Md. Legislators get High Marks from Consumer Group — but not GOP


A consumer advocacy group is giving state lawmakers high scores for passing laws in the 2014 General Assembly session that raise the minimum wage and reduce the impact of foreclosures.

The Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, a nonprofit whose mission includes advancing fairness and justice for consumers, also released four-year scores that depicted state lawmakers as generally favorable to consumer issues. Only nine of 47 senators and 46 of 141 delegates got four-year scores lower than 80%.

In 2014, the coalition scored 33 senators and 50 delegates with scores of 90% or better, compared to only two senators and 35 delegates who scored under 65%. The scores were based on seven bills, six of which passed.

Senate President Mike Miller and House President Mike Busch both scored well, with 2014 scores of 100% and four-year scores of 97%. Republicans House Minority Leader Del. Nic Kipke and Senate Minority Leader David Brinkley scored lower, with scores of 62% and 75% 2014 and 83% and 69% for four-year scores, respectively. All of the failing grades were Republicans, except for five Democratic delegates, including House Judiciary Chairman Joe Vallario.

“As so many Marylanders struggle to recover from economic hard times, those lawmakers really stood up for Maryland’s working families, and we’re proud to celebrate their work,” stated coalition Executive Director Marceline White in a press release.

Fifth year rankings highlight minimum wage

This is the fifth year the coalition has completed rankings, and this year it highlighted a bill championed by Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley that raised the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2018 and two bills that will help families who have gone through a foreclosure. Those foreclosure bills cut the amount of time banks can collect mortgage-related debts and that mortgage-related forgiven debts will be exempt from the income tax.

Maryland Business for Responsive Government also included the minimum wage bill as part of its ratings unveiled in May, but the nonprofit advocating for economic development and job creation was on the opposite side of the issue – penalizing lawmakers who had voted for it. Other than that bill, though, the consumer group and business group chose different bills on which to rate lawmakers. The business group ratings were consistently lower, with only one lawmaker scoring 100% and several scoring 0%.

The Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition ratings also included measures to study reducing car insurance costs, ban “ticket bots” that buy up tickets to events before people can, establishing a Consumer Protection Division of the Maryland Attorney General’s Office in Prince George’s County, and a proposed ban on retailers using tracking technology on customer’s phones to track shopping behavior unless notice is posted. That ban was the only legislation scored that did not pass.

‘Consumer Heroes’

Seven “Consumer Heroes” were recognized in the ratings for earning perfect marks between 2011 and 2014. Those included: Sens. Richard Madaleno, Paul Pinsky, and Jim Rosapepe along with Dels. Al Carr, Bill Frick, Barbara Frush, and Carolyn Howard.

Madaleno, D-Montgomery, and Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, both fought on the Senate floor for the minimum wage bill to be expanded, Madaleno by increasing the wage earlier and Pinsky by suggesting an increase for the wage for tipped workers. Neither was successful.

Though the coalition scorecard was overwhelmingly glowing in its review of the legislature, White said there was more work to be done to increase protections from unfair debt collection and ensure paid sick leave for all workers.

By Meg Tully

Attorneys General Ask Feds for Help in Blocking Illegal Telemarketing


Tired of all those robocalls that show up as “Unavailable” on your caller-ID, tout “your last chance to reduce your credit rates” or maybe offer free cruise trips with who knows what as part of the deal?

The federal do-not-call list was supposed to stop these calls, but they persist and have even been hitting once off-limits cell phone numbers.

On Tuesday, Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler and 33 other state attorneys general from around the nation wrote to the Federal Communications Commission asking it to clarify the federal law that the phone companies say prohibit them from using technology to block illegal telemarketing.

The letter from the 34 AGs said that last year at a U.S. Senate hearing “representatives from US Telecom Association and CTIA-The Wireless Association testified that legal barriers prevented carriers from implementing advanced call-blocking technology to reduce the number of unwanted telemarketing calls.”

In the letter, the attorneys general ask how, when and under what circumstances could the phone companies legitimately use available technology to block calls.

“State law enforcement officials are doing everything possible to track down and prosecute those that engage in illegal telemarketing,” the letter said. “However, law enforcement cannot fight this battle alone. Call-blocking technology like NoMoRobo, Call Control, and Telemarketing Guard appears to be the first major advancement towards a solution.”

