David Nitkin on state politics issues

Rodney, Baltimore: If Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley or Montgomery CountyExecutive Douglas M. Duncan were to be elected, would they place amoratorium on the death penalty?

Nitkin: Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening put a halt to executions inMaryland, saying he wanted to see the results of a study by a University of Maryland professor of whether the death penalty was fairly applied inMaryland, and the role that race and geography played in applying the deathpenalty.

The study came out in 2003, when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wasgovernor. While Ehrlich asked Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele to review thestudy, Steele has not produced the results of the review, and Ehrlichresumed executions.

The study author, Ray Paternoster, recently wrote about his study inan opinion piece in The Sun.

He wrote, in part: "We looked at the four key moments in each case inwhich the prosecutor, judge or jury could decide whether to impose a deathsentence -- from the first filing of charges to final sentencing. We studiedthe details of each case, more than 100 factors in all. These factorscaptured the brutality of the crimes -- the aggravating or mitigatingcircumstances that juries ultimately consider at sentencing time. Then weused statistics to account for and control all of these many differencesamong the cases.

"After taking all these other factors into account, we found evidencethat race mattered. We found even stronger evidence that the particularjurisdiction where the crime occurred mattered.

"Yet, as the [Wesley] Baker execution approached, some newspapers andadvocates described the study as finding just the opposite -- that theMaryland death penalty process was race-neutral or that race of theoffender made no difference. Some other advocates on the other side of thedebate claimed that the study found the process to be racist. All of thosedescriptions are incorrect.

"We found that both the race of the victim and, to a lesser extent,the race of the offender, make a difference: Those who killed a white victimin Maryland were between two and three times more likely to be sentenced todeath than those who killed a non-white.

"Black offenders who killed white victims were nearly 2 ½ times morelikely to be sentenced to death than white offenders who killed whitevictims and nearly 3 ½ times more likely to be sentenced to death thanblack offenders who killed black victims."

I asked both the Duncan and O'Malley campaigns your question, and hereare their responses.

Jody Couser, a press secretary for Duncan, said the Montgomery Countyexecutive would reimpose a moratorium until the issues raised in thePaternoster study were addressed.

Duncan "supports the death penalty in certain cases," Couser said, butbelieves "the study has raised real and genuine concerns about itsapplication."

The O'Malley campaign would not directly answer whether the mayorwould reimpose a moratorium.

Campaign manager Jonathan Epstein gave me this statement: "Martinbelieves that further investigation into the fairness of Maryland's deathpenalty is warranted and looks forward to the conclusions of Lt. Gov.Steele's long-anticipated report on this issue. No person is above the law,and while the mayor remains personally opposed to the death penalty he willuphold its fair and legal application as governor."

Andrew, Gaithersburg: In the past two weeks, and in the next two weeks, DougDuncan has been campagning in his own county. That is one entire monthdedicated to a part of Maryland that should already be heavily supportiveof him. Is this poor campaign management? Or is it due to O'Malley's risingsupport in Montgomery County?

Nitkin: Montgomery County is the largest in Maryland, and it isheavily Democratic, so it makes sense for any Democratic candidate to spenda lot of time there.

That said, the road to victory in 2006 for Democrats in thegubernatorial and U.S. Senate primary lies in Prince George's County,which has more Democratic voters than anyplace else (as of last March -- adate that happens to be in front of me -- there were 318,897 registeredDemocrats in Prince George's and 278,375 in Montgomery). So time not spentin Prince George's is time wasted, in a sense.

O'Malley's campaign would like to paint the picture that they've gotDuncan on the ropes, and are forcing him to shore up support in his hometerritory.

But Duncan's staff said that the events he is now doing in Montgomeryare a direct result of endorsements he received from local electedofficials. When those officials asked, "What can we do to help?" Duncan saidhe wanted access to their volunteers and organization. The events youreference, the campaign says, are meet-and-greet sessions designed to helpDuncan get volunteers.

Eric, Rockville: What will happen to Doug Duncan if he loses the primary? Hewon't be able to go back to being county executive. Will he just become anex-office holder turned lobbyist?

Nitkin: I don't see Doug Duncan as a lobbyist if he loses the primary.There are other private- and public-sector jobs he might be interested in,including working with business or trade groups. Perhaps if he lost andO'Malley became governor, there would be a position for him in stategovernment. Of course, Duncan would acknowledge none of this. He, and allcandidates, are trained to say the only job they are interested in is theone they are running for, and that they are going to win.

Mark, Annapolis: You answered a recent question about slots indicating thatMichael Busch was opposed to the state giving millions to profit wealthy trackowners. Just how much money would go to them as a result of Ehrlich's plan?

Nitkin: The answer to this question varies wildly, depending onwhether you ask the tracks or slots opponents. Track owners have a tendencyto understate the figure -- they say they won't get much because they haveto spend so much money on building slots facilities and other expenses.

But I like the analysis done by Jeffrey Hooke, an independentinvestment banker who has done a lot of research on his own into the valueof slots licenses. Here's how he summarizes the value of subsidies:

"The subsidies are a moving target, depending on the number ofracetracks getting slots, number of nontracks getting slots, slots perlocation, assumed slots revenue per year, and the gaming tax rate and othertaxes.

"Let's use the 2003 Maryland Taxpayer Education Fund analysis,published on the MTEF Web site as the likely scenario, OK?

"Five tracks generating $1.9 billion of total slots revenue, with atotal tax rate of 61%, meaning the tracks keep 39%.

"Look at it two ways:

"1. The estimated cash auction value of the five licenses was $1.5billion in 2003. This number has been validated by subsequent license salesin Pennsylvania, and it is probably low in hindsight. So, the "presentvalue" of the subsidy over 15 years is at least $1.5 billion.

"By forfeiting the $1.5 billion over 15 years, the subsidy is $100million per year, plus the interest that the state could earn on the cash.Assume 6% per year, or $90 million extra per year. The total is $190million per year.

"2. Alternatively, you could look at the tax rate, and determinewhether it is artificially low. The tracks keep 39%, although our analysissuggested they could make a good profit at 24%. The 15% per year is the"subsidy."

"15% times $1.9 billion per year is $290 million per year. That is thesubsidy under this kind of methodology.

"Clearly, the amount of subsidy for an industry, which, according to aUniversity of Md. study, accounts for at most 9,000 jobs, is quiteextraordinary."

She Robinson, Baltimore: Do the "leaders" in Maryland and in Baltimore realize that the Maryland High School Assessments are going to leave children behind?

Nitkin: While educators and parents often raise concerns that theemphasis on testing in both Maryland and in the federal "No Child LeftBehind" law has negative results such as "teaching to the test" andquashing creativity in both teaching and classroom performance, there areno serious discussions to do away with such testing.

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