E-ZPass System Under Attack in Annapolis

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Excessive penalties and poor customer service at the E-ZPass electronic toll collection system have put some Marylanders on the path to “toll bankruptcy,” Sen. Roger Manno told the Senate Finance Committee last week.

“Folks [are] exasperated because they’ve been caught in a system that is not working,” Manno said.

Broad enforcement powers enacted in 2013 to address toll violations have led to wage attachments, financial hardship and non-renewal of vehicle registrations at MVA, witnesses testified.

Sen. Roger Manno

Sen. Roger Manno

“The penalty structure that we set several years ago in the General Assembly was not intended to be punitive,” Manno said. “It was not intended to strip people of their rights and their assets.”

But the head of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which runs the toll facilities, told the senators that only a tiny percentage of drivers have been affected.

“I don’t want to minimize the pain that certain customers have gone through, but running the numbers only .001% wound up in a circumstance” like this, said Kevin Reigrut, MDTA’s new executive director. He said 99.3% of Maryland toll customers are paying their tolls without incident.

“MDTA has no intention of wanting to be in the bill collection business,” Reigrut said. He said the 2013 law gave MDTA the power to address extraordinary circumstances — but the agency has to hear about them.

In the past two years, the state collected $223 million in toll fines.

 

Biggest problems at ICC

Almost all the citizens who testified for the bill had problems with the InterCounty Connector, Route 200, the state’s all-electronic video toll road connecting Gaithersburg and Laurel. The ICC uses video snapshots of license plates to bill commuters who don’t subscribe to E-ZPass or when subscribers’ transponders fail to register at any of eight tolling gantries along the route.

Manno’s office has been inundated with pleas to help settle minor toll violations that snowballed into “tens of thousands of dollars” in penalties – after citizens failed get a resolution from E-Z Pass or MDTA. Manno’s District 19 in Montgomery County includes part of the ICC.

“The myriad of problems that they encountered with MDTA steered them toward a path of accruing civil penalties and exorbitant debt: late bill notices in the mail, lost checks, and inconsistent and confusing customer service,” said Manno in written testimony.

The 2013 law gave MDTA the power to block registrations renewals and refer past due accounts to the state’s Central Collection Unit.

A $50 fine kicks in for each violation not paid after 45 days. After an additional 45 days the debt is transferred to CCU where a 17% fee is tacked on.

Manno is sponsoring a bill, SB139, co-sponsored by most of the Montgomery County’s Democratic senators and two Republicans, to reduce the $50 fine per violation to 25% of the original toll — and prohibit MDTA from referring delinquent accounts to CCU.

“If it’s a two-dollar toll the penalty would be 50 cents,” Manno said.

Of the 5.1 million violations in 2016, 4.7 million occurred on the ICC, according to a legislative analysis.

Motorists testify on ‘toll hell’

Manno told committee members that technical problems with transponders and credit card processing mistakes started motorists on a path to “toll hell.” Often motorists were unaware of any problems while they continued to accrue additional tolls and penalties.

After an expired credit card prevented replenishment of her E-ZPass account, Deborah Liverpool of Silver Spring said 17 tolls of less than $3 each swelled to almost $1,000 in fines in one month.

She said penalties had already accrued before she was able to provide new credit card information.

Stephanie Grogoza of Rockville said her elderly parents received a collection notice of $300 for less than $9 in tolls incurred on the ICC. Grogoza said her parents, one retired Navy and the other a bank auditor, never received the initial bill.

“If they got a bill they would have paid it,” she said. “They play by the rules.”

John McNamara, a retired Foreign Service officer from Derwood, said he was billed twice for the same trip on the ICC, once on his E-ZPass account and later with a video toll he received by mail. He said E-ZPass refused to accept proof of the mistake by email. He was told he had to send a fax or visit a service center.

In written testimony, the Maryland Motor Truck Association said a member’s registration renewal was blocked due to $23,000 in tolls and fines that had accumulated since 2008.

Notices were sent to the wrong mailing address even though MVA records were correct.

“MDTA mailed these notices of tolls due to an address this company has not occupied for many years,” said Louis Campion of the truck association. “He is not a toll avoider.  His E-ZPass account has never been negative and last year [he] paid $50,000 in tolls.”

Jen Diamond, of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, a group that advocates for low income Marylanders said the 2013 law was a “classic case of unintended consequences” and a “draconian approach to funding Maryland’s infrastructure.”