Seeking clarity

Gansler said: “We are seeking clarity on behalf of all Marylanders who simply want these irritating and unsolicited calls to stop. We must break through the confusion and harness the technology that exists to protect consumers.”

The attorney general’s office handles consumer complaints in Maryland. Alan Brody, a spokesman for the office, said it averages about 30 calls a month on telemarketing issues, and six emails.

Brody said turning these calls into complaints to be investigated is difficult because the telemarketers often use “shadow numbers” and their companies are difficult to identify. When consumers start asking questions about the source of the call, the telemarketers are trained to hang up.

Brody said the technology is so sophisticated that it is difficult to track down anyone to make a conviction.

In one case, a scam artist was using the main number of the attorney general’s office as the shadow number.

By Len Lazarick
Maryland Reporter

GOP Poll Show Tight Race For Governor



The Maryland Republican Party released a poll Friday on the race for governor showing Democrat Anthony Brown at 45% and Republican Larry Hogan at 42%.

There’s been a lot of chatter recently about internal polls showing the race tightening to single digits. But this is the first publicly released poll that includes breakdowns and methodology. Admittedly it is a partisan poll done by Republican pollster Wes Anderson, a national pollster who happens to live in Anne Arundel County.

Anderson called the results “shocking and not really something we expected to see.” Political science professor Todd Eberly analyzes the results below the charts.

He attributes it to a “minor anti-tax revolt,” and not necessarily the Hogan campaign, because the candidate is doing better against Brown than Hogan’s favorability numbers. “There is no evidence the state is becoming strongly conservative,” Anderson said. “The state is experiencing a bit of sticker shock.”


Here are the full results of this survey as released by the party, and here is Anderson’s memo interpreting the results.

Anderson concludes: “If the election were held today there is little doubt that the margins would be close. Given the anti-tax attitudes among a sizable majority of undecided voters, it would likely be too close to call. If he can successfully communicate his anti-tax message to Maryland’s voters [Hogan] will be in good position to pull off the upset.”

The poll taken last week does differ significantly from independent polls taken several months ago showing Brown with a strong lead, before the primary and recent economic reports. will publish any other polls that are released — independent, partisan or from the campaigns — if they include the questions, methodology, and geographic and demographic breakdowns. by Len Lazarick



Gun Wars: Wicomico Co. Sheriff Among Many Who Won’t Enforce Some Gun Bans


Sheriff Mike Lewis considers himself the last man standing for the people of Wicomico County.

“State police and highway patrol get their orders from the governor,” the Maryland sheriff said. “I get my orders from the citizens in this county.”

With more states passing stronger gun control laws, rural sheriffs across the country are taking the meaning of their age-old role as defenders of the Constitution to a new level by protesting such restrictions, News21 found.

Some are refusing to enforce the laws altogether.

Sheriffs in states like New York, Colorado and Maryland argue that some gun control laws defy the Second Amendment and threaten rural culture, for which gun ownership is often an integral component.

They’re joined by groups like Oath Keepers and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, both of which encourage law enforcement officers to take a stand against gun control laws.

The role of a sheriff

Lewis and some other sheriffs across the nation, most of them elected by residents of their counties, say their role puts them in the foremost position to stand up to gun laws they consider unconstitutional.

“The role of a sheriff is to be the interposer between the law and the citizen,” said Maryland Delegate Don Dwyer, an Anne Arundel County Republican. “He should stand between the government and citizen in every issue pertaining to the law.”

While the position of sheriff is not found in the U.S. Constitution, it is listed in state constitutions: Part VII of Maryland’s, for instance, Article XIV of Colorado’s, Article XV of Delaware’s, and ARTICLE XIII of New York’s. Nearly all of America’s 3,080 sheriffs are elected to their positions, whereas state and city police are appointed.

When Lewis was president of the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association, he testified with other sheriffs against the state’s Firearms Safety Act (FSA) before it was enacted in 2013. One of the strictest gun laws in the nation, the act requires gun applicants to supply fingerprints and complete training to obtain a handgun license online. It bans 45 types of firearms, limits magazines to 10 rounds and outlaws gun ownership for people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility.

After Lewis opposed the legislation, he said he was inundated with emails, handwritten letters, phone calls and visits from people thanking him for standing up for gun rights. He keeps a stuffed binder in his office with the laminated notes.

