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Sun Q&A

David Nitkin on state politics issues

Editor answers questions on Dixon, slots, gay marriage, campaigns

February 13, 2006

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Miscellaneous issues
William, Bladensburg: What do you think are the chances the state will pass the bill to not tax military retirement pay? Thank you.

Nitkin: The chances are excellent. I'd call it as close to a done deal as we see in Annapolis. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. submitted such legislation a year ago, but it did not pass, facing a General Assembly roadblock that the governor says -- with some justification -- was entirely political. But this year, with Ehrlich resubmitting his legislation, key leaders in both the House and the Senate have signed on and said they back it. Legislative analysts say that providing a state income tax subtraction credit for military retiree income would cost the state $4.5 million in the budget year that begins July 1, rising to $46 million in the budget year beginning July 10, 2010.

George Garmer, Baltimore: Do you think the new Medicare Part D drug benefit or the upcoming slashes in federal spending on Medicaid in January 2007 will affect Maryland politics in any way? Specifically, how do you think Annapolis will fill in the huge gaps in coverage for Maryland residents caused by these two pieces of federal legislation?

Nitkin: I haven't delved into the details yet, but gaps in Medicaid coverage are certainly a topic for discussion in the General Assembly. I don't know what the ultimate solution will be, but I'll say this: In an election year, politicians like to take care of constituencies that are active voters and who pay attention to issues. Senior citizens certainly fall into that category.

Chris, Baltimore: What is the status of the smoking ban being considered?

Nitkin: A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday before the House Health and Government Operations Committee on the Clean Indoor Air Act of 2006 (HB 375), which would ban smoking in bars and restaurants in Maryland. For the bill to become law, it must be approved in identical form in both the House and the Senate and then sent to the governor, who could veto it. I'd put the chances for passage this year at less than 50 percent.

Dennis T. Byrne, Baltimore: The resolution for the paper trail in 2006 is quite easy. Eliminate all restriction for absentee ballots. Allow any voter who's concerned about the accuracy of their vote to have an absentee [ballot], which they fill in and copy, thus [having] his or her choices in print.

Nitkin: Indeed, the General Assembly this year passed a bill -- overturning Ehrlich's veto -- that allows voters to get absentee ballots for any reason. Chances are there will be an increase in the usage of absentee ballots this year. And you are right: Any voters who use them have bypassed the electronic voting machines and have created a paper copy of their selections. It could be unwieldy for elections officials to count so many ballots if everybody followed your suggestion, and we journalists who try to report on results on election night would also have a problem. It takes days if not weeks for all absentee ballots to be tabulated.

Brian King: Is it possible that Sheila Dixon may have crossed the legal boundaries (and common sense ones) with her recent actions in the Comcast hearings?

Nitkin: The Baltimore City Ethics Commission will be examining this matter. Here's the first paragraphs of a story by Doug Donovan that ran last Friday:

"Baltimore's Board of Ethics will investigate City Council President Sheila Dixon's involvement in several official meetings that appear to have benefited the firm that employs her sister Janice, the board's chairman said yesterday.

The five-member ethics board is scheduled to meet Feb. 21 and will begin examining whether Dixon acted properly during a City Council committee hearing last week and three Board of Estimates meetings over the past two years."

Tyler, Salisbury: I was hoping that you would comment on this year's budget. Looking at it at face value, looks like the governor is helping everyone from higher education to senior citizens to the environment. But when you look deeper, you see that the 14 percent increase in higher education funding is just getting their funds back to where they were three years ago when the governor slashed funding two years in a row. So, how can the governor say that he is saving higher education when in reality, he is giving them money that they should have had all along?

Nitkin: The governor can say whatever he wants, and then voters have to decide whether he's providing the full picture. You accurately state what is now happening: Ehrlich has been touting "historic" increases -- measured in both dollar terms and percentage increases -- in higher education, public schools and some other areas in his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. In public school education, the increases are mandated by a law that was passed in 2002, and which Ehrlich opposed -- because the mandate did not come with a funding source attached to it.