“We’ve heard horror stories of clients forced to file for bankruptcy in order to address a few unpaid E-ZPass tolls,” Diamond said.

Four notices sent

MDTA chief Reigrut said that no fewer than four notifications are sent to the vehicle owner before the violations are sent to CCU

“For the 99.3% of our customers who are paying as expected, we have an obligation to ensure that we are able to collect the tolls that are due,” Reigrut said.

He said his agency has the power to recall accounts from CCU only if a mistake was made by MDTA or E-ZPass

“This is a punitive, if not predatory, collections process by a government against its people,” Manno said in an interview Monday. “Tell me where else in commerce in the real world where a penalty scheme like this exists.”

“There are 340,000 Marylanders whose accounts have been forwarded to CCU,” Manno said. “That’s one in every 18 Marylanders in collection at CCU for toll violations.”

Toll bonds could see downgrade

All MDTA toll-backed revenue bonds are subject to trust agreements that require revenues be maintained at certain levels. Historically, Maryland has enjoyed stellar bond ratings because MDTA’s board has the authority to set toll rates without  legislative interference.

“The bill necessitates a change to the trust agreement with MDTA’s bondholders and/or prompts a reduction in MDTA’s bond ratings,” according to the fiscal note.

“Bills like SB139 could be problematic for our Trust Agreement,” said Cheryl Sparks, communications director for MDTA. “It could compromise our statutory independence and have a negative effect on the MDTA credit worthiness and lead to higher bond/loan rates.”

In 2015 and 2016 the state collected $91 million and $132 million respectively in toll fines.

Collections unit wants to place liens

While Manno wants to take accounts away from CCU, the state government collection agency now wants the power to file property liens as proposed in HB104, a Department of Budget and Management bill aimed at quicker collections.

CCU Director Anthony Fuegett said the agency’s primary tool of wage garnishments was time consuming, taking up to three years.

“We don’t garnish enough people,” Fuegett told the House Appropriations Committee Jan. 31, referring to findings in two years of legislative audits.

Jesse Lawyer, deputy director of CCU told the committee that E-ZPass account “are a large part of our portfolio.To date we’ve brought on 1.9 million accounts.”  Each represents a single violation.

by Dan Menefee

Annapolis: Third Effort for the Right to Die Legislation

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After two years of dead ends, Maryland lawmakers have again introduced measures to give terminally ill Marylanders the right to die using doctor prescribed medications.

The nation’s oldest end-of-life advocacy group, Compassion & Choices, brought nearly 200 supporters to Annapolis on Wednesday to urge lawmakers to pass the “Richard E. Israel and Roger ‘Pip’ Moyer End of Life Options Act.”

“As a physician I’ve always seen my vocation as an obligation to work with my patients as honestly and professionally as I can, respecting their sense of autonomy, their values and their priorities in order to use my skills to support them throughout their life,” Del. Terri Hill, M.D., a Columbia Democrat and physician, told the crowd of supporters and fellow lawmakers. “When that support is to cure or mediate, that’s terrific, but my obligation to support them and respect them doesn’t end when I run out of options.”

“Support for this legislation is about completing that contract,” said Hill.

The legislation would allow a terminally ill adult patient, who is not mentally ill, to end his or her life using doctor prescribed medications.

Sponsors mostly Democrats

Del. Terri Hill at the podium explains why she supports end-of-life options, as co-sponsors Del. Shane Pendergrass, right, and Sen. Guy Guzzone look on. MarylandReporter.com photo.

Del. Terri Hill at the podium explains why she supports end-of-life options, as co-sponsors Del. Shane Pendergrass, right, and Sen. Guy Guzzone look on. MarylandReporter.com photo.

The Senate Bill, SB354, sponsored by Sen. Guy Guzzone, D-Howard, has 14 co-sponsors, all Democrats. The House version, HB370, sponsored again by Del. Shane Pendergrass, has 44 co-sponsors, only one a Republican, Delegate Chris West, R-Baltimore County.

This is the third year in a row Pendergrass has sponsored the legislation, and she now chairs the House Health and Government Operations Committee that will hear it again.

A Senate version last year received an unfavorable report from the Judicial Proceedings Committee and was withdrawn by the sponsor, Sen. Ron Young, D-Frederick.

The House committee never took a vote on the measure after the Senate panel killed the bill.