“I knew this was a local issue, but I also knew it had serious ramifications on the U.S. Constitution, specifically for our Second Amendment right,” said Lewis, one of 24 sheriffs in the state. “It ignited fire among sheriffs throughout the state. Those in the rural areas all felt the way I did.

Some New York sheriffs won’t enforce bans

In New York, the state sheriff’s association has publicly decried portions of the SAFE Act, legislation that broadened the definition of a banned assault weapon, outlawed magazines holding more than 10 rounds and created harsher punishments for anyone who kills a first-responder in the line of duty. The act was intended to establish background checks for ammunition sales, although that provision hasn’t taken effect.

A handful of New York’s 62 sheriffs have vowed not to enforce the high-capacity magazine and assault-weapon bans. One of the most vocal is Sheriff Tony Desmond of Schoharie County, population 32,000. He believes his refusal to enforce the SAFE Act won him re-election in 2013.

“If you have an (assault) weapon, which under the SAFE Act is considered illegal, I don’t look at it as being illegal just because someone said it was,” he said.

Desmond’s deputies haven’t made a single arrest related to the SAFE Act. Neither has the office of Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum of Ulster County. Van Blarcum said it’s not his job to interpret the Constitution, so he’ll enforce the law. But he said police should use discretion when enforcing the SAFE Act and determining whether to make arrests, as they do when administering tickets.

In Otsego County, New York, population 62,000, Sheriff Richard Devlin takes a similar approach. He enforces the SAFE Act but doesn’t make it a priority.

“I feel as an elected official and a chief law enforcement officer of the county it would be irresponsible for me to say, ‘I’m not going to enforce a law I personally disagree with,’” he said. “If someone uses a firearm in commission of a crime, I’m going to charge you with everything I have, including the SAFE Act. I won’t do anything as far as confiscating weapons. We’re not checking out registrations. People that are lawfully using a firearm for target shooting, we’re not bothering those people.”

Colorado made national headlines when 55 of the state’s 62 sheriffs attempted to sign on as plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of several 2013 gun control bills in the state. The most-controversial measures banned magazines of more than 15 rounds and established background checks for private gun sales.

A federal judge said the sheriffs couldn’t sue as elected officials, so Weld County Sheriff John Cooke and eight other sheriffs sued as private citizens. Cooke was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, which a federal district judge threw out in June. He and the other plaintiffs are preparing an appeal.

“It’s not (the judge’s) job to tell me what I can and can’t enforce,” Cooke said. “I’m still the one that has to say where do I put my priorities and resources? And it’s not going to be there.”

Cooke has won fans with his opposition. He, like Wicomico County Sheriff Lewis, keeps a novel-thick stack of praise and thank-you notes in his office. He’ll run for a Colorado Senate seat in November and is endorsed by the state’s major gun lobby, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners.

Wicomico Sheriff Lewis vs. Sen. Brian Frosh

Lewis, who is running for re-election this year, said sheriffs have a responsibility to push against what he sees as the federal government’s continual encroachment on citizens’ lives and rights.

“Where do we draw a line?” he asked. “I made a vow and a commitment that as long as I’m the sheriff of this county I will not allow the federal government to come in here and strip my law-abiding citizens of the right to bear arms. If they attempt to do that it will be an all-out civil war. Because I will stand toe-to-toe with my people.”

But Montgomery County Sen. Brian Frosh, Democratic floor leader of Maryland’s FSA and a strong gun-control advocate, said Lewis’ understanding of a sheriff’s role is flawed.

“If you are a sheriff in Maryland you must take an oath to uphold the law and the Constitution,” said Frosh, now the Democratic nominee for Maryland attorney general. “You can’t be selective. It’s not up to a sheriff to decide what’s constitutional and what isn’t. That’s what our courts are for.”

Bronx County, New York, Sen. Jeffrey Klein, who co-sponsored the SAFE Act, agreed that sheriffs who refuse to enforce laws they disagree with are acting out of turn. Constitutional sheriffs are not lawyers or judges, Frosh said, which means they are following their convictions instead of the Constitution.

“We had lots of people come in (to testify against the bill) and without any basis say, ‘This violates the Second Amendment,’” Frosh said. “They can cite the Second Amendment, but they couldn’t explain why this violates it. And the simple fact is it does not. There is a provision of our Constitution that gives people rights with respect to firearms, but it’s not as expansive as many of these people think.”