Ehrlich cut heavily from the higher education budget during his first two budget years: He had to find a way to balance the state budget, and higher education is the largest area of discretionary spending. Plus, state funding cuts can be made up through tuition increases -- something that some of his key supporters back. I don't think the governor has ever said he is "saving" higher education, but he is certainly paying attention to reversing some of the political damage done in 2003 and 2004 through budget cuts and tuition increases.

Eric Stevenson, Baltimore: What have you heard about a deal cut between the governor and the Prince George's County delegation to move the Department of Planning from Baltimore to Prince George's? Is this about buying votes? The move will cost over $3 million. Is this even legal?

Nitkin: We have some more reporting to do in this area before I can provide a definitive answer. I know of no illegality. Certainly, the governor has plenty of strong Prince George's supporters in his administration -- notably Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and state Planning Secretary Audrey E. Scott -- and Prince George's County leaders have long demanded their share of state buildings. The county is the second most populous in Maryland and heavily Democratic. It's not hard to imagine that there are a lot of politics at play behind the decision to move the state planning office.

Julia Persky, Bel Air: Where on the Internet can I find how my delegates and senators vote on each and every bill? Also, committee members' votes? Thanks.

Nitkin: It's a little tricky. If you go to mlis.state.md.us, you can look up any bill by number, sponsor or topic, but it takes a little practice to get the hand of the Web site. You can look on the bill to check its status -- such as when committee hearings are held. Votes on the floor of the House and Senate are available on the Web site about a day or two after they take place. Committee votes are not recorded electronically, which is a major disservice to you and the rest of the public.

Nancy Marbach, Cambridge: How do I reach Sen. [James] Brochin?

Nitkin: Try 410-841-3648. His Annapolis office is Room 221 in the James Senate Office Building, and his district office is 305 Washington Ave., Suite 406, Towson, Md., 21204.

Slots
Les, Baltimore: As far as [a] slots bill not [being] passed by the House, I believe [Speaker] Michael [E.] Busch was the one who wanted other, off-site [gambling] added to [the] bill. So, when the governor does this to bridge the gap, it still is rejected by the House. Why has that not been reported? It look[s] like only Gov. Ehrlich is getting all the blame for adding off-track sites. I do not believe that is fair at all. Maybe we should also look at the House speaker as well.

Nitkin: You are correct that Busch was the chief proponent of putting slot machines at state-owned locations along interstate highways if they were going to be legalized. He does not want [horse] track owners receiving a windfall. In a revised version of his slots plan, the governor proposed both track and non-track locations. All of this has been thoroughly reported.

The governor went part-way to bridge a gap, but the speaker still had concerns. No one I know is "blaming" the governor for adding off-track locations. We've thoroughly examined the speaker and his motives in the slots debate.

Phil, Rosedale: In your opinion, if the General Assembly came to agreement on how slots revenue should be distributed, would the bill pass?

Nitkin: In my opinion, a slots bill will not pass this year. There are many other sticking points than the distribution of revenue, including locations, number of machines and how licenses are awarded. If Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan is elected governor in 2006, slots won't pass for at least four years. Slots become much more likely in 2007 if Ehrlich wins re-election, or if [Baltimore] Mayor Martin O'Malley wins the race.

Same-sex marriage
Stuart, Baltimore: Why won't the Democrats allow the people of Maryland to vote on whether or not gay marriage should be allowed in the state of Maryland?

Nitkin: For voters to decide on a constitutional amendment on gay marriage, both the House and Senate -- controlled by Democrats -- must approve the amendment by a three-fifths majority. Democratic leaders say there is no need for a constitutional amendment right now. In January, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge decided that Maryland's statutory definition of marriage as between a man and a woman was unconstitutional, but the decision is on appeal.

Democrats say the appeals process should play out before the constitution is amended. But the reality is that Democrats don't want the issue on the ballot in an election year, because it would doubtless draw large numbers of socially conservative voters to the polls.

Amy, Hampstead: In all the press coverage concerning this "marriage issue," I don't remember seeing [O'Malley's gubernatorial running mate] Del. Anthony [G.] Brown's opinion. Did he have a chance to express his views?

