have to wait and see. Most of the report’s findings have been noted in earlier studies, discussed extensively among Wheaton’s two advisory committees, or brought up by the community at large—yet very little progress has actually been made. The true measure of success will be whether the County actually acts on the recommendations.

With that said, let’s take a few moments to review the findings, which are divided into three main sections: strengths, weaknesses, recommendations. (Please note that this is not a comprehensive summary of IDA’s findings. The full report can be read on-line here and Dan Reed’s take can be found here.)

Among the strengths listed by IDA were Wheaton’s strategic location, the stable mix of housing, the unique mix of restaurants and shops, and the involvement of citizen groups and advisory committees.

New findings: Prime county assets include Mid-County Service center, Wheaton library, and Wheaton Regional Park.

Weaknesses noted by the report included poor communication within the government and to residents, inadequate marketing of the downtown, property owners that are unresponsive to tenants needs, niche businesses that are not maximizing their potential, a high level of frustration in the community about the lack of redevelopment progress, a downtown that is not pedestrian friendly, and a perception that the CBD is too restrictive when it comes to development.

New findings: Current use of County facilities does not represent the "best and highest use," connectivity, linkages, and wayfinding between CBD and Wheaton regional park could be improved.

IDA recommendations include creating a quality town center on "Lot 13" that would be unique to the region, developing an aggressive marketing campaign that includes branding Wheaton’s civic identify, developing a comprehensive economic development plan for the entire CBD, and creating the most pedestrian-friendly urban environment in the County.

New recommendations: Parking Lot "13" and Mid-County Regional service center should serve as "ground zero" for the first phases of redevelopment. Library should be relocated to downtown and housed in a signature building that includes an arts and cultural center along with retail, office, residential, and parking.

So, what does this report actually do? First, it does an accurate job of summarizing the issues facing Wheaton. This is particularly helpful for those that may be new to Wheaton or unfamiliar with the redevelopment effort. Second, it independently validates much of what the community and advisory committees have been saying for years. Third, it lays out a plan of action that is divided into three phases for the next ten years, something the county has been unwilling or unable to do thus far. Finally, it points out the real potential of Wheaton — that Wheaton can go beyond being the forgotten step-sister of Silver Spring and Bethesda, and become the beautiful princess that the locals know she can be.

With that said, there is still the question of whether this is yet one more study that ends up languishing in the bowels of the County’s website. In County Executive Ike Leggett’s introduction, he encouraged patience with the redevelopment process, and emphasized that it is more important to proceed wisely than to rush forth. This sentiment was later echoed by Betsy Jackson, (an advisory panel member and presenter of the findings), when she likened the planning and redevelopment process to one of, "Ready, Aim, and Fire." She said that many central business districts often commit one of two mistakes: They are forever in the aim (planning) mode, or they don’t spend enough time planning and head directly into "Fire" (development). Now that we are going on our second redevelopment study in the last 10 years and updating our sector plan this fall, I know that I am ready to FIRE!

Holly Olson is the former Chair of the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

No Spoils for MoCo (Reprise)

Back in February, my blog-brother Kevin Gillogly and I put up back-to-back posts on how MoCo was not getting a fair share of state appointments. Trying to be helpful, I promoted beloved Kensington Mayor Pete Fosselman for the Secretary of State vacancy. After all, the mayor was a rare and very early supporter of Martin O'Malley over then-Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

But illustrating once again that the Governor does not read our blog [sigh...], the administration has decided that the new Secretary of State will be Prince George's County lawyer John McDonough, whose daughter works for Senate President Mike Miller. This is a wasted opportunity because the Governor could use a bit more good will in MoCo at the moment and Mayor Fosselman has many friends here.

Labor and the Governor

At first, I believed that Maryland’s labor movement would be annoyed at the anti-union propaganda on the state’s business development website but would ultimately see it as a blip in an otherwise positive relationship with Governor O’Malley. But after talking to many labor leaders around the state, I am not so sure about that.

