David Nitkin on state politics issues

EhrlichWendy, Ellicott City: The Sun reported that [Gov. Robert L.] Ehrlich [Jr.] had out-fundraised the Democratic rivals. But I was wondering, why wouldn't you add up the totals for the two Democratic candidates? Wouldn't that be a better indication of the fundraising comparison? Isn't the same true for the Senate candidates since there is only one Republican candidate, but there are several Democratic candidates?

Nitkin: Typically, we report on fundraising numbers to show the level of support for individual candidates. We like to examine -- and we think readers need to know -- what types of individuals (lawyers, doctors, developers, etc.) and what industries (banking, insurance) are giving to which candidates. Additionally, fundraising totals for candidates serve as a kind of credibility check on their campaigns. If a candidate is having a hard time raising money, there's a reason why: Potential donors don't believe he or she can win, or his or her campaign organization is not functioning well. Also, because donors don't disclose their party affiliation (Republicans give to Democratic candidates, and vice versa), there's not so much value in adding up donations to all candidates of one party in a race and comparing it to the other party.

Cathy: Do you think that Ehrlich could have gotten more money for the state budget, with less impact on the less fortunate people, by adding 1 cent to the sales tax than by adding new increases in everything else he has, and calling it not raising taxes?

Nitkin: Ehrlich campaigned as an opponent of sales and income tax increases, and has worked hard to maintain the pledge -- meaning that tax increases passed by the Assembly, such as a package that included a 1-cent sales tax increase approved by the House of Delegates in 2004 -- were essentially dead-on-arrival. Ehrlich has raised a variety of other taxes and fees, however, notably higher vehicle registration fees to pay for roads, a $2.50 a month surcharge on sewer bills to pay for treatment plant upgrades and a 57 percent increase in the state portion of the property tax. Democrats have calculated that the governor has increased taxes and fees by a cumulative $3 billion since taking office. While Maryland's 5 percent sales tax is lower than that in some neighboring states, the sales tax is considered regressive -- meaning it hits less wealthy people harder, because they pay a higher percentage of their income to the state.

O'Malley Matthew, Annapolis: In the Jan. 16 Q&A, you said, regarding [Baltimore] Mayor [Martin] O'Malley and the city's troubled school system, O'Malley and [running mate Del. Anthony G.] Brown have very little control over the school systems in their districts.

While that may be more true for Brown (even though it's his responsibility to bring the system's priorities and issues to the General Assembly for review), with O'Malley, that's not really true. How can you say that when he aggressively fought against a state bailout in 2004, the system is in federal contempt for its failure to provide services to special education students, and he appoints members to the board who in turn get approved to buy city land at reduced prices while protecting the mayor politically? At the same time, O'Malley claims to be the hero of the system (even as all middle schools fail proficiency tests). Isn't your response a bit disingenuous?

Nitkin: Unlike in many other places, school districts in Maryland don't have their own taxing authority. School systems are funded through a combination of state and local tax dollars raised through general taxes (property taxes in the case of counties; mainly sales and income taxes by the state). Some county school boards are appointed; others are elected. School board appointees are named by the governor. In Baltimore, school board members are jointly appointed by the governor and the mayor. The school board then hires a CEO. Additionally, more than $3 of every $4 for city schools comes from the state. In exchange for a huge infusion of state money in the 1990s, the city gave up much control over schools.

It is true that O'Malley eschewed state funds to close a huge budget shortfall in 2004, and instead tapped into a city surplus, as a loan. The mayor's true authority over schools is the political power of persuasion. The mayor's Democratic opponent for governor, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, argues that the mayor has not made schools a priority in the city, and that is why they have not performed as well as many would like. I maintain that it is disingenuous for any political leader to claim too much credit, or receive too much blame, for schools -- because of Maryland's structure. Duncan can't receive all the credit for schools in Montgomery (nor can Ehrlich), and O'Malley can't receive all the blame for schools in Baltimore.

Les, Baltimore: Back in the 2002 governor's race, O' Malley was interested in running for governor but bowed out to let [former Lt. Gov.] Kathleen [Kennedy] Townsend run. He only would have served one term as mayor. If he gets elected governor, can we expect him to run for [U.S.] Senate if [Sen.] Barbara [A.] Mikulski decides not to run? If so, why would he bother to run for governor?

Nitkin: Mikulski will have to decide in 2010 whether she will seek re-election. That would also be the same year O'Malley would seek re-election, if he wins the governor's race this year. If he were governor for four years, O'Malley would have almost universal name recognition, and, barring major scandal, would be a front-runner for an open Senate seat if one were available and he wanted it. It would be a tough decision. But there's no way to say now what O'Malley would decide to do under those conditions.