In 2015 House and Senate versions also failed to clear their committees.

Tough issue to talk about

“It’s a tough issue,” Guzzone said. “We have a hard time in this country talking about death and dying and we have to have that conversation, it’s critically important.”

As the rally wound down a Rockville resident spoke passionately in support of the legislation as it will ultimately affect her and her son — and could have made her father’s death more dignified.

“I love life. I love being a parent to my 17-year-old son and working toward becoming a minister, a journey I started several years ago,” said Rockville resident Alexa Fraser, who was diagnosed in December with a rare and aggressive form of cancer.

“I just want the ability to choose a peaceful death with my family around me rather than one filled with pain, or drowning in my bodily fluids, or with my abdomen bursting as happened to a good friend who…died of abdominal cancer,” said Fraser.

She said her father killed himself as a result of dealing with Parkinson’s, but it took three attempts before he succeeded.

“It didn’t go well,” she said. “First he tried pills, then cutting his wrists, neither worked, and finally he used a gun.”

In a “deep twist of fate” Fraser said her son was recently diagnosed with MS.

“If, when he is old and sick…and concludes that using the death with dignity provision is his choice, I would support that for him,” she said.

There is greater optimism this year for passage said Sean Crowley, director of media relations for Compassion & Choices.

“Naturally when you have a new issue legislators are unfamiliar with it and it takes time,” he said. He said recent polling data in Maryland and the nation show significant support for end-of-life choice.

“Sixty-five percent of Maryland voters support medical aid in dying and 60% of physicians either support it or are neutral on the issue,” Crowley said. “It’s a strong majority in both cases.”

Crowley said Gov. Larry Hogan was initially opposed to it but has signaled he is now more open to it.

Opposition gearing up

The Maryland Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the Catholic bishops, is gearing up to oppose the legislation, as are groups representing people with disabilities, part of a coalition called Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide.

“It’s critical that we protect people with intellectual and developmental disabilities from this dangerous legislation,” said Lori Scott, board member of The Arc Maryland. “One of the top reasons people want to end their lives is to avoid being a burden to loved ones. Sadly, people with disabilities often feel they are a burden throughout their entire life.”

“People with intellectual and developmental disabilities are frequently coerced into making decisions that are not in their best interest because they are led to believe it will please a health care provider or family member,” Scott said. “It is impossible to legislate the safeguards needed to protect these individuals from the dangers of physician-assisted suicide.”

by Dan Menefee

Maryland Legislature’s Fiscal Chief Presses for Spending Reform

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Maryland’s legislative leaders are getting pressure to fix their approach to spending not just from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan but from their own top budget expert, Warren Deschenaux.

In his analysis of the $43.5 billion state budget Hogan sent to the legislature last week, Deschenaux told legislators Monday, “This is another kick-the-can-down-the-road budget,” putting off hard choices about future spending.

Deschenaux, who’s been analyzing state spending for 18 years, said, “we’ve settled into a pattern that the world of 2008 is going to reappear,” and revenues are going to grow by 5% a year to match projected spending driven by formulas and mandates.

As he has done for years, Deschenaux pointed to a chart that shows a balanced budget for fiscal 2018, but then a widening gap between spending and revenue in future years.

spending-chart-1-23-2017

Need to fix out-year spending

“I think we need to fix the out-years spending pressure,” Deschenaux said in response to a question from Sen. Andrew Serafini, a Republican budget hawk, who suggested reducing spending growth to 2% or 3%.

“That would go a long way” to change the spending curve, said Deschenaux, who now heads the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services in addition to his longtime role as head of policy analysis.

Deschenaux again highlighted the problem with Maryland’s continuing structural deficits. He did the same thing in November when he told the Spending Affordability Committee that they needed to “get real” about matching spending to revenue growth.

Nerds can’t do it

“It’s not up to the nerds to do this,” he said. “It’s up to the political leadership.”

Gov. Hogan has proposed changing the spending mandates that control what he can do with 83% of the general funds raised from Maryland taxpayers.

“The measure [Hogan] proposed is fundamentally weak,” only dealing with 4% of the budget, Deschenaux said. “A more vigorous and comprehensive approach is called for.”

In rolling out his spending plan last week, Hogan emphasized that he was actually spending less of the general fund budget — about $17 billion — while curing a deficit, funding all the mandates, and cutting few programs.