MPW readers should know that our original post on this subject that followed Free State Politics’ breaking of the story received more visits than any individual post on our blog for many months. In fact, direct visits to this post alone without going through the site URL accounted for nearly one-quarter of all visits to MPW for two straight days. And yesterday we received more visits than on any other single day in two months. This is all extremely unusual considering that our first post on the issue appeared on a Saturday in July, hardly a prime viewing time for political blogs. We hear that our original post and a follow-up dating some of the rhetoric all the way back to the Glendening administration zoomed across the state’s labor movement and crystallized some of labor’s existing feelings about the current Governor. By Monday morning, the anti-union language on the state’s website had been taken down but the damage remains.

Martin O’Malley was elected with overwhelming support from Maryland’s labor movement. He got off to a good start on labor issues, helping pass a state living wage law in his first year and supporting a bill that allowed public employee unions to charge fees to non-members for representational services. His appointments of former Montgomery County Council Member Tom Perez as the Secretary of Labor, Licensing and Regulation and former Baltimore building trades leader Ron DeJulius as Commissioner of Labor and Industry were widely praised by labor. And the Governor announced that he was restoring and beefing up the labor inspections office after his predecessor virtually killed it.

But since then the relationship has cooled. During the special session, labor assisted the Governor in passing his tax package and the slots referendum even though many did not like its regressive elements. Despite its aid to the Governor in his time of need, labor did not achieve many of its priorities in the general session that followed. One angry labor leader told me, “Seven labor bills were introduced before the legislature last year and not one made it out of committee. The administration was essentially AWOL on all of them.” Another labor leader gave O’Malley a grade of “C,” saying, “I understand that politicians make lots of promises and then do a little less, but…” A third labor person described a state of “discontent” with the Governor. “He’s been good to blue-collar families in a general sense, but he hasn’t done a whole lot to help the labor movement grow.” Still another labor veteran challenged the perception that the Governor was responsible for the living wage law, claiming that since the legislature already passed it once but was stymied by former Governor Ehrlich’s veto, all that was necessary was to have a Governor who would not veto the bill again. “What can you point to with O’Malley? On living wage, when he was handed the football on the one-yard line, he got it in… He hasn’t picked up any labor bills as one of his top 3 or 4 priorities in any year. There’s been no initiative, and that’s the sad thing.” This leader also gave the Governor a grade of “C.”

The Governor does have his defenders. One longtime labor pro credited him for the living wage bill since “it would not have passed without him.” This leader also praised the Governor for advocating combined reporting (which would make it harder for corporations to hide their income in other states) and making the income tax system more progressive. “I have nothing but admiration for him for that.”

Among the bills that died in 2008 were ones requiring employers to provide shift breaks, requiring construction contractors on state jobs to participate in state-registered apprenticeship programs, requiring construction contractors on state jobs to provide health insurance, requiring construction projects over $500,000 to have lavatories, prohibiting state agencies from purchasing apparel from sweatshops, requiring any casinos permitted by the slots referendum to negotiate project labor agreements for their construction jobs, establishing a Public School Labor Relations Board, and increasing the maximum weekly unemployment insurance benefit.

Perhaps most troubling of all was the death of a bill designed to crack down on misclassification of workers as independent contractors. As I explained last November, employers in many industries, but especially construction, often illegally misclassify employees as contractors to escape responsibility for paying FICA taxes, unemployment insurance premiums, workers compensation premiums and income tax withholding. Several states have found revenue losses from these practices totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year, though no one has studied the issue in Maryland. In a year that the administration supported cuts of $25 million to the newly-established Chesapeake Bay cleanup fund and $50 million to transportation to pay for repeal of the computer tax, the Governor might have been expected to embrace a labor-backed bill that would have raised millions of dollars more for the budget. But the bill died in a House committee and the Board of Public Works voted in favor of more spending cuts last month.

The Governor currently has troubled relationships with some in the immigrant community over the drivers license issue, many in the GLBT community over marriage equality and now some in labor. These are three very important parts of the state’s progressive base. At a time when the Governor’s approval ratings are still low, he needs these groups more than ever.

“What’s the alternative?” asked one labor leader, dismissing out-of-hand any consideration of the still-detested former Governor Robert Ehrlich. That may be a valid point, but here is the problem for Governor O’Malley: how many people in his base are now asking that question?