Stuart, Baltimore: When will The Sun stop referring to O'Malley's running mate as African-American? He is actually half Swiss and half Cuban. There is nothing African-American about that.

Nitkin: Historically, blacks came (or were brought) to the Caribbean for the same reason they were brought to the Southern United States -- many came as slaves to work on agricultural plantations. I asked Brown how he referred to himself, racially. He said African-American. That's good enough for me. I think he gets to decide this, not you or The Sun.

Voting woesRick, Columbia: Is vote early, vote often, and vote anywhere the new motto for Maryland? It looks to me as if the Democrats in the House of Delegates are setting us up for election recounts, disputes and challenges, all of which will result in the courts (already out of control) deciding our elections instead of the voters. Voting is the right of every citizen and it is up to lawmakers to protect the integrity of those votes. Without voter confidence, our system of government is in jeopardy. Once again, the Democrats are playing games with the basic building block of our system of government, masking their actions behind a desire to protect certain groups. My question is simple. You are the political expert -- what were they thinking?

Nitkin: You are referring to several bills passed by the General Assembly last year, vetoed by Ehrlich, and reinstated this year. One bill would require certain polling places to be open in each county several days before the primary and general elections. Another makes absentee ballots available on demand (meaning voters no longer need a legally valid explanation such as out-of-country travel or out-of-state university enrollment), and a third eases the requirements for provisional ballots -- which are filled out when a voter arrives at a polling place and finds that his or her name is not on the voting rolls.

Democrats were thinking of doing whatever they could to increase voter turnout in 2006, with an eye toward winning the governor's race. The logic: Democrats still outnumber Republicans 2-1, and any effort to make voting easier -- say, by making sure shift workers have enough time to get to the polls, or senior citizens in nursing homes have an easier time getting ballots -- helps their party. None of these measures on their face erode voter confidence, in my view. We all can agree that we're all better off when more people participate in voting and the democratic process. I sincerely hope there are sufficient safeguards to protect against fraud (that concern led to Ehrlich's vetoes of the bills). I don't see early voting as being a problem. But, having seen an election in Miami-Dade County in Florida overturned in the 1990s in part because of misuse of absentee ballots, I think there is the potential for concern there.

SlotsEditor's note: The next two questions are answered together.
Bryan, Westminster: I just don't get it. Every year slots is defeated. When will House Speaker Michael E. Busch and the rest of the opponents realize that if we don't pass slots, all that potential revenue will go to Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia? We will lose our racing industry without them.

I also want someone to explain to me how slots are any different than the state pushing a Lotto/scratch-off commercial down my throat every day? To me, there is no difference and all the concerns with the slots (addiction, etc.) are the same with the Lotto and scratch-offs. It will be very sad in the near future when we lose current and potential new jobs and income to people going out of state to play slots. Maybe then will the opponents realize what a huge mistake it is not to pass this legislation.

Trudy, Elkridge: What I fail to understand is how can what the people want not matter. The people voted for slots, so what right does Busch have to say we can't have them? But if you put O'Malley in as governor, we will have slots. What a (joke). Ehrlich has done a good job with what he has had to work with. Remember, all our money is going to other states to play slots, thanks to our great Democratic House. Get off the bus and let our governor do his job without trying to tie his hands. And to think, I was always proud to be a Democrat. Not anymore.

Nitkin: This is an area where reasonable people can disagree. Bryan and Trudy offer what, in my view, is the best argument in favor of slot machines: that Marylanders are playing slots out-of-state anyway, and their money should be kept here. It's compelling logic, and an argument that may eventually carry the day, especially after Pennsylvania slot machines start running.

The fact that the state already endorses and promotes a lucrative form of gambling in the form of the lottery is not a persuasive pro-slots argument, in my view. Slot machines are different than scratch-off tickets or daily numbers drawings. Video lottery machines are designed by the best scientific and marketing minds to keep people in their seats in front of flashing lights and the jingling sound of dropping coins, so that they are parted with their money over hours. It's reasonable, in my view, for government to say that some forms of gambling (like a numbers game) should be legalized but other forms should not.

Additionally, I find the argument that slots are needed to save racing to be faulty. Racing is a business like any other, and should survive or fail on its own merits. Why isn't Maryland providing subsidies to the telegraph, buggy whip or -- dare I say it -- newspaper industries? That's what slots at racetracks are: a subsidy to one industry. I find it curious that conservative and pro-business legislators who otherwise want as limited government as possible (and who, for example, oppose the state taxing companies with more than 10,000 workers if they don't pay 8 percent of payroll in health care) in this case favor a massive new government program to assist an aging, albeit historic, industry. Duncan makes a good point that there are many jobs -- in technology and other high-tech sectors -- that would be much more preferable to bring to Maryland than jobs associated with racing or slots.

