David Nitkin on state politics issues

Sun coverageScott Conwell, Crofton: Just about every article written about Gov. [Robert L.] Ehrlich [Jr.] discusses his political motivation behind his actions. Yet The Sun frequently does not print the political motivations of others who oppose him. For instance, in the article on stem cell politics, Ehrlich's approach is criticized by Sen. Paula C. Hollinger and former Gov. Harry Hughes. Nowhere does it mention that Hollinger is trying to break out from the pack in a run for Congress or that Hughes led the search committee to assist [Baltimore Mayor Martin] O'Malley in defeating Ehrlich. This appears to be a breach of journalistic ethics. Please comment.

Nitkin: Ehrlich is the most high-profile political figure in the stateof Maryland who was elected governor in a state with a 2-1 Democraticadvantage. He is now seeking re-election, and is raising unprecedentedmoney for his bid, with [the] entire Democratic power structure aligned againsthim. Everything he does is geared toward how it affects his re-electionchances -- it would be naive or irresponsible to think otherwise.

The examples you cite of our "breach of journalistic ethics" don't holdwater, in my view. I agree that Hollinger wants to break from the packin her bid for the 3rd District congressional race. She is also a nurse whois chairman of the Senate committee that considers health issues, and waspushing stem cell legislation last year.

True, Hughes supports the measure. So does former Gov. Marvin Mandel,who has appeared at many stem cell events and is an Ehrlich supporter. Inshort, the political motives of the governor are far more interesting andnewsworthy than those of other figures lower down on the political ladder.But when [Montgomery County Executive Douglas M.] Duncan, O'Malley, [Rep. Benjamin L.] Cardin and [former congressman and NAACP President Kweisi] Mfume take positions with heavy political overtones -- such as on school construction or sex offenderlegislation -- we report that as well.

Eric, Bel Air: Should we expect to see The Sun, prior to the '06 elections, do adetailed review of the history of Democratic Party control of the city ofBaltimore and the results as they pertain to big issues such as crime anddrug addiction, poverty and education? I've long found it odd that peopleseem to ignore the fact that the Democratic Party has maintained unfetteredcontrol of Baltimore politics and, in turn, social and economic policies,for several generations, yet now that a Republican sits in the governor'smansion for a few years, after 30-plus straight years of Democrat control there,too, the fingers all point at him.

Nitkin: Eric, you raise a valid question. You are certainly correctthat Democrats have run Baltimore for decades. I would note that in myexperience, the closer you get to local government, the less partisanissues become: There's no Democrat or Republican way to pick up trash, plowstreets or fill potholes. But that said, there certainly is a Democraticleaning toward supporting the various unions that represent the workers whodo those jobs and others.

The fingers point to the person who is mayor on the problems in thecity, and to the governor on problems of the state, regardless of the partyaffiliation of the person holding office. For all the generations you cite,The Sun has aggressively covered many administrations, including those ofMandel, [William Donald] Schaefer and [Parris N.] Glendening. None of those former governors would think The Sun gave them an easy time. The "fingers" you think are pointing at Ehrlich have pointed at governor after governor.

Kara, Baltimore: Why has The Sun and other media focused more on O'Malley's selection of a running mate, rather than Duncan's rolling out a detailededucation plan for the state, from Head Start through higher education,which would seem to most people more important in choosing a governor?

Nitkin: We have covered Duncan's plans. For those who want more detail,they are available on his Web site. Like any campaign documents, they appear to lack specifics in some areas. When asked how he would pay for his programs, Duncan's answer is that growth in the state budget will accommodate them.

Campaign promises are easy -- such as Ehrlich'spledge to bring slots to Maryland. What matters more is a governor's ability to get his plan through the legislature. By contrast, the selection of a running mate is a concrete decision -- not a future promise -- that can be explored in detail. And we in the media love to do so, knowing full well that voters don't make their decisions based on running mates.