Update: Kathleen Miller of the Examiner picked up the story and obtained confirmation from the state that the anti-union site went back to the Glendening administration. Further, they admitted “staff researchers had occasionally updated data on the page during O’Malley’s tenure.” Ms. Miller recognized the role played by both Free State Politics and MPW in fixing the problem, a rare acknowledgement by the mainstream media of the blogging community. Thank you Ms. Miller!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Lou Simmons Breathes Fire, Burns Bridges on Slots

Kathleen Miller of the Examiner picked up some nice quotes from flame-throwing Delegate Luiz Simmons (D-17) blasting his colleagues for not supporting the anti-slots campaign. Here's a sample:
“Slots are the easy road for politicians to travel down; it holds the promise of a free lunch, all net-net and no cost,” the Montgomery Democrat said. “Overwhelmingly, those who lose money are the poor, the old, the vulnerable and racial minorities, the very same people we’re always saying we are trying to help...”

Simmons said, “The Montgomery County political establishment has caved in here.” What bugs him the most, he added, is that Montgomery’s state legislators, who largely fought together against slots proposals from former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich, were vital to passing this year’s referendum.

“I thought when many people spoke out against Ehrlich’s slots, that they spoke on principle,” Simmons said. “It turns out they spoke on politics. Here’s a group that said rhetorically, we’re against slots, but when push came to shove, the referendum couldn’t have passed without them.”
Well now! We ran a complete list of the elected leaders who joined the anti-slots campaign back in May, along with those who voted against the referendum but did not sign on with Marylanders United to Stop Slots. Delegate Simmons is a longtime opponent of slots, but one wonders whether statements such as these are the best way to persuade his fellow politicians to join his cause.

Would you care for some saltpeter to go with that nitroglycerin you've been drinking, Delegate?

Are Domestic Workers Employees or “Help?”

Montgomery County’s domestic workers protection bill, introduced way back in January, is finally coming up for a vote tomorrow. At last we will learn its fate.

The bill, co-sponsored by Council Members George Leventhal and Marc Elrich, would provide domestic workers with the right to negotiate a binding contract with their employers. It was prompted by a 2006 study by George Washington University documenting extensive abuses in working conditions for domestic workers. While the bill would make domestic worker employment contracts enforceable by the County’s Office of Consumer Protection, it does not prescribe wage or benefit levels. Those items are subject to negotiation between the worker and the employer.

In a lengthy post in February, I defended the bill against critics who alleged that illegal immigrants employed as domestic workers could not be covered by contracts and faced risk of deportation. But the question really is more basic: are these workers employees or “members of the family?” If the latter category applies, “members of the family” are often expected to perform “chores” without compensation. The refusal to recognize these workers as bona fide employees is the source of many derivative abuses such as failing to pay overtime or respect U.S. labor laws as documented in the 2006 study.

The bill has a decent chance of passage. It has two co-sponsors. Council Members Valerie Ervin and Duchy Trachtenberg are believed to support it. And Council Member Don Praisner voted in its favor in a meeting of the council’s Public Safety Committee (which has jurisdiction over the Office of Consumer Protection). But the bill has opponents and nothing is certain.

So will the County Council see domestic workers as employees or “help?” We’ll find out tomorrow.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

State Government Proud that Maryland is Anti-Union (Updated)

When I saw this post on Free State Politics, I could not believe my eyes. But it's true: the state's Department of Business and Economic Development is trying to paint Maryland as an anti-union state to attract new businesses.

I encourage everyone to read the original post on FSP but here is the issue in a nutshell. The state is telling business that even though it does not have a right-to-work law, businesses have nothing to fear because unions here are (in their opinion) weak. Here's a sample of their language:

While not a "right-to-work" (RTW) state, Maryland offers businesses a very favorable labor climate.

A quality workforce supplies a great resource, key to achieving corporate goals.

The percentage of private sector union membership in Maryland is 7.2 percent, which is lower than the national average of 7.5 percent and lower than most northeast and midwest states.