But sheriffs have the power to nullify, or ignore, a law if it is unconstitutional, Maryland Delegate Dwyer said. He said James Madison referred to nullification as the rightful remedy for the Constitution.

“The sheriffs coming to testify on the bill understood the issue enough and were brave enough to come to Annapolis and make the bold stand that on their watch, in their county, they would not enforce these laws even if they passed,” said Dwyer, who lost a reelection bid after his conviction and jail time for drunken driving and drunken boating. “That is the true role and responsibility of what the sheriff is.”

Rural versus urban divide

Some rural sheriffs argue that gun control laws are more than just unconstitutional— they’re unnecessary and irrelevant. In towns and villages where passers-by stop to greet deputies and call local law enforcement to ask for help complying with gun laws, they say, firearms are less associated with crime than they are with a hunting and shooting culture that dates back to when the communities were founded.

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 1.22.51 PMEdward Amelio, a deputy in Lewis County, New York, shares that sentiment. There’s no normal day for Amelio, who has patrolled the 27,000-person county for eight years. But he usually responds to domestic disputes, burglaries and car accidents. That’s why he considers the SAFE Act unnecessary.

“We issue orders of protection and some contain a clause the judge puts in there saying a person’s guns are to be confiscated,” Amelio said. “That’s mostly when we deal with guns.”

Zachary Reinhart, a deputy sheriff in Schoharie County, New York, said he responds to a wide variety of calls, too.

“Our calls range from accidental 911 dials to domestic disputes to bar fights,” he said. “You can’t really typify a day at the Schoharie County Sheriff’s Office. It’s all pretty helter-skelter.”

Violent crime also isn’t common in Wicomico County, Maryland, where Lewis is sheriff. He receives daily shooting reports from the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, which are not available for public disclosure.

“You always see ‘nothing to report’ in the eastern region, in the southern region, in the northern region, in the western region,” Lewis said. “But the Baltimore central region? Homicide after homicide after homicide.”

Even though there are few gun crimes in rural areas, Sheriff Michael Carpinelli in Lewis County argues that people need guns for self-defense.

“People rely on the police in an urban environment to come and protect you all the time,” he said. “People who live in a rural area also rely upon the police, but they realize that they live further out from those resources and that they may have to take action themselves.”

Duke law professor Joseph Blocher said gun culture has varied in urban and rural areas for centuries.

“It has long been the case that gun use and ownership and gun culture are concentrated in rural areas. whereas support for gun control and efforts to curb gun violence are concentrated in urban areas,” he said. “In the last couple decades we’ve moved away from that towards a more-centralized gun control.”

Lewis bemoaned lawmakers who craft gun-control legislation but are ignorant about guns. “They have no idea between a long gun and a handgun,” he said. “Many of them admittedly have never fired a weapon in their lives.”

But Klein, the Bronx County senator, said he does understand the gun and hunting culture in upstate New York.

“Growing up, my father was in the military,” Klein said. “When I was younger, I had a .22-caliber gun. In the past, I’ve gone pheasant hunting, quail hunting. It’s great,” he said. “I mean, there’s nothing that we do in Albany, especially with the SAFE Act, that in any way takes away someone’s right to own a gun for hunting purposes.”

Oath Keepers and Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association

If former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack had it his way, there wouldn’t be a single gun control law in the U.S.

“I studied what the Founding Fathers meant about the Second Amendment, the right to keep and bear arms, and the conclusion is inescapable,” said Mack, the founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA). “There’s no way around it. Gun control in America is against the law.”

He knows his no-compromise stance has cost him and the CSPOA the support of some sheriffs and law enforcement organizations around the country. And it’s resulted in civil rights agencies labeling CSPOA an anti-government “patriot group.”

But Mack, the former sheriff in eastern Arizona’s rural Graham County, is not letting up. His conviction is central to the ideology of CSPOA, which he founded in 2011 to “unite all public servants and sheriffs, to keep their word to uphold, defend, protect, preserve and obey” the Constitution, according to his introduction letter on the association’s website.

CSPOA also has ties to Oath Keepers, an organization founded in 2009 with a similar goal to unite veterans, law enforcement officers and first-responders who pledge to keep their oath to “defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Mack serves on the Oath Keepers Board of Directors.