Bill Eber, Upperco: Will The Sun be looking into the Giant and union lobbying effort, or will the paper predictably concentrate its efforts on the Wal-Mart contributions to Ehrlich?

Nitkin: Frankly, I don't think much more looking needs to be done.Giant supermarkets and various unions lobbied heavily for the so-calledWal-Mart bill, or Fair Share Health Care Act, requiring companies with atleast 10,000 employees to spend 8 percent of payroll on health care or paythe difference to the state. Their efforts were instrumental in convincinga Democrat-controlled legislature to pass the bill heading into an electionyear.

Ehrlich received money prior to the 2005 legislative session from aWal-Mart-hosted fundraiser. But no one is insinuating that that is thereason he vetoed the bill: The governor is a free-market, libertarian-leaning Republican who believes in less government regulation for businessto foster economic growth. He's also no fan of organized labor. I'm certainhe would have vetoed the bill even in the absence of any Wal-Mart-relatedcontributions.

Bob, Mount Washington: There was the one article on the Cordish-Bethel AME"understanding." If that was a Republican who engineered a faith-based church to receive a bunch of money from a political backer, The Sun would have had a collective heart attack. Why isn't there more outrage from The Sun?

Nitkin: Actually, there were at least two articles, and there may wellbe more on their way. Newspapers are not in the business of getting"outraged" on the news pages. We report stories aggressively, thoroughlyand with context. The paper broke this story, and I'm sure will stay on it.

Larry, Mt. Airy: Why isn't there more coverage ofr the "MD4Bush" scandal thatappears to have been set up by the Democrats to embarrass the Ehrlichadministration?

Nitkin: Sigh. What would a week be without an MD4Bush question? We'llwrite more about MD4Bush when news warrants. As we will about JoeSteffen, the longtime Ehrlich aide who has acknowledged that he was thegovernor's dirty tricks agent for years. As we will about Ed Miller, thegovernor's deputy chief of staff who created a business for the solepurpose of allowing disgraced and convicted Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff to launder millions of dollars.


A January 23 posting on baltimoresun.com was not intended to ascribe amotive to Edward B. Miller, the deputy chief of staff to Maryland'sgovernor, when Miller incorporated GrassRoots Interactive in 2003. Marylandstate records and Miller's own disclosure statement show he set up andowned the company. Miller is neither named nor charged in the criminalinformation that resulted in Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff's federalguilty plea in January. That document says that Abramoff "establishedGrassRoots Interactive" and used it "for the purpose of generating fundsfor and concealing kickbacks that would be paid to defendant Abramoff."

AssemblyBill Tress, Bel Air: What can state employees expect from this session?

Nitkin: Because the state has a $1 billion budget surplus, it could bea good year for state employees. We reported the following Jan. 14:"Gov. Ehrlich proposed yesterday 2 percent cost-of-living pay raises forall state workers and additional pay raises for correctional officersaveraging 6 percent. Union officials representing state workers said theextra money would be welcome but would not be enough and would be largelywiped out by higher health care costs.

"The cost-of-living adjustment would cost $71 million during the fiscal yearthat will begin in July, the governor said. Pay raises for correctionalofficers through the rank of warden would cost $32.3 million, he said.

"State police and police in other state agencies would also get payincreases in addition to the 2 percent cost-of-living raise, Ehrlich said,and educators with professional degrees who teach offenders in prisons andjuvenile facilities would receive pay raises averaging 14 percent."

Because the General Assembly is looking to trim perhaps as much as $200million from the governor's budget to meet a spending guideline, some ofthose raises could be reduced. We'll continue to cover the issue as itunfolds.

Diana Dugan, Baltimore County: Why does The Sun no longer publish the votes in the state Senate and House? I want to know how my state representative or senator voted.

Nitkin: Diana, we get this question a lot -- and our plan is topublish full votes as much as possible. We know many readers want to seethis. We started last week, with a detailed vote breakdown on the so-calledWal-Mart bill, or Fair Share Health Care Act.