“The governor didn’t do bad,” Deschenaux said. “But he did not alter the fundamental structural relationships.”

Hogan balanced the budget by taking $170 million of the rainy day fund, which he had built up in this year’s budget in case revenue dipped, which eventually did occur.

Potential problems

In the fiscal briefing report prepared by a dozen DLS staff members, they identified 11 “potential legislative issues” that needed to be resolved.

They are especially concerned with actions that the new Trump administration may take. The Hogan budget “leaves the state vulnerable to expected federal cost containment actions, including hiring freezes, spending reductions and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.”

Changes in the ACA could deeply affect the Medicaid health insurance program, which currently covers 1.4 million Marylanders.

“We think it’s underfunded,” Deschenaux said of Medicaid. The expansion of coverage to 312,000 people under Obamacare (the ACA) is 90% subsidized by the federal government — and much of that might disappear — costing an additional $1.2 billion.

“The state is going to face some pretty hard choices,” said Medicaid analyst Simon Powell.

Analysts also believe that there is not enough money in the Transportation Trust Fund to fund operating costs, local road aid and all the road projects Hogan has promised.

Cut in payment for PG hospital

House Speaker Michael Busch was particularly upset that a $56 million payment for building a new Prince George’s County medical center was cut from the capital budget. The Hogan administration believes that the payment can be put off because of delays in construction of the new regional hospital.

“That’s an awful big can to kick down the road,” Busch said.

By Len Lazarick

Annapolis Bills would Boost Public Financing of Campaigns for Governor, Legislature

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Public financing of Maryland gubernatorial elections could get help from the general fund in years the Fair Campaign Financing Fund falls short, said Del. Eric Luedtke, D-Montgomery.

Prince George’s Del. Jimmy Tarlau plans to introduce legislation creating public financing for legislative races.

Eric Luedtke, D Montgomery

Eric Luedtke, D Montgomery

Luedtke is sponsoring a bill, HB72, that would require the State Board of Elections to assess the sufficiency of the fund the year before an election — to make sure it can fully finance bids for two candidates in the primaries and one in the general election.

If passed the law would allow the campaign fund to borrow from the general fund in the event of a shortfall and pay it back through the normal revenue stream of fines, tax form check offs, penalties and online contributions — revenue streams that were restored in a bill Luedtke sponsored in 2015 with strong bipartisan support.

Hogan, Mizeur used fund in 2014

The fund paid out $3.6 million in public funds for the gubernatorial bids of Heather Mizeur and Larry Hogan in 2014, said Jared DeMarinis, director of candidacy and campaign finance with Maryland State Board of Elections.

Republican Larry Hogan was the first to successfully run for governor using public financing. In last year’s budget, Hogan proposed replenishing the campaign finance fund with taxpayer dollars.

According to a legislative budget analysis (page 13), Hogan wanted to put $1.8 million from the general fund into the campaign finance fund that had previously been filled only with voluntary contributions from an income tax check-off. That check-off was repealed in 2010, and $1 million was taken out of the campaign fund for other uses. The voluntary check-off was restored two years ago.

The legislature cut $790,000 from Hogan’s proposed funding, and replenished the campaign fund with $1 million to replace the money from the fund that had been taken for other purposes.

Luedtke said there should be a mechanism to ensure public financing is available in 2018.

Mandated appropriation

Luedtke’s bill would require the governor to provide an appropriation in the year before an election in the event of a shortfall.

The fund was established in 1974 and was only used once before Hogan and Mizeur tapped the fund — by Republican Del. Ellen Sauerbrey in 1994, when she lost the race for governor to Prince George’s County Executive Parris Glendening by only 6,000 votes, a result the GOP contested in the courts.

Public funding of legislative races

Del. Jimmy Tarlau, D-Prince George, said he also plans to introduce a bill to establish public financing for legislative races because “We have to do something about the role of big money in elections.”

In a newsletter Sunday, Tarlau told constituents: “The bill would give candidates incentives to stay away from big contributors. Under this bill, if a candidate agrees not to take contributions above $250 and has raised money from more than 300 different contributors, the state will match 70% of the contributions up to $50,000.”

Howard County voters approved public financing for local races in November, but the County Council must pass legislation to implement the program. Montgomery County already has a public financing for local races which will be used for the first time in the 2018 election.