Oath Keepers is larger and farther-reaching than CSPOA, with active chapters in 48 states and the District of Columbia, and an estimated national membership of 40,000. Its website features a declaration of “orders we will not obey,” including those to disarm Americans, impose martial law on a state and blockade cities.

CSPOA grabbed media attention in February with a growing list of sheriffs — 484 as of late July — professing opposition to federal gun control. Detailed with links beside each name, the sheriffs’ stances run the gamut from refusals to impose a litany of federal and state gun-control laws, to vague vows to protect their constituents’ Second Amendment rights, to law critiques that stop short of promising noncompliance.

Only 16 of those 484 are listed as CSPOA members.

Too radical for some sheriffs, officers

Some sheriffs perceive Oath Keepers and CSPOA as too radical to associate with. Desmond, of Schoharie County, New York, is known around his state for openly not enforcing provisions of the SAFE Act that he considers unconstitutional. Still, he’s not a member of either organization.

“I understand where they are, I guess, but I just have to worry right here myself,” Desmond said. “I don’t want to get involved with somebody that may be a bit more proactive when it comes to the SAFE Act. I want to have the image that I protect gun owners, but I’m not fanatical about it.”

Mack is familiar with that sentiment. He suspects it’s hindered the growth of CSPOA.

“This is such a new idea for so many sheriffs that it’s hard for them to swallow it,” Mack said. “They’ve fallen into the brainwashing and the mainstream ideas that you just have to go after the drug dealers and the DUIs and serve court papers — and that the federal government is the supreme law of the land.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights nonprofit that classifies and combats hate and extremist groups, included both CSPOA and Oath Keepers on its list of 1,096 anti-government “patriot” groups active in 2013. Both groups have faced criticism for their alleged connections to people accused of crimes that range from possessing a live napalm bomb to shooting and killing two Las Vegas police officers and a bystander in June.

Media representatives from the Southern Poverty Law Center did not return phone calls and emails requesting comment.

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 1.21.57 PMFranklin Shook, an Oath Keepers board member who goes by the pseudonym “Elias Alias,” said the organization doesn’t promote violence, but rather a message of peaceful noncompliance.

“What Oath Keepers is saying is … when you get an order to go to somebody’s house and collect one of these guns, just stand down,” Shook said. “Say peacefully, ‘I refuse to carry out an unlawful order,’ and we, the organization, will do everything in our power to keep public pressure on your side to keep you from getting in trouble for standing down. That makes Oath Keepers extremely dangerous to the system.”

The future of gun control laws

Self-proclaimed constitutional sheriffs hope that courts will oust gun control measures in their states — but they recognize that may not happen. Lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of gun control legislation in Maryland, New York and Colorado have been, for the most part, unsuccessful.

In New York, five SAFE Act-related lawsuits have yielded few results: One lawsuit resulted in an expansion of the magazine limit from seven rounds to 10, but the rest of the measures were thrown out and are awaiting appeal; a similar lawsuit was stayed; a third was thrown out and denied appeal; and two additional lawsuits have been combined but are stagnating in court.

Plaintiffs in the Colorado sheriff lawsuit are preparing to appeal the decision of a federal district judge who in June upheld the constitutionality of the 2013 gun control laws.

In Maryland, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Blake last week upheld Maryland’s new bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.

By Marlena Chertock, Emilie Eaton, Jacy Marmaduke and Sydney Stavinoha, Marlena Chertock, the lead writer on this story, is a journalism graduate of the University of Maryland.  Emilie Eaton is a News21 Hearst Fellow. Jacy Marmaduke is a News21 Peter Kiewet Fellow. Sydney Stavinoha is an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation News21 Fellow.

Maryland Awards $16 billion, 10-year Contract for Health Insurance


Top state officials on Wednesday approved spending $16 billion over the next 10 years on health insurance for over 200,000 state employees, retirees and their dependents.

One of the largest contracts ever granted, the three-member Board of Public Works approved it at a meeting dominated by discussion of the positives and negatives of health care delivery in Maryland, including serious patient care problems at a state hospital in Hagerstown.

Comptroller Peter Franchot repeatedly objected to the size and length of time in the health insurance contract. “Who knows what’s going to happen to health care over the next 10 years?” Franchot complained. He noted that just six years ago there was no Obamacare, and there is political uncertainty about the future.