Charles Oliver, Parkton: How can I access the complete voting records of GeneralAssembly members? I don't feel that I have a voice if I can't find out something about thecandidates for which I vote.

Nitkin: As I said, The Sun will be publishing vote tallies on keyissues. For greater detail, check out the Maryland General Assembly Web site. That gives details on what each chamber did on each day. When you see abill vote on a particular day, click on the link that gives the vote total,and you'll see the full breakdown by lawmaker. It takes a day or two for thesite to be updated with votes, because each vote is certified by clerks ineach chamber. Committee votes, which are often just as important, aren'tavailable online, however -- a serious flaw in the public's right to know, inmy view.

Brad, Baltimore: Is Dennis Rasmussen a real contender to win the Senate race? What does his entrance to the race do to the Democratic primary?

Nitkin: Rasmussen is a former Baltimore County executive who wasdefeated in his 1990 re-election bid, and has been a lobbyist since then. Iinterviewed Rasmussen on the eve of his formal announcement and know thathe is taking the race seriously, raising money, and sees room to positionhimself as a moderate-to-conservative Democrat in a largely liberal field.

Most observers believe Rasmussen will be among several candidates who takevotes from Cardin, the Baltimore-area congressman. Having beenout of elected office for so long, Rasmussen has large hurdles to overcomein rebuilding his name recognition. His candidacy is a long shot.

IssuesCarolyn Hicks, Joppa: On school construction, these "Taj Mahal's" that they constructare more like Disneyland entertainment centers! And once constructed,where is the money for upkeep and maintenance? Need to pare down andstreamline!

Nitkin: I'm no expert in school construction, but I do know that inmany counties, finding land for schools is a more costly and pressing issuethan the actual school construction. Another big factor is the labor andconstruction costs that have risen during the ongoing real estate boom.Counties try to duplicate school design when they build, so they don'treinvent the wheel every time.

As the parent of two school-aged kids and as a journalist who has visited many schools, I don't find them to be TajMahals. I wouldn't want to give up a library, a gym, a music room or an art or multimedia room for my children, and I'm sure many parents feel the same way.

Chris, Baltimore: The state government's commitment to rail transit in Baltimorehas been abysmal for many years. What is the extent of O'Malley's andDuncan's commitment to rail transit improvements? Will it be an issue inthe campaign? It should be, and I never hear anyone talking about it.

Nitkin: O'Malley and Duncan are both supporters of transit,particularly in their jurisdiction (there is a proposed purple line inMontgomery County and a red line in Baltimore that both support). I don't seetransit emerging as a significant campaign issue.

Barbara Carr, Baltimore: When is there going to be tax relief for the single, working poor, who are the heaviest-taxed out of the tax system, who pay the most in taxes, but can't afford health care?

Nitkin: The main tax break being discussed right now is a property taxreduction for the state portion of property taxes. The Assembly may alsodebate other bills such as a tax-free shopping week for back-to-schoolshoppers, which is popular in many states. As for a broad-based reductionin sales or income taxes, that's not likely given projected future needsfor Medicaid and education.

Dan, Catonsville: If the Wal-Mart bill is not directed at Wal-Mart, why not lowerthe threshold to 10 employees and not 10,000? I work for a small company thatemploys less then 10,000 and is not affected by this.
Nitkin: Few deny that the Health Care for All bill is directed squarelyat Wal-Mart. According to legislative testimony, of the four privatecompanies in Maryland with 10,000 or more employees, only Wal-Mart doesn'tpay 8 percent of its payroll costs on health care. Critics of thelegislation argue just what you say: That in the future, the Assembly maywell lower the threshold to include smaller businesses. We'll have to waitto see if that prophesy comes true.

Bill, Baltimore: What is preventing Wal-Mart from scaling back operations inMaryland, to include moving the new distribution center a few miles toDelaware and laying off employees to meet the 10,000-employee ceiling?