By Dan Menefee

Op-Ed: Maryland’s Demeaning ‘Begathon’ Continues by Barry Rascovar

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Here we go again. In a few weeks, school superintendents will trek, en masse, to the second floor of the Maryland State House to grovel before the Board of Public Works for additional school construction funds.

It is a demeaning “begathon” that long ago outlived its usefulness and turned into a political circus allowing the governor and comptroller to praise and reward their friends in the counties and humiliate their enemies.

This time, the target for Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and Comptroller Peter Franchot is Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz – a man who has signaled a desire to run for statewide office next year.

Anything Hogan and Franchot can do to undercut Kamenetz’ credibility helps their reelection chances.

That explains the consistent animosity by this tag-team tandem toward Kamenetz’ requests.

Comptroller’s crusade

Franchot has conducted a consistent crusade to force the county to install portable, temporary air-conditioners in all schools lacking central cooling units.

Former Baltimore County executives bear the brunt of the blame for leaving too many school kids in overheated classrooms during the early fall and early summer.

Kamenetz, on the other hand, has been making up for lost time with a $1.3 billion program to get students into air-conditioned schools. But his expensive plan is phased in due to fiscal constraints.

Franchot has persisted in pummeling Baltimore County’s leader for not following his insistence that Kamenetz buy window A/C units.

Each has a point: Kids should not swelter on extremely hot days, yet it makes little sense to spend millions for a short-term fix when a long-term fix is in the works.

The ideal solution is for the state to forward-fund the money Baltimore County needs to finish the job ASAP through a combination of costly upgrades and replacement buildings.

Embarrass Kamenetz

However, neither Franchot nor Hogan has lifted a finger to support the county’s efforts. They could have designated a pot of school construction money for jurisdictions needing window-unit air-conditioners. Instead, they remained silent.

Their goal is to publicly embarrass Kamenetz. Thus, the dynamic duo voted last May to punish Baltimore County (and its school kids) by withholding $10 million in state funds for county school construction – thus delaying portions of the work on air-conditioning classrooms.

The two also withheld $5 million in badly needed construction dollars from Baltimore City, which also is in the process of getting all schools air-conditioned.

They demanded that the two jurisdictions air-condition all classrooms in a matter of months – an impossibility for any number of legal and practical reasons.

The two Annapolis politicos apparently think the city and county can simply wave a wand and, voila! they’ll reverse a situation that’s been festering for two decades.

The reality is that it will take a number of years – and billions – to correct this situation.

Political favoritism

When the “begathon” parade shamelessly takes place on Jan. 25, it is likely Hogan in particular will look kindly upon Baltimore City’s requests, including the withheld $5 million, as a goodwill gesture toward the city’s new mayor, Catherine Pugh.

He and Franchot will save their contempt for Baltimore County School Superintendent Dallas Dance and, indirectly, Kamenetz. There could well be “plants” in the room to demonstrate Hogan and Franchot are supported by county residents in their harsh criticisms.

It’s all part of the set-piece melodrama the “begathon” has become.

In most cases, conservative, Republican-leaning counties will be treated with kid-gloves by the Republican governor while Democratic strongholds get a cold reception.

It’s quite a distasteful scene, one that is as unbecoming for the governor and comptroller as it is for the school chiefs forced to grovel before them.

Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com.

Republican Maryland Losses did not Dampen Celebration of Trump’s Win

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Maryland Republicans were losing the U.S. Senate race by a wide margin, losing hard fought races for Congress, and yet Tuesday night in a ballroom at the BWI Marriott, they were celebrating and looking ahead to the 2018 election with glee.

And it was only 10:30 p.m., over four hours away from Donald Trump’s victory speech in New York, yet they were cheering every return.Rep. Andy Harris, who will remain the only Republican in Maryland’s 10-man congressional delegation, was the last candidate to take the stage, but he was pumped about Trump trends and the prospects for Maryland Republicans in coming years.

“What a night! They just called Ohio for Donald Trump,” Harris shouted. “He’s going to be the next president of the United States.”

Del. Kathy Szeliga thanks supporters of her Senate race.

Del. Kathy Szeliga thanks supporters of her Senate race

He praised the achievement of Del. Kathy Szeliga, his former aide and campaign manager, losing to Democrat Chris Van Hollen 60% to 36% in the race to replace Barbara Mikulski in the U.S. Senate.

“Can you imagine getting outspent 10 to 1 to running against the special interests … carrying on the Larry Hogan tradition of running against the special interests,” Harris said.