Nitkin: Well, we didn't get any press releases from Brown outlining where he stands on gay marriage. I'm not sure if we ever sought out his opinion. We probably should get Brown's views on the record at some point.

Geoff S., Baltimore: I had always thought the proper argument for gay marriage was that two adults above legal age should be able to wed regardless of sex. But, if my gay marriage amendment read as I have written, consenting siblings and polygamous couples could interpret that they could also marry under the bill. How would the state legislature, if it's an issue at all, make gay marriage available to couples without opening up a big 'ole can of worms? What's the language behind an amendment like that?

Nitkin: The amendment under discussion in Annapolis would make same-sex marriage illegal, not legal. I really can't answer your question, because we haven't examined the issue of how to make gay marriage legal. I suppose the best way would be to ask a judge to decide that Maryland's current prohibition on same sex marriage (which is in [a] statute but not in the constitution) was unconstitutional, and then for lawmakers to do nothing if that's what a judge decides. I'm no expert, but I've got to imagine that there are already enough prohibitions out there somewhere that prevent "consenting siblings" from marrying, regardless of sex.

O'Malley
Ryan, Baltimore: I live in Baltimore and I love city life. However, I am getting sick and tired of people who don't live in the city saying how bad it is. Yes, the murder rate is high. You just can't wave a magic wand and make this go away. Eventually, people have to take responsibility for their own actions.

If you look at the statistics, the only people who are likely to get murdered are in the drug game in some fashion. People buying or people selling. Think about it ... how can O'Malley keep two drug dealers from killing each other? All the police in the world can't stop someone if they're determined to seek revenge! Stop blaming Martin for something that is out of his control.

Nitkin: Hmmm. Is Ryan an O'Malley supporter, or a Duncan or Ehrlich supporter in clever disguise? Either way, here's my answer: Many city critics do live outside of Baltimore, and many have moved away from the city over the years for better schools, safer streets and other amenities. O'Malley made crime one of his top issues as mayor, and many other big cities saw huge drops in murder rates and other crimes, while in Baltimore, the murder rate has dropped nowhere near as much as the mayor wanted. I think it's legitimate to ask whether different policing strategies, different levels and allocations of police resources and different leadership would have produced different results.

Lorraine Gimblett, Brooklyn Park: What's the deal with O'Malley saying that he is replacing "patronage politics," aka cronyism, when he is promoting his brother's CitiStat program in his speeches?

Nitkin: I'm not sure that the relationship you describe fits the definition of cronyism, but the more popular and acclaimed CitiStat becomes, the more it could benefit Peter O'Malley. The mayor set up the program of tracking statistics of municipal services and needs through a computerized database shortly after his election, modeling it after techniques used by former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. His brother and top campaign adviser, Peter O'Malley, was hired to implement the program.

In May 2004, The Sun reported:

"To launch CitiStat, the mayor hired his brother and campaign manager, Peter O'Malley, in June 2000 to work with first deputy mayor Michael Enright and CompStat's creator, the late Jack Maple.

The mayor did not place Peter O'Malley on the city payroll. Instead, the mayor's office requested and received an Abell Foundation grant that paid his brother $77,000 over two years."

After that, Peter O'Malley left and became "co-founder and principal partner of GovStat, LLC," according to the corporation's Web site, to set up CitiStat-like programs in other places.

"Mr. O'Malley spearheaded the establishment of Baltimore City's acclaimed CitiStat program. As Special Assistant for CitiStat, he oversaw every aspect of its implementation from selecting appropriate personnel and identifying key indicators to designing a Stat room and determining the structure and tone of the meetings," the Web site says. "Mr. O'Malley's focus is on mapping analysis, meeting presentation and recruitment. He has a solid understanding of operations and spends time in the field in order to understand problems and fashion solutions."

In the 2004 story, The Sun reported that Peter O'Malley "says he is not getting rich off GovStat and that he and his GovStat partner, Andrew Boyd, have had four clients and less than $90,000 in revenues, before taxes, since starting it."