13.8 percent of the state's private sector manufacturing workers are union members, a lower percentage than two of the RTW states, as well as other states including New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

(Source: Bureau of National Affairs, Inc.)

An analysis of companies new to Maryland from 1990 to 2001 (excluding firms that were already unionized upon their entry to the state and firms with fewer than 25 workers) reveals that:

Only two percent of the over 3,200 companies were petitioned by unions.

Half of Maryland's counties experienced no petitions for union elections.

Unions won representation rights for only one percent of the total new firms during the period analyzed.

Although petitions were filed most frequently in the services and manufacturing industries, unions won representation rights in just four percent of new Maryland manufacturing firms.
Now Governor O'Malley has been fairly pro-labor. I am sure that he had no knowledge of this vile propaganda spewed by underlings scurrying within the bowels of the state bureaucracy. But as I write this, outraged emails are flying across the state's entire labor movement. We cannot believe that rhetoric typical of Georgia and Oklahoma would be sanctioned at any level inside the O'Malley administration.

FSP's Eric Luedtke is asking blog readers to register their protests with the state's leadership. I agree with him and I refer you to his post for the relevant email addresses. If the Governor acts swiftly to revoke the state's anti-union pandering, most reasonable people will probably view it as a mistake and be willing to move on. But quick action is in order.

Update: The state's union-bashing is based partly on National Labor Relations Board election data from 2006. That data would not have been available until well into 2007, after Governor O'Malley assumed office. That proves that the propaganda was at least partially drafted during the O'Malley administration and cannot be blamed entirely - or perhaps not at all - on his predecessor.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Senator Madaleno Comments on the Budget

Senator Rich Madaleno (D-18) sent the following message to his constituents on the budget. We reprint it here with his permission.

On Tuesday, the Senate Budget & Taxation Committee was briefed by the Department of Legislative Services (DLS) on our state’s finances and economic outlook. Unfortunately, the news is not good. I wanted to share with you some of the highlights from this meeting. All of the briefing documents are available on-line – just click here. The documents include a detailed summary of the budget reductions approved by the Board of Public Works last week.

While Maryland continues to perform better than other states during this national economic slowdown, we are seeing our revenue sources under perform estimates. Most critically, our two largest revenues accounting for 81% of total revenues, the personal income tax and the sales tax, continue to come in lower than predicted. Through May, the income and sales taxes were down $46.3 million and $23.9 million, respectively. Tobacco taxes have also come in $24 million lower than expected. Cigarette purchases are down by 25%. While this is good health news, it does add to our fiscal challenges.

It looks now as if our official revenue forecast for the fiscal year that began July 1st will also prove to be overly optimistic. If these same patterns continue for FY09, revenues will be off between $100 and $200 million. Fortunately, we have built in buffers in the FY09 budget totaling $226 million. However, every dollar of expected revenue that does not materialize eats into this buffer. As the buffer disappears, the anticipated deficit for the following year grows. Right now, the estimated FY10 deficit is $243 million. Without any excess revenue carryover from FY09, the FY10 deficit would be nearly $500 million.

The only good news is that this deficit is “cyclical” as opposed to “structural.” Our current problem is caused by a cyclical downturn in the economy as opposed to a structural imbalance in our spending and revenues. As a result, deficits are now only estimated for the next two fiscal years (10 & 11) if the slots referendum passes. We could use the $700 million plus we have in our Rainy Day Fund to help get through this cycle. However, without the revenues from slots, we will once again be facing a more than $1 billion structural deficit by FY12, and use of the Rainy Day Fund in this situation would be imprudent.

Perhaps the most interesting observation of our economic slowdown was that we are in a “slow-motion recession.” In 1991-92, the last time our state faced a severe economic crisis, our state experienced a rapid decline in our performance indicators. For example, at their peak in 1991-92, 35,000 Marylanders were making initial unemployment insurance claims per month. In the 2001-2002 downturn, initial unemployment claims were made by 25,000 Marylanders per month. Today, we have roughly 20,000 people making initial unemployment insurance claims per month, but that reflects an 18% rise over this time last year. Rather than a sharp rise in unemployment insurance claims coinciding with a steep set of job losses as we saw in 1991-92, we are seeing a gradual slowing of job growth combined with a steady increase in unemployment insurance claims.