He said Van Hollen “better treasure every one of those six years he has down there because he’s not going back after that because he’s exactly what’s wrong with Washington.”

“We know there’s going to be lawsuit after lawsuit when Donald Trump looks like he’s the winner tonight,” Harris said.

“We know we’ve had the best candidates across the state,” the congressman went on.

Starting the 2018 campaign

“Tomorrow morning, with Donald Trump as president, we start the 2018 campaign election where we elect Larry Hogan as the next governor of the state of Maryland, where we elect enough delegates and senators” that they can sustain Hogan’s veto of a Democratic redistricting map, “where we elect Mark Plaster to the 3rd congressional district, where we retire Dutch Ruppersberger, where we retire John Delaney, and we bring Maryland back into the red column.” Democrats Ruppersberger and Delaney represent the 3rd and 6th congressional districts, beating challenges from Del. Pat McDonough and Amie Hoeber.

Harris recalled the 1980 presidential race where Ronald Reagan was considered dangerous, like Donald Trump, but went on to become “one of the best presidents of the modern era.” He said voters were choosing Trump “over business as usual.”

“When we wake up tomorrow morning, [it will be] 730 days till the next election, when we take back Maryland for the Republicans.”

Plaster, a doctor who ran against Rep. John Sarbanes, D-3rd, for more than a year but only got 34% of the vote, promised the Republican crowd. “I’m coming back.”

“Next time, the most popular governor in the United States is going to be at the top of the ticket,” Plaster said. “We’re going to win the 3rd District. You can take it to the bank.”

Szeliga did not mention her plans, saying only, “We came up a little short this time.”

Maryland Democratic Party Chair Bruce Poole dismissed the GOP rhetoric. “It will be a sign if they win by a large margin, it shows the idea that Maryland is not trending to a purple state,” Poole said in a phone interview with MarylandReporter.com. “It means the tea leaves after 2014 are not true.”

Harris made no mention of Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, whose second term is up in 2018. In a brief interview earlier on Tuesday as he toured polling places around the state with Van Hollen, Cardin deflected rumors that he might resign or retire.Cardin said voters deserved at least a brief rest before the next campaign begins. But he suggested that anyone interested in his future plans should take a look at his schedule of appearances and examine his campaign fundraising reports.

Cardin typically has lots of events on his calendar, and he has raised $477,000 since the beginning of 2015, with $725,000 cash on hand.

By Len Lazarick

State Revenue Estimates Down $783 Million Over Next Two Years, Biggest Write-Down Since 2010

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Maryland tax revenues are expected to be down $365 million this fiscal year and another $418 million in fiscal 2018, a $783 million drop in what the state can spend, eating up all this year’s projected budget surplus.

The estimate revision is the largest projected write-down since 2010, when the state was in the midst of recession recovery and the panel was off by 5%.

“These are significant reductions in our estimates, and reflect the volatility that Maryland’s economy continues to experience,” Comptroller Peter Franchot said Wednesday in Annapolis as he chaired the Board of Revenue Estimates. The board makes the official projections that both the governor and legislature must follow.

“Today’s write-down reflects the stagnant growth in our economy, which is reflected by reduced revenue generated from individual income taxes, corporate income taxes and sales and use taxes.”

Estimates for this calendar year shows “the average wage in Maryland is projected to increase by only 2.1%,” Franchot said. “These revenue figures show many Maryland workers are bringing home the same or less pay as their living costs are rising, leaving them with less disposable income to spend.”

Big drop in income taxes

Much of lowered projections came from a $306 million reduction in estimated personal income tax revenues.

Significant growth in the number of low-wage positions had a large impact on pulling down the numbers, said Andrew Schaufele, director of the Bureau of Revenue Estimates.

“We are creating jobs that are highly concentrated in industries that pay below state average,” Schaufele said, rather than replacing the high salaried jobs lost in the recession.

Revenue estimates for the current fiscal 2017 follow a $253 million shortfall in projections from the previous fiscal year, which ended June 30.

The board’s new projections assume 2.7% growth in revenues over the last fiscal year, and project 3.4% more income for the 2018 fiscal year, which begins in July.

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-9-56-28-am

Progressives want more help for low wage earners

Benjamin Orr, executive director for the progressive Maryland Center on Economic Policy, said the state needs to do more for those at the lower end of the income scale.