In the end Franchot joined Gov. Martin O’Malley and State Treasurer Nancy Kopp in approving the $16 billion award to CareFirst of Maryland, United Healthcare Services of Minnesota and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Mid-Atlantic States.

Aetna Life Insurance Co. of Connecticut, one of the current contractors, protested its exclusion from the contract award, and is appealing the decision.

Focus on preventive care and wellness

The new health insurance contract emphasizes preventive care and patient wellness, rather than just fee for service, a plan pushed by O’Malley.

“Low preventive care use and poor treatment compliance cost the program over $700 million annually,” the Department of Budget and Management said in its submission to the board. “The new plans have participant incentives and penalties to encourage engagement.”

Franchot worried about what would happen if those incentives and penalties didn’t reduce costs. Would state taxpayers be left holding the bag? he asked.

O’Malley and Franchot went back and forth on the contract, addressing the audience but actually arguing with each other. Toward the end of the discussion, Franchot suggested the board get quarterly reports on the progress and costs of the new health insurance, which begins coverage in January. O’Malley, who leaves office in mid-January, thought that was a fine idea.

The $16 billion contract was approved unanimously, as was most of the rest of the board agenda which included scores of transportation projects, building projects and other state contracts which must get its approval.

Problems at Western Maryland center

The board also approved a small $806,000 emergency contract for a consultant to help the state health department correct serious problems with the state-run Western Maryland Hospital Center in Hagerstown. After an inspection in May uncovered “immediate jeopardies” to patient care, state Health Secretary Joshua Sharfstein said top management was fired and the private Meritus Medical Center of Hagerstown was contracted to help overhaul management of the facility.

The Western Maryland Hospital Center only has 123 beds but most of its patients have chronic diseases, traumatic brain injury or need skilled nursing care for months or years at a time.

After visits to the facility by Dr. Sharfstein and Dr. Mona Gahunia, chief medical officer of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the department told the board:

“It was clear that an immediate change in leadership at Western Maryland Hospital Center was necessary. DHMH determined that the previous CEO did not possess the skills to develop, oversee, and monitor the systemic changes necessary to stabilize patient care. Furthermore, the hospital lacks a bona fide chief medical officer and chief nurse officer. These positions are crucial for the delivery of care. For these reasons, DHMH awarded an emergency management contract to Meritus.”

Sharfstein said the problems were due to the retirement of much of the senior staff.

Upbeat story in Cumberland

The situation there contrasts with a much more upbeat story that appeared Monday in Business Insider that touts“an amazing health care revolution in Maryland” that “almost no one is talking about.”

The story highlights one of the major achievements of Sharfstein’s tenure — creating a hospital reimbursement system that rewards facilities for keeping patients out of the hospital rather than paying them for patients staying there.

The article focuses on the Western Maryland Regional Medical Center, a private facility in Cumberland.

At Wednesday’s meeting, both Franchot and O’Malley praised the article, which quotes the governor at length, even while they argued about the problems with the health care exchange.

by Len Lazarick

Small Firms Give MD C- for Business Friendliness


Some rankings of Maryland’s business climate put it at the bottom of the pack, as the Tax Foundation does. A few put it at the top, as does the U.S. Chamber’s #1 rating for innovation and entrepreneurship the governor likes to cite.

And it is not unusual for Maryland to rank in the middle of the pack, as it does in a new Thumbtack-Kaufman Foundation survey of business friendliness.

What’s different about the grade of C- Thumbtack-Kaufman gave Maryland, ranking it 27th in the U.S., is that the grade is based on a sample of 359 Maryland businesses from a national survey of more than 12,000 firms who use Thumbtack to connect with customers. Other rankings are often based on government or private data.

The survey also claims to have no ideological agenda, other than a desire to “accurately convey the attitudes and concerns of actual small business owners,” in keeping with the Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation goal of promoting entrepreneurship.

A wide range of businesses — 80% in very small outfits of 1-4 employees in professional and nonprofessional services — responded to a simple 33-question online survey that took 5-8 minutes to complete. The questions, methodology and breakdown of results are all laid out in a 45-page report.


Maryland got B’s on ease of hiring, labor regulations, and even an A+ on training and networking programs. But like many other business rankings, the state scored poorly on overall regulation, getting D’s on taxes, licensing, environmental regs and zoning.

The survey also broke out the Baltimore metropolitan region, giving it similar scores on most issues.