Nitkin: Technically, nothing. I would imagine that Wal-Mart will look at avariety of legal moves to find a way out of the law.

Keith Streett, Baltimore: How can the General Assembly seriously look business leaders in the eye and tell them that Maryland is a good state to bring their businesses toafter overriding the Wal-Mart veto? Will anyone be surprised now whenWal-Mart scraps its plans for the Eastern Shore distribution center (andthe 1,000 jobs it would have brought)?

Nitkin: I don't think anyone will be surprised if Wal-Mart retaliatesby pulling the plug on the distribution center. Democrats in the Assemblymake the argument to business that it is good for your company when allcorporations pay their fair share of health care, and therefore youremployee medical costs are kept in check.

Steve, Bel Air: What percentage of its payroll does Wal-Mart currently spendon health care? If this bill is actually made to help the uninsured, why aren'tcompanies of any size included in spending 8 percent of payroll on health care?

Nitkin: Very good questions. There is no good answer for how muchWal-Mart currently spends for health care in Maryland. There was somelegislative testimony that the figure is above 7 percent of payroll, butlawmakers have been unable to verify that figure, and some have criticizedthe company for not providing a detailed accounting.

Your second point is agood one and you are right: If it really were a bill aimed at eliminatingthe problem of the uninsured, it would apply to far more companies. Thereis no getting around the conclusion that this legislation was aimedsquarely at one company.

Charles McCollum, Philadelphia: Why can't Ehrlich accept the results of this [Wal-Mart] override? His party is for the global economy. If Wal-Mart leaves Maryland, someoneelse will fill the void and they will meet the terms of treating workers fairly if they demand it.

Nitkin: Charles, your point is interesting, but you really can't have itboth ways. You are saying that the marketplace works, so that if Wal-Martleaves, another company will take their place. But the Assembly hasdistorted the market by imposing a new cost on a single company. So if youfavor the Wal-Mart bill, I think it's inconsistent to fall back on afree-market argument to bolster your position.

Steve Gunnulfsen, Laytonsville: What role does the Anne Arundel County Council have in the Equestrian Center proposed for the old Navy dairy farm?

Nitkin: I asked Phillip McGowan, our lead Anne Arundel County governmentreporter, to answer this:

"The project is being built by the MarylandStadium Authority. If state officials ask Anne Arundel County to contributefunding for the horse park, the seven-member County Council would considerany spending bill put forward by Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S.Owens. The council signed off in December on a state request for afeasibility study of the 857-acre Gambrills site."

Tony D., Perry Hall: I keep hearing about the possibility of pension reform for teachersand other state workers this session. What's the deal?

Nitkin: Democrats Duncan and O'Malley have both said theywant to improve teacher pensions as a way to keep teachers in the state.The executive and the mayor promised as much to the state teacher's unionduring their last convention. However, The Washington Post recentlyreported that the gubernatorial candidates are balking at the costs.Reporter John Wagner wrote Dec. 18: "Maryland's two leading Democraticcandidates for governor stood in solidarity this fall with the state'slargest teachers' union, pledging their support in a battle to improve whateducators say are the worst pensions in the nation.

"But since then, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery CountyExecutive Douglas M. Duncan seem to be suffering sticker shock afterlearning that the initiative could cost $480 million annually.

"'Is that something they want to do all in one year?' O'Malley asked in arecent interview.

"Duncan reiterated his commitment to 'major reform' in a separate interviewbut said he is not prepared to commit to a dollar figure. 'We need to workwith them on something that is affordable and makes improvements,' he said."

This will be hotly debated issue during the session and the campaign.

Gayle Hafner, Towson: I would like to see a story on each of the 13 children who wonthe temporary order in the Immigrant Children's Health Benefits article. Iguess the public court files have details. I think these kids may be a lotlike everyone's kids. Please tell us. The governor and the General Assemblyneed to know who they are affecting with these decisions.