“Unless the state makes investments in things that will grow our economy – like improving our schools, roads, and transit networks – continuing to expect state revenues to grow 3 or 4 percent a year may be too optimistic.

“Further, policies like expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, ensuring access to paid sick days, and increasing the minimum wage will help hard-working Marylanders make ends meet and put more money in their pockets to spend at local businesses, boosting the economy.”

Patrick Moran, President, AFSCME Maryland Council 3, the largest state employee union, took up the progressive refrain.

“Income for working class families, the average Joe and average JoAnn, is not going up nearly as much as projected,” Moran said in a statement. “That is the reason projected state revenue income is down, not because of legislative action. Governor Hogan should invest in helping our working class families.”

Hogan administration, Franchot urge restraint

David Brinkley, Gov. Larry Hogan’s budget secretary who sits on the revenue board, said the governor’s commitment to fiscal responsibility is prudent, but said spending-mandate relief is necessary in the upcoming General Assembly session.

In a statement, Amelia Chasse, Hogan’s new deputy communications chief, said: “Today’s news should serve as a stark reminder that our state will continue to experience these types of periodic budget problems as long as the Majority [Democratic] Leadership refuses to adopt meaningful spending reforms.”

“Let’s be clear – Maryland doesn’t have a revenue problem, certain members of the General Assembly have a spending problem,” Chasse said. “From day one, Governor Hogan has worked to rein in spending and enact fiscally responsible measures to put Maryland on a secure path, and to this day his efforts have been fought tooth and nail at every turn.”

In a persistent refrain that has annoyed fellow Democrats for years, Franchot said policymakers must exercise restraint in order to avoid imposing additional burdens on Marylanders who are already struggling economically.

“The budgets, spending bills and fiscal policies enacted in this town have a real impact on people’s financial well-being,” he said.

Hogan has refused to release extra funds Democrats fenced off for education and other programs, noting the uncertainty of the economy. The latest revenue figures reinforce his stance, while Democrats plan to blame him for sluggish economic growth despite his “we’re open for business” slogan.

By Len Lazarick

Vickie Connor of Capital News Service contributed to this report.

Endorsements, Billboard Attacks stir U.S. Senate Race

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The race to replace Barbara Mikulski in the U.S. Senate had dueling endorsements from major business and education groups Thursday.

The fairly low-key campaign is also about to get a little edgier with low-budget roving billboards from an independent group tying Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Democratic frontrunner, to paying off Iranian mullahs and welcoming Syrian terrorists.

The National Federation of Independent Business, which represents 4,000 small businesses, endorsed Republican Kathy Szeliga, a Baltimore County delegate whom they see as one of their own because she has run the office side of her family’s construction business.

The Maryland State Education Association, representing 72,000 public school educators who have off on election day, announced that Van Hollen has the backing of the National Education Association’s political action arm.

The disparity in the size of the endorsing organizations is representative of the campaign rock climb for Szeliga, who is outspent and outpolled by Van Hollen.

A poll released this week by Opinion Works of Annapolis, a well-known pollster, showed Van Hollen trouncing Szeliga 55% to 26%.

“It’s exactly where Hogan was” two years ago before his upset victory over Democrat Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in the race for governor, Szeliga  “He faced the same challenge.”

Most pre-election polls in 2014 showed Hogan trailing Brown, but by a much smaller percentage than Szeliga is behind Van Hollen.

Outspent in primary

“Why would people know who I am?” Szeliga told MarylandReporter.com. “I spent half a million in the primary and [Van Hollen] spent $8 million.”

NFIB’s state director Mike O’Halloran pointed out that Van Hollen has a zero rating from the group, and has “never signed the front of a paycheck.” He said Szeliga knows firsthand the issues small business face and has made “tireless efforts” for small business during her six years in the House of Delegates, three as the minority whip.

Told of Van Hollen’s NEA endorsement, Szeliga feigned surprise. “I’m shocked,” she said. “They didn’t interview me” and “I have a degree in education,” teaching special education briefly in Baltimore City 20 years ago before she left to help run the family business.

MSEA President Betty Weller said Van Hollen is “the champion you want leading the fight on the toughest and most important issues. Whether it was passing Maryland’s nationally-recognized school funding formula as a state senator or moving the landmark Every Student Succeeds Act through a gridlocked Congress, Chris has always gotten big victories for working families at every stage of his public service.”