As for Trudy's point that "people want" slots and the 2002 election was a referendum on slots, I'm not sure I agree. Yes, the slots issue was a major difference between Ehrlich and Townsend. But the deciding factors in the election, most agree, were the unpopularity of the Glendening administration, a perception that Townsend was not up to the job, and a state budget crisis that voters determined could be better handled by Ehrlich. Slots was a secondary issue in the election, and polls continue to show that voters are evenly divided on their merits.

Martin, Mt. Airy: Is Busch feeling any political heat in his home district by opposing slots?

Nitkin: Some, but I don't see him losing. I think Republicans might try to use the slots issue against the speaker, but I predict Busch will win re-election.

Matt, Busch: Who do you think the GOP will pick to run against Busch?

Nitkin: Of course, you mean who will GOP primary voters pick, right? Right now, the only Republican on file with the state Board of Elections for House of Delegates from District 30 is Ron George of Arnold. I don't know him. There's lots of time, though, for more candidates to file.

IssuesChris, Baltimore: Another contentious issue between the General Assembly and the governor is that of air pollution. The governor has countered the popular Healthy Air Act with his own proposal, the Clean Power Rule. The latter doesn't go as far as the Healthy Air Act in reducing pollution and fails to address global warming pollution. Do you see this being a lead issue in Annapolis and/or the race for governor?

Nitkin: Environmental issues are important to Marylanders and don't break down cleanly along party lines (GOP voters in rural areas who are avid hunters and anglers want strong environmental protections, for example). I do see Ehrlich's handling of clean air regulations being a significant issue in the gubernatorial race.

Dan, Catonsville: The big complaint I've heard in the past is once you become a state employee, you have a job for life. Why do we get upset when some political appointee is removed? The idea that a political appointee has a job for life is crazy. When hired, you know that your job is here today and could be gone today. What security do these state employees expect? I, along with others, was hired by the state or an independent agency and we were just this -- appointees, with no security or protection. So the Sun story, Ex-state worker sues Ehrlich administration, is bogus.

Nitkin: Some state employees should have jobs for as long as they want them. If a bus driver or social worker or prison guard is doing his or her job well and meeting all expectations, why would turnover for the sake of turnover be good? Those people are protected by civil service protections, and rightfully so.

No one is getting upset when political appointees, such as cabinet secretaries, their deputies and members of the governor's staff, are replaced after a change in administration. The question facing legislators currently in the aftermath of revelations about how Joseph F. Steffen and other Ehrlich cohorts were operating in state government agencies is whether workers who lost their jobs under the governor were really political appointees or were lower level workers who should be afforded certain protections. The Maryland personnel classification system was changed under former Gov. [Parris N.] Glendening, and there are thousands more workers now who don't have civil service protection than there were in the past.

The legislature is now having a debate about how many, and what type of, workers should receive civil service protection, and -- for workers not protected -- were they fired for political reasons, which courts have said is not allowed. No one is alleging that the governor violated the rights of employees covered by civil service protections.

Hugh, Towson: What are the chances of teacher pension reform passing this year?

Nitkin: Chances are pretty good, since it's an election year, there is a large budget surplus, and O'Malley and Duncan both support it.

Theresa, Columbia: I read in The Sun recently that Ehrlich had appointed a panel to examine elections issues and that the report would be ready by December of '05. Has this report been made available to the public?

Nitkin: The report is out, although I don't know of a full version available online. Here's a link to a story we ran Jan. 11.

Martin, Baltimore: Who will be the state's next attorney general?

Nitkin: Incumbent J. Joseph Curran Jr., who is O'Malley's father-in-law, most recently said he will decide after the General Assembly session whether he intends to seek re-election. If he does, he will be formidable but not unbeatable. He hasn't raised much money, and some people could have questions about the wisdom of an attorney general and a governor (if O'Malley and Curran were the Democratic nominees) being related.

In a primary, Montgomery County State's Attorney Doug Gansler, who has more than $1 million in the bank and unbridled energy, would give Curran a serious fight. If Curran doesn't run, Gansler would likely face Montgomery County Council President Tom Perez, and possibly Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn Ivey and several others. It would be hard to predict the outcome, but Gansler has early advantages. I believe that a Republican candidate -- someone like Frederick County State's Attorney Scott Rolle -- won't be competitive in this race.

BiasMichael, Baltimore: One thread that runs through the reader's questions is the perception of anti-Ehrlich bias. But many of your answers seem to take gratuitous slams at the governor.