Nitkin: Thanks for the great idea. We've taken it under seriousadvisement.

Robert Ashford, Owings Mills: Is the fear of having to hire a sixth police commissioner holding O'Malley back from removing Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm in light of the growingflex [squad] officer scandal?

Nitkin: This is a pretty loaded question, but I won't duck it entirely,despite a strong temptation. I will say this: O'Malley's opponents arecertain to raise the revolving door of police chiefs and the management ofthe city police department as a campaign issue. One of O'Malley's disgracedchiefs, Ed Norris, was also hired by the Ehrlich administration to run thestate police. He resigned after pleading guilty to using a slush fund forpersonal purposes when he was in Baltimore.

Barry Brill, Reisterstown: Voting Machines have been proven flawed, yet, in its infinitecorrupt arrogance, Maryland says no to a paper trail. The only reason tothwart accountability is to cheat. Why do they get away with this?

Nitkin: The issue of paper trails for Maryland's voting machinescontinues to be debated in Annapolis. I predict some form of legislationwill pass this year, but not in time to be used for the 2006 elections.

James L. Goodson, Asheville, N.C.: Why do the county and state allow only real estate interest to determine the property values in this state? High taxes and fixed incomesspell disaster for older, disabled people. The churning of properties by realestate interest is unconstitutional. And the state is endorsing it.

Nitkin: Property values in Maryland are assessed by thestate Department of Assessment and Taxation, on a three-year cycle forevery property. Many counties have caps on how high assessments can rise ina given year, which provides some protections. But many leaders are worriedabout rising taxes, and have been discussing lowering state and countyproperty tax rates.

James Barnaba, Baldwin: The surplus should go back to the taxpayers. They have a cash cow with the way real estate taxes are going up.

Nitkin: Ehrlich has proposed not only a property tax reduction onthe state portion of property taxes, but has set aside $1.4 billion inreserve funds to help balance the state budget in future years.

Elaine Gladhill, Waynesboro, Pa.: Being a retired correctional officer from Maryland, do you believe that the taxpayers of Maryland, as well as the other workersof Maryland, will sit by while Ehrlich gives out a total of [an] 8 percent payincrease to correctional officers? These correctional officers have not asked for more money over the years of this administration just to have their staffing positions restored to thelevel of 2003. How do the other candidates running for governor feel on this issue?

Nitkin: I believe the high raises for correctional officers could getlowered during the legislature's efforts at cutting Ehrlich's $29billion state budget. I haven't yet had the chance to ask Duncan andO'Malley their thoughts on this.

O'MalleyCharlie, Perry Hall: Why do you think O'Malley did not pick an African-American asa lieutenant governor running mate? Does the state have a large population ofJamaicans?

Nitkin: This is quite a snarky question that takes a dig at state Del.Anthony G. Brown, the Prince George's County Democrat who is O'Malley'srunning mate selection. Brown calls himself African-American. He has alsodescribed his heritage: his father is of Caribbean birth and his mother isEuropean.

EhrlichJenna, Towson: Why isn't Ehrlich rolling back his entire property taxincrease? Wasn't it one of the largest ever?

Nitkin: The state property tax rate was stable for years before thegovernor raised it by 57 percent in 2003 as part of a budget-balancingmove. He is now proposing a 15 percent reduction -- or 2 cents per $100 inassessed value of the roughly 5 cents per $100 that was increased. Thegovernor said he's only seeking 2 cents because he was rebuffed last yearby the Board of Public Works when he sought just a 1 cent reduction. Everypenny reduction in the state property tax rate requires a $45 millionsubsidy from the state general fund into another fund used to repay moneyborrowed by Maryland for construction projects. By law, the property taxrate must be set at the amount needed to cover bond debt payments, so tolower the tax rate, a subsidy is needed from general state funds.