UPDATED 9/9/2016, 8 a.m. MSEA Assistant Executive Director Adam Mendelson said, “We did invite [Del. Szeliga] to participate in our endorsement process, but she did not complete a questionnaire, which is a prerequisite to being interviewed. We were happy to have interviewed candidates from both parties for the Senate race and would have been happy to interview Del. Szeliga had she not declined to participate.”mullahs-laughing-visible
The new mobile billboards will start showing up at busy intersections next week paid for by Moving Maryland Forward, a group independent of the Szeliga campaign, according to Kelley Rogers of the Strategic Campaign Group of Annapolis.Independent group against Van Hollen

The billboards are financed by “people concerned about [Van Hollen’s] voting record,” Rogers said. Their names will be disclosed next month in a filing with the Federal Election Commission.

“We are in a very aggressive stage of fundraising,” Rogers said. The billboards will be followed by radio ads, some direct mail, and “perhaps some TV,” depending on the success of the fundraising.

The billboards mock Van Hollen’s vote in favor of the treaty with Iran to stop it from developing nuclear weapons in exchange for a release of billions in frozen financial assets in the United States.

The other side of the billboard criticizes Van Hollen’s votes to admit more Syrian refugees.

easy-pass-for-syrian-terrorists

Van Hollen in turn links Szeliga with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. On Monday, he told a Howard County Democratic Party picnic that David Bossie, the head of Citizens United, which won a Supreme Court decision overturning restrictions on corporate campaign spending is “a big supporter of my opponent … He just became deputy campaign manager in the Trump campaign.”

“These guys are dirty tricksters,” Van Hollen said.

By Len Lazarick

Education: School Funding Commission Members Named, First Meeting Set

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All but two of the 26 members on the new commission on school funding have now been named, and it will hold its first meeting Sept. 29.

Former University System Chancellor Brit Kirwan was named chair last month in an unusual joint appointment by the governor, Senate president and House speaker.

Two bills, HB999/SB905, set up the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education to review all the hotly contested formulas on school funding, the biggest chunk of state aid that goes to the counties, $6.3 billion a year.

The commission recommendations due in December 2017 will potentially kick off contentious debates in the election-year legislative session in 2018 as representatives fight for formulas that help their local schools.

Numerous stakeholder groups were allowed to choose their own representatives to the commission. Besides the chair, the legislature’s presiding officers got to name 10 of its 26 members, and the governor only got to name two, in addition to his budget secretary, who serves ex officio.

Here are the commission members with links to their bios when available.

Chair William ‘Brit” Kirwan

The four senators named by Senate President Mike Miller are:

Senator Nancy King, D-Montgomery, chair of the education budget subcommittee;

Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery, vice chair, Budget & Taxation Committee;

Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, vice chair, Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee (EHE);

Sen. Steve Waugh, R-St. Mary’s, member, EHE, and the only Republican legislator on the commission;

The four delegates named by House Speaker Michael Busch are:

Del. Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County, speaker pro-tem and chair, education appropriations subcommittee;

Del. Anne Kaiser, D-Montgomery, House majority leader and chair of the education subcommittee, House Ways & Means;

Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, chair, House Appropriations Committee;

Del. Alonzo Washington, D-Prince George’s, member, House Ways & Means;

Serving ex officio on the commission are:

Secretary of Budget and Management David Brinkley;

University System Chancellor Robert Caret;

State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon.

Other members and their affiliations where known:

Donna Brightman, president, Washington County Board of Education (representing Maryland Association of Boards of Education);

Chester Finn, member, Maryland State Board of Education;

Stephen Guthrie, superintendent of Carroll County Public Schools (representing Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland);

David Helfman, executive director, Maryland State Education Association (MSEA);

Kalman Hettleman, former member of Baltimore school board and Maryland Human Resources Secretary;

Elizabeth Ysla Leight, parent of student and president, Maryland PTA;

Leslie Pellegrino, chief financial officer, Frederick County Public Schools (representing Association of School Business Officials);

Craig Rice, D, Montgomery County Council member (representing urban county, Maryland Association of County, MACo);

Morgan Showalter, a high school special educator in the Baltimore City Public Schools (representing American Federation of Teachers.)

William Valentine, R, member, Allegany County Board of County Commissioners (MACo rural county);

Margaret Williams, executive director, Maryland Family Network (representing group that advocates for public education, appointed by the state superintendent).