As often happens in these ranking, Virginia scored much better than Maryland, getting an A+ on overall friendliness, ranking it fourth in the nation, and getting A’s in most categories.

The Washington metropolitan area did much better than Baltimore, combining as it does Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. It’s overall score for business friendliness was A-. This is a major improvement from the first Thumbtack survey in 2012 when the D.C. area got a D+. It perhaps reflected a different mix of businesses from the three jurisdictions.

Pennsylvania got a score of D, getting D’s in most categories; Delaware and West Virginia were not ranked because they were among the 12 states that did not have enough survey respondents to score.

MD Health Department Inspecting Fewer Assisted Living Facilities


There are over 1,300 licensed assisted living facilities in Maryland caring for thousands of residents not quite able to care for themselves. But year after year over the past decade the state health department has failed to do annual inspections for a majority of them.

Another audit of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Regulatory Services has found that the department has failed to fix many of the problems highlighted in at least three previous audits dating back at least to 2004.

The audit shows that in fiscal year 2012, the Office of Health Care Quality failed to perform inspections of 757 of the 1,364 licensed assisted living facilities in Maryland, or roughly 55% of such facilities within the state. Additionally the audit showed that roughly three-fourths of the 197 facilities for the developmentally disabled within the state were not inspected.

The inspections are required by state law and could result in consequences as serious as license revocation if institutions fail them.

“First of all it’s outrageous,” said Del. Guy Guzzone, House chair of the legislature’s Joint Audit Committee. “These are our most vulnerable citizens.”

“Clearly these audit findings are something to be taken seriously,” Patrick Dooley, assistant secretary of regulatory affairs said. “We do take it seriously, and we’re putting measures in place so we can do a better job.”

Annual requirement, staffing shortage result in shortfall

The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene may ask for less stringent inspection requirements — it is currently studying the issue, Dooley said. State law requires inspections every year, but federal law only requires them every three years.

The Office of Health Care Quality isn’t able to meet the inspection requirement because of staffing shortages, it wrote in its response to the audit. Since at least 2005, the office has not had enough staff to carry out inspections, according to a collation of the Annual Report and Staffing Analysis in the Analysis of the FY2015 Maryland Executive Budget. Starting in 2005, the agency was 55 employees short of what it would need to complete all inspections. By 2013, this shortage had risen to a high of 107. However, the health care quality office now estimates that for fiscal year 2014, the shortage will have fallen to 68.

New surveyor positions for the units that carry out the inspections have been approved in the FY2015 budget, according to the department’s response to the audit. But more steps may need to be taken to address the problem.

Chronic vacancies, not enough positions

An analysis of the FY2015 Maryland Executive Budget attributes these staffing shortages to a “combination of an increased workload, a structural deficiency in positions allotted for survey and inspection activities, and chronic vacancies among surveyor positions.”

“I think they are budget related,” agreed Guzzone, who also chairs an Appropriations subcommittee. “They are hiring related. It’s management related.”

“I don’t think it’s a simple single answer, and that’s part of the reason it doesn’t get fixed.”

New streamlined inspections proposed

In order to deal with the perpetual shortage, the department is considering creating a more targeted survey system, one in which inspections are streamlined for providers with positive inspection histories.

“For example, if there are currently 60 things they are looking at in a normal survey, if there is a provider that has a good track record, maybe they would only look at the top 20 really critical things,” Dooley said. “And if something pops up in those 20, then that would immediately trigger a more thorough investigation. And this wouldn’t preclude OHCQ going out there and following up on any sort of complaint. It would just mean based on the track record of an individual provider, you would cater the approach to really ensure the health and safety of the individuals in that provider service.”

Examining the need for annual inspections

Additionally, the department is examining whether the state might benefit from mirroring federal requirements of inspecting every three years instead of annually.

So far, the evidence suggests that there is no reason state requirements should be more stringent than federal, Dooley said. Changing to this less frequent, more targeted approach would allow more facilities to be inspected despite the staffing shortage.

“We’re doing everything we can to try and go into as many facilities as we can and do a better job because at the end of the day it’s really about protecting these individuals in these facilities,” Dooley said.

– See more at:

By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

Rascovar Column: Election Politics Trumped Budget Realities


The $77 million in budget cuts approved last week by the Maryland Board of Public Works mark the first recognition there’s a price to be paid for placing election-year politics ahead of fiscal realities. It won’t be the last spending pullback, either.