DuncanBridget Riley, Annapolis: Since Duncan failed to announcehis running mate like his campaign had promised, do you think it's a signthat he's having trouble finding a running mate? After the three or four peoplewho blatantly said they are not interested but were circulated by Duncan aspossibles, how does it reflect on his campaign that he's failed to announcea running mate even after setting a deadline?

Nitkin: Well, it certainly doesn't look good for his campaign that hemissed his self-imposed deadline. For a sitting lawmaker to join Duncan'sticket, they would have to give up their seat. (The governor and allmembers of the General Assembly are up for election in 2006.) Clearly,Anthony Brown thought it was worth the risk, and he signed on with O'Malley.It's unclear if any sitting politician thinks Duncan has enough of a shotat beating O'Malley in a primary that they would be willing to give uptheir current position.

The Duncan campaign's answer to they delay -- thatthe executive has so much momentum that it has attracted many more peopleinterested in the No. 2 spot that now need to be vetted -- provokeslaughter in many people who hear it. To clarify, the Duncan campaignfloated some names. One said they weren't interested; the others said theyhadn't been contacted in a serious way.

Governor's raceScott, Cockeysville: Assuming Ehrlich wins re-election, who do you see as theprimary Republican and Democratic front-runners for governor in 2010?

Nitkin: Part of the answer depends on how [Lt. Gov.Michael S.] Steele does in his Senate race. If Ehrlich wins re-election and Steele wins the Senate seat, than the GOP front-runner will be whomever Ehrlich picks as a running mate this time.

If Steele loses the Senate race, I predict he runs for governor in 2010. Iwouldn't be surprised to see someone like Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger toss hisname into the Democratic gubernatorial ring if O'Malley and Duncan are outof office.

U.S. SenateSteve, Washington County: If Maryland is really 2-1 Democratic, then why is Steele so close in the poll with Cardin? And why does he lead Mfume?

Nitkin: Much of the polling now reflects name identification. Steeleis known statewide, and polling for The Sun shows that a majority of votersview him favorably. Cardin is still working on expanding beyond hisBaltimore-based congressional district. Steele has not yet articulatedpositions on issues, so poll numbers will certainly change -- although Ithink a Cardin-Steele matchup would be pretty close.

Mfume faces some ofthe same problems: He was a Baltimore congressman for 10 years, and despitehis national position in the NAACP, still needs to be better known in D.C.suburbs. Many voters remain undecided in this race, our latest newspaperpolling showed.

Howard CountyMichael H., Columbia: How do you think the 2006 elections in Howard County will playout? There will be a Democratic primary for both the county executive and the 13th District delegates. What are some issues you see as concerns for voters?

Nitkin: I asked my colleague Larry Carson, a veteran journalist whoknows more about Howard County politics than anyone, to answer this:

"Howard County is likely to see the liveliest election season in years, with a Democratic primary between County Councilman Ken Ulman and Harry M. Dunbar, a slow-growth advocate. The Republicans are united behindcouncil Chairman Christopher J. Merdon.

"Development, traffic congestion, taxes and the national and statepolitical wars could all play important roles in the campaign, but no onecan predict the results.

"Central Columbia's redevelopment, where the first high-rise, 22-storybuilding is slated to go, could draw voter interest, along with hundreds ofnew homes proposed for Doughoregan Manor, the 280-year-old estate ofDeclaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll. If Ulman beats Dunbar,the general election could divide on partisan political lines between theliberal Columbia Democrat and the more conservative Ellicott CityRepublican."


A January 23 posting on baltimoresun.com was not intended to ascribe amotive to Edward B. Miller, the deputy chief of staff to Maryland'sgovernor, when Miller incorporated GrassRoots Interactive in 2003. Marylandstate records and Miller's own disclosure statement show he set up andowned the company. Miller is neither named nor charged in the criminalinformation that resulted in Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff's federalguilty plea in January. That document says that Abramoff "establishedGrassRoots Interactive" and used it "for the purpose of generating fundsfor and concealing kickbacks that would be paid to defendant Abramoff."

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