In the short term, we are able to adjust our budget outlook to reflect these changes. In the long term, it seems as though the bottom of this recession will continue to elude us and will present larger budget concerns in the future. Should the recovery also turn out to be slow-motion, than our current revenue estimates for the out-years could also prove overly optimistic.

The housing slowdown is also causing significant economic problems for the state. Home prices are expected to be down anywhere from 5-8% for 2008, with a 12 month supply of homes on the market. While the state government does not use property taxes or transfer taxes for general fund expenditures, the housing market slowdown is impacted sales tax revenues. Construction-related sales tax revenues are down 6% this year. The decline in home sales and prices has a much greater impact on local government finances. The Maryland housing market does not appear close to a recovery and is expected to continue its decline, which is further evidence of the “slow-motion recession” that may stick with us for some time.

The general downturn is also having a significant impact on the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF). Both the gas tax and titling tax are below estimates. Coupled with a decline in sales tax revenues and the $50 million TTF reduction included in the legislation repealing the computer services tax, the TTF is behind $150 million in anticipated revenues. DLS reported that the current transportation program is unsustainable in this fiscal environment. As a result, projects will have to be eliminated from the program plan when the new six-year plan is released in the fall. This could make any new major construction unaffordable.

Compounding our transportation funding problem will be a lack of debt capacity should any new revenue become available. During the briefing, State Treasurer Nancy Kopp reported that the state will exceed its debt capacity guidelines next year for the first time in decades. Maryland has a self-imposed debt limit of 3.2% of total personal income. Thus, the state government’s total debt cannot exceed 3.2% of the total combined personal income of all residents.

Over the past six years due to a lack of surpluses, the state has issued bonds more aggressively to pay for projects such as new schools, roads, and prisons. With a slowdown in income growth, we will now exceed our debt limit. This is an extremely troubling development and one that the mainstream media did not report.

Treasurer Kopp informed the committee that her office will be contacting the credit rating agencies over the next few weeks to determine what effect this situation might have on our cherished AAA bond rating. As you know, Maryland has maintained the highest bond rating (AAA) for decades because of our fiscal prudence. Our excellent credit rating reduces the interest rates incurred for state borrowing, ultimately saving the state, and taxpayers, millions of dollars. In order to retain our rating, we may need to scale back our commitment to capital expenditures dominated by schools construction and transportation improvement to keep our debt within our guidelines. With the rating agencies already concerned about our fiscal situation if slots revenues do not materialize, this confluence of issues could be just the “perfect storm” needed to jeopardize our AAA rating.

I certainly wish I had better news to report. It is often said that timing is everything in life. Last year, we finally took action to correct the state’s structural fiscal imbalance through a number of budget cuts and tax increases. I continue to applaud Governor O’Malley for addressing this issue which had festered for years. Unfortunately, this downturn comes just as we restored balance to our fiscal affairs. Such timing!

As always, I will update you on our state’s fiscal outlook as we get a clearer picture of our revenues.

Rich Madaleno

Editor's Note:
Given recent developments on the budget, we are not surprised by many elements of the Senator's commentary. But two items he reports have not been generally acknowledged in the mainstream media.

1. The possibility of cancellation or postponement of transportation projects.
Back in April, I made this prediction about the Transportation Trust Fund:

The loss of $50 million from the computer tax repeal, the slowdown of TTF revenue sources and rising commodity prices will greatly reduce the amount of money left for new projects. As a matter of fact, if the state protects tens of millions of dollars in planning money for mass transit projects (like Baltimore’s Red Line and MoCo’s Purple Line and CCT), it is entirely possible that all other new work aside from the ICC will be deferred.
This may be dangerously close to reality.

2. The risk of losing the state's AAA rating.
No politician of either party wants to lose this rating and face higher interest payments on state debt. It will be the highest priority of the entire leadership in Annapolis to protect it. That means no spending program is safe.

I would expect slots supporters to attempt to capitalize on this budget news in the near future.

Update: Maryland Moment completely missed the real story on the state's credit rating.