Maryland has a serious, ongoing imbalance between its high spending habits and its lower than expected revenue receipts. Everyone knew this was coming.

Winter’s frigid blow

Much of it is a result of the severe cold weather over the past winter, which devastated sectors of the economy, drove up heating and electric costs and put a severe crimp in job creation.

Yet early this year Gov. Martin O’Malley, with the support of Democratic legislators, introduced a budget for the current fiscal year that was wildly out of sync with prevailing economic conditions.

The larger problem, which O’Malley chose not to confront head-on, is that Maryland’s spending isn’t affordable without more rounds of tax increases — or sizable reductions in agency budgets.

The $77 million in cuts approved last week amounts to a small down payment on what is likely to come later.

Economy stalled

Maryland’s economy remains stalled, as Comptroller Peter Franchot underlined at last week’s Board of Public Works meeting in the State House.

Wage growth is near-zero. Sales tax growth is about one-fifth of what it should be in a recovery. Withholding taxes are about two-fifths of the norm for a recovery.

Making matters worse was O’Malley’s failure to use the Great Recession to assess government services and identify cost efficiencies on a grand scale.

Instead, O’Malley simply slowed state government’s rate of growth during hard times. He papered over the need to downsize, shift or reinvent the way non-essential services are delivered.

Troubling imbalance

At the end of the 2014 General Assembly session in early April, legislative analysts predicted Maryland’s spending would exceed incoming revenue by $236 million for the fiscal year that started July 1.

Ominously, those analysts noted O’Malley’s budget anticipated a whopping 5.2 percent economic growth in this fiscal year and general fund revenue growth of 4.6 percent.

While recent national economic reports for June indicate a stronger recovery in the months ahead, it is doubtful Maryland can reach its rosy revenue projections for this fiscal year.

Expect more spending reductions this winter.

More spending cuts to come

The key question is whether O’Malley confronts that issue or passes the buck to his likely successor, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

Even before Maryland’s revenue projections turned south, legislative analysts had warned Maryland faces a growing cash shortage that could reach $404 million in the next fiscal year.

It would take an imposing 7.1 percent surge in state tax revenue to wipe out that structural imbalance — or a major retrenchment in state spending, which is highly unlikely.

Growing cash shortage?

Given the discouraging outlook that prompted last week’s budget cuts, next fiscal year’s projected cash shortage of $404 million could grow by leaps and bounds.

O’Malley, though, will continue to “spin” this story in a politically positive way.

Other states — New York New Jersey, Pennsylvania and North Carolina – he notes, are in far worse shape (though we don’t have a handle on how bad the situation really is in Maryland — and won’t till September at the earliest).

O’Malley’s concerns

The governor wants to put a shine on his Maryland legacy as he moves toward a presidential campaign. He also wants to keep Maryland’s budget woes on the back burner until Brown is safely elected governor in November.

Republican Larry Hogan Jr. will try to convince voters “the sky is falling.” But the worst news from last winter’s deep freeze is over and the national economy is showing encouraging signs of finally springing back to life.

That is good news for Brown in the short term.

But come December and January, Governor-elect Brown could be faced with an ugly reality — a far deeper state deficit, painful and immediate spending cuts and a budget for the following fiscal year that can’t deliver on his expensive campaign promises.

By Barry Rascovar

Over 90,000 voted early in Maryland, Surpassing Past Elections


With two more days left to go, over 90,000 people have voted early for next Tuesday’s primary, surpassing the numbers who cast their ballots early in the 2010 and 2012 primaries.
The legislature added two more days to the early voting period this year. Typically the last day of early voting has produced a spike in balloting. This year’s early voting will last eight days, until Thursday at 8 p.m. In previous years, it has only lasted six days.

As of 8 p.m. Tuesday, 90,223 people had voted. This included 67,043 Democrats (74% of those voting so far) and 21,811 Republicans (24%), with only 1,369 unaffiliated and minor party members voting (1.5%).

Of those eligible to vote in the primary, Democrats make up 60% and Republicans comprise 28%. The unaffiliated and other party members can only vote in counties electing school board members in nonpartisan races.

So far, only 3.27% of 2 million eligible Democrats have voted, and only 2.3% of 950,000 eligible Republicans.

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