Examples: You answer a question about MD4Bush by bringing up Ed Miller and a "disgraced and convicted" federal lobbyist he worked with. (What is the connection to MD4Bush?). You answer a question about Duncan and O'Malley by saying: "Campaign promises are easy -- such as Ehrlich's pledge to bring slots to Maryland."

Does it surprise you that your answers are reinforcing the perception of bias?

Nitkin: I disagree that I take gratuitous slams at the governor. The frequent questions I get about MD4Bush are obvious attempts to try to turn the tables and make it seem like Democrats did something wrong, Joe Steffen, in the online conversation between MD4Bush and NCPAC. I'm not implying here the relative guilt or innocence of MD4Bush (a Democrat) or NCPAC (Steffen). What I am saying is, that is the motive of the questioner -- to make MD4Bush seem just as wrong as Ehrlich's longtime campaign aide who has acknowledged years of political dirty tricks.

Pointing out that bringing slots to Maryland is an unfulfilled campaign promise is not a slam. It's a simple statement of fact. Has he been blocked by the House of Delegates? Yes. Has he figured out a way around the roadblock? No. Just because you say there is a "perception of bias" does not make it so. I've gotten other feedback from people I respect and trust who believe I'm being overly politic in my responses. I think one perceives bias where one is predisposed to see it.

Am I saying I am free of all bias? No. Do I try to be fair, balanced, accurate and analytical -- which means drawing some conclusions and connections based on the best information available? Yes.

Jack, Cumberland: Your Q&A is hilarious. I love how oblivious you are to your own left-leaning bias. Here you have one observation after another pointing to your political leanings, and in each case you either brush it to the side or defend your reporting as balanced.

Perhaps you are as unbiased as you claim, but clearly your readers are perceiving your paper as much less so. Why not just admit that you are biased and move forward or make a real effort to not be.

Nitkin: I'm glad you enjoy the Q&A. It's supposed to be entertaining. Brush aside observations? I answer them. What's the alternative? Collapsing in a quivering heap in front of the keyboard, muttering "You're right! I never realized the error of my ways!"?

What I think is that here I have many questions that are trying to bait or trap me into a certain response. I probably step into the traps every now and then. I don't think it's clear at all that "readers are perceiving" the paper to be biased. Some on the right of the political spectrum take great pleasure in demonizing the print media. We also get criticism from the left. Every day, we work hard to do the best we can.

Steve, St. Joseph, Mich.: How can anyone seriously think about voting for Ehrlich afterhis corruption scandal and his destroying the possibility of so many young people to go on to higher education by reducing spending on colleges and allowing them to raise tuition rates? He raised taxes more than any other governor and calls them fees. I was forced to move from Maryland because of his poor handling of education, employment and the environment. Glendening and [President] Clinton were not perfect, but they did not lie to us like Ehrlich and [President] Bush.

Nitkin: We've written a lot of critical stories about Ehrlich -- for example, about his administration's efforts to sell preservation land to construction company owners, and about his deputy chief of staff, who set up a company so convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff could launder money -- but few would argue that anything rises to the level of a "corruption scandal."

He did undertake fiscal policies that led to higher tuition rates. He's implemented many new fees. How can someone be "forced" to move from a state because of unemployment and the environment? That makes no sense. Unemployment is incredibly low in Maryland. Unless you are an oyster farmer, it's hard to see how environmental quality in Maryland would directly affect the decision of where you live.

Rick, Ocean City: Oh yeah, former Gov. Harry Hughes. The person who, while governor of Maryland, purchased a vacation home in Delaware. Marylanders don't need his opinions or advice.

Nitkin: I think you are referring to a response in last week's Q&A that discussed Hughes' support for stem-cell research. I think anyone who was elected chief executive of a county, state or country (from Wayne Curry to Marvin Mandel to George H.W. Bush) has valuable insight, regardless of where they purchase their vacation home.

Tim, Annapolis: Why are none of the majority leaders in the State House or Senate running for the open U.S. Senate seat? Would [Senate President Thomas V.] Mike Miller not make a formidable contender?

Nitkin: Miller decided some time ago that his future was not in statewide office, but was in the legislature. It's tough to mount a serious statewide race from a General Assembly position, and it's tough in the Assembly to stand out among 188 delegates and senators.

Jack, Bethesda: Are [Allan] Lichtman's fundraising numbers surprising to you? They seem unusually high for a third-tier candidate.

Nitkin: I will avoid assigning a tier to Lichtman, an American University history professor from Montgomery County. Lichtman, a Democrat, is running a serious campaign and believes he would be an effective U.S. Senator. His fundraising numbers do not surprise me.

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