The numbers probably have changed since then.

Jeff, Baltimore: On Jan. 28, Baltimore City Police Commissioner [Leonard D.] Hamm attended a town meeting at Benjamin Franklin Junior High School, where he was asked why more Baltimore City police didn't live in the city. According to an article in The Sun ("Pushing back against crime," by Sara Neufeld), Hamm "replied that several officers have young children and can't afford to send them to private schools."

Hamm continued and was quoted directly saying, "As we work with the school system to get it better, then I think my officers will stay." Isn't Hamm in direct conflict with O'Malley's contention that the Baltimore City schools are among the most improved in the nation? Why would anyone who has children, but can't afford private school, want to live in or move into Baltimore City when the city's police department doesn't want to live there?

Nitkin: I believe the quality of schools in Baltimore is the most important factor in the decisions made by families on whether to live in the city or not.

Steele
Bryan, Olney: David, this is my first question on here. A long time ago, you promised us a follow-up story on the theft of Steele's identity, but as of yet, there have been no follow-up stories on the topic. Should we expect one? Also, are you actively looking into the MD4Bush story as political editor as much as you say you are on these Q&As?

Nitkin: I'm not sure I've promised anything. What I've said repeatedly is that we will report political news when we get it. A follow-up story on the Steele situation would be whether criminal charges have been brought against the two former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee workers who used Steele's Social Security Number -- which they got through public records -- to get a copy of his credit report, which would be illegal. We don't know yet whether criminal charges have been filed. On MD4Bush, I have said we would love to know the identity of the Internet user, and will publish it when we find out.

Bryan, Olney: OK, make this my second question. Brown gets to decide his racial makeup, but all Steele did was "bring the color of his skin" to the table? What's with the double standards?

Nitkin: There is no double standard. How can anyone compare what I, a political editor and writer, wrote in a Q&A here in answering a question on how we should refer to Brown's race in news stories; and the position of the editorial board, which was referring to Steele's accomplishments and background in an endorsement editorial nearly four years ago? I don't see any connection.

Duncan
George, Baltimore: Since O'Malley announced his running mate, Duncan is being awful quiet. I am starting to think Duncan is changing his mind. I hope he stays in the race, but who is going to [be] a good running mate for his ticket? He is a great choice for governor.

Nitkin: While Duncan has not named a running mate, he has not been quiet. Today, he unveiled his anti-crime platform. He's raising money, seeking endorsements [and] speaking frequently. He has not changed his mind about his desire to be governor.

Cardin
Scott, Bethesda: What do you make of Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin not attending any of the first two U.S. Senate debates? Both were fairly large events. Does he really just believe he has the primary wrapped up? If so, could this explain some of his recent voting records, for example his vote for the Patriot Act, which might appeal to more moderates and some Republicans unhappy with their party?

Nitkin: There have been some candidate forums, such as one sponsored by a doctors' group in Baltimore, but no true debates with impartial moderators and a large audience. Cardin does not believe he has the primary wrapped up. He continues to be a top contender for the Democratic nomination for Senate, and has put together a professional and seasoned campaign team.

Mfume
Kevin, Baltimore: How are [Kweisi] Mfume's fundraising totals so low? How on earth is he out-fundraised by [Lise] Van Susteren and [Allan] Lichtman? Does he still have a chance to win?

Nitkin: Mfume certainly has a chance to win. His fundraising totals are low indeed. We're not exactly sure why, but there is no denying that it is a much-discussed problem in political circles.

Gansler
Andrew, Gaithersburg: Did you see [Montgomery County State's Attorney] Doug Gansler being interviewed on [Comedy Central's] The Daily Show (Jan. 30)? He looked like a complete fool. Will this hurt his chances of being the next [attorney general]?

Nitkin: It's hard not to look like a fool in the hands of The Daily Show's crack staff. Man, if Rob Corddry or Ed Helms ever got their hands on me, I'd shudder to think what the results would be. Many people, and one would have to guess, Doug Gansler among them, believe there is no such thing as bad publicity. While I TiVo the Daily Show, I missed the Jan. 30 episode. Did they spell Gansler's name right on the identification credit line? If so, that's worth more than any embarrassment he may have suffered.

Credibility and bias
Marietta, Baltimore: While I give you credit for publishing some of the questions you receive that aren't complimentary to you, don't you think you protest too much? Often, you sound like you have memos from campaigns when writing your articles and in answers to the Q&As. It calls into question your credibility.

Nitkin: I have no memos in front of me when I write. I speak with representatives of all campaigns all the time, as well as with the candidates directly. I evaluate their claims, some of which are credible, and some of which are not. In this venue, I frequently present the arguments being offered by supporters and critics of the candidates and their parties. Readers are free to judge my credibility however they see fit. I hope they -- and you -- find me to be credible.

Leshawn, Baltimore: The Sun is having terrible declines in circulation, is in the middle of a federal lawsuit with the governor, Michael Olesker plagiarized his columns and you have an obvious political bent. Do you think adding all of this up, The Sun's outlook could be any worse?

Nitkin: The Sun's circulation declines have the same root cause as those facing large metropolitan newspapers across the country, as readers look to television, radio, the Internet, podcasting and other venues for their information. The Sun is suing the governor because, in our view, he illegally banned all executive branch state government employees from speaking with me and [former Sun] columnist Michael Olesker. The ban came after aggressive reporting on an aborted real estate deal in Southern Maryland that involved selling state-owned forest to a politically connected contracting company owner for the same price the state paid for it, with no appraisal and no immediate guarantee of preservation protection. As a member of the Board of Public Works, the governor was briefed on and approved the first half of the transaction -- having the state buy the land for preservation -- but the second half, the sale to Willard Hackerman, was aborted after our reporting. Aides to the governor, including Deputy Chief of Staff Ed Miller, worked aggressively to complete the deal, publicly released e-mail messages show.

Olesker resigned after being confronted with a few examples of wording similar to that in our paper and other publications in background paragraphs. It has never been shown -- although partisan accusations have been made -- that Olesker fabricated quotations or made up individuals or stole ideas outright from others.

My political bent, if I have one, is hopefully not obvious -- but of course I'm not in the best position to judge that.

So, we can do your math and add all this up to one conclusion.

Or, we can look at The Sun's redesign, our ongoing commitment to top-shelf journalism, our unparalleled reporting resources in Maryland, the energy and talent that Sun reporters and editors bring to their jobs every day to keep readers informed and to afflict the comforted and comfort the afflicted, and we can reach an entirely different conclusion.

My glass is half-full, even in an unquestionably difficult newspaper environment.

Paulie, Glen Burnie: How does The Sun justify pure evidence of bias like when O'Malley got seven endorsements, it was on the front of the B section, but when Duncan got 50, it was buried next to the obituaries? I understand Martin is the local boy, but ignoring Duncan seems more premeditated and coordinated. You're an editor. What's up?

Nitkin: We haven't ignored any candidate. I'm not sure exactly which stories to which you are referring. We've had several stories of endorsements for candidates in the race for governor and Senate. They're not usually major stories. Often, they run inside our metro section. The competing news of a given day often dictates where and how stories are displayed.

Ken, Gambrills: Thank you for the Q&A. My question is about the "left slant" of The Sun. Your paper has featured three articles to date on the governor's campaign director with no new or real news involved. Also, you fail to report on issues such as the identity of MD4Bush, his job with the mayor, state Democratic Party staff departures, etc. Why pretend?

Nitkin: We've had two major stories on the hiring of Bo Harmon as Ehrlich's political director. We had a story when he was hired, which got into how he is viewed in Georgia and his role working for Saxby Chambliss, who defeated former Sen. Max Cleland in a race that featured very controversial attacks on Cleland's patriotism. Then, reporter Andy Green went to Georgia to work on a fuller profile piece. This was all news to our readers. We've reported all we need to so far on MD4Bush and Democratic departures. Who's doing the pretending here, Ken?