David Nitkin on state politics issues

IssuesNancy L. Howard, Ocean City: Where can I find the history of the 2006 budget tourismfunding?

Nitkin: Nancy, I'm not sure whether you are talking about the budget for the 2006 fiscal year (July 1, 2005, to June 30, 2006), which was adopted by the General Assembly a year ago, or the 2007 fiscal year budget, which has yet to be voted on. I'll try to answer both.

For the governor's proposed budget, go here, then click on the link for FY 2007 Proposed Operating Budget, Volumes 1-3.

The tourism budget is in Volume 3, and the Division of Tourism is contained within the state Department of Business and Economic Development. The document contains the governor's proposed funding and staffing levels for the upcoming years, as well as the levels for the current year.

The General Assembly Web site contains the analysis of the Department of LegislativeServices, which has examined the budget and made recommendations for cutsand raised other questions. The Assembly Web site also contains older budget documents. Go here, and then click on "budgetdocuments" in the second column of bullets.

Click on the link for Department of Business and Economic Development, and then read theanalysis. You'll see that the governor has proposed an increase in funding for the Maryland Tourism Board of $1.5 million, of which $1 million is grants to local tourism development agencies and $500,000 is advertising.

Robert Cheeks, Baltimore: What is the situation on the pay raises for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections?

Nitkin: Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has proposed a 6 percent raise for corrections workers, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2006. A Senate budget committee has recommended against the retroactive portion of raises, but it seems likely that a significant raise for public safety and corrections employees will be adopted this year.

Bill, Odenton: What is the current status of any state pension enhancement for state employees and teachers?

Nitkin: Bill, we haven't heard a lot about pension improvements for teachers and others during the session, since the idea first surfaced months ago and the two Democratic candidates for governor, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, both came out in favor of the boost. We'll try to come back to this issue again in our coverage before the 2006 Assembly session expires.

Steve: Is the State Board of Elections supposed to be loyal to the Democratic leadership in the General Assembly? I didn't realize that the Board of Elections was in the legislative branch of Maryland government.

One only needs to look at the efforts of Democrats in the last year to weigh the 2006 elections in their favor by changing current election laws. The effort failed, but begs the question about whether or not it is a good thing that the Maryland General Assembly has politicized the administration of elections in Maryland.

Looking objectively at the State Board of Elections, one cannot draw the logical conclusion that it has been managed well over the last several years: the Board of Elections is barely incompliance with HAVA; it has failed to update voter registration numbers on its Web site in months; it does not have election results broken down by precinct; the campaign finance law information for candidates is outdated and inaccurate; [and] it has enormous project overruns. The list of mismanagement examples is quite long. It is quite clear [where] the administrator's loyalty [lays], but shouldn't those loyalties be with Maryland taxpayers rather than the leadership in the state Senate?

Nitkin: The administration of the Maryland State Board of Elections has been in the spotlight for quite some time. When a Republican was elected governor in 2002, the composition of the appointed county and state elections boards shifted because the party that holds the governor's mansion also gets a majority on five-member elections boards. So, Democrats get kicked off to make room for Republicans.

On the state level, the board gets to appoint the administrator, currently Linda H. Lamone. Ehrlich and his top aides have made no secret of their desire to replace Lamone,but the effort to do so has become a political battle royal.

When the governor was elected, the law stated that a vote of four of the elections board members was needed to replace the administrator -- and that the administrator could only be replaced "for cause," which meant that a Democrat would have had to side with three Republicans in order to vote on charges that would lead to the replacement. The governor sought to get those votes by appointing Democrats who were loyal to him and not to theleadership in the Assembly.

A year ago, the Senate refused to approve those nominees, and then passed a bill making it even more difficult to remove the administrator -- requiring that the board needed to be at full strength for a vote, and that the administrator remain in her job until the Senateconfirmed a replacement.

At one point -- when the board was not at full strength last year and when some Democrats loyal to Ehrlich were serving on it -- some members of the board did decide to replace her. But Lamone went to court and kept her job. I can't comment specifically about the quality of management in the office, because I don't know enough about it. I'll take your word for itthat some data online is out of date.

Judging from the people I've dealt with in the office -- who have always been helpful to me and other journalists from The Sun -- I'd have to say it is my impression that the staff there is committed to conducting fair, accurate elections and to disseminating campaign finance and candidate information in a timely fashion.

Larry, Manchester: Is it true that since the changes in election law, I don't need any form of identification to vote? Plus, can I now vote near my work?

Nitkin: After checking with the state elections board, my understanding is that the general requirement for voting -- that you have to provide your name and address to the poll worker, but not an identification card -- has been in place for many years, and has not been altered by legislative decisions.

The General Assembly this year overrode Ehrlich vetoes on bills to allow early voting -- the opening of select polling places five days before the elections, and on easier access to provisional ballots. The early voting bill means that yes, some people would be able tovote near their work. Having polls open early is designed to encourage people to vote who may not otherwise be able to get to the polls, because of work or other commitments.

Kenneth A. Stevens, Savage: Every year in Annapolis, we can count on incumbent elected officials from across the ideological spectrum buying votes with public funds by two means. One, despite clear constitutional intent [regarding the] separation of church and state, many of them will pander to religious interests by pushing so-called "state debt" bills thattogether include many millions of dollars that wind up with religious entities for allegedly secular purposes.

Most of these bills can be identified by the inclusion of boilerplate legalese claiming that none of these public funds will be used for religious purposes. That, to me, is [a] sure sign that it will be. In recent years, the legislature has expedited the payoff process on these by putting them all in one big bill. This also helps them to hide their individual votes on these bills from the public so that it's harder for people like me to hold them accountable.

Second, there's the vote-buying that goes on with legislators handing out state funds as education scholarships as if it was coming from them. It would help if more light was shone on both of these matters by the press. Is there any chance that The Sun will do it?

Nitkin: We've written extensively on the legislative scholarship process. (See this article.) The bond bills to which you refer are probably worthy of deeper examination.

Elizabeth Thompson, Iowa City, Iowa: I have been keeping track of your legislative publications this session and it seems that few bills have been passed yet by both houses. Is this common in the Maryland legislature to wait until the end of session to pass bills? Also, do you know of any resources to track which bills have been passed? Thank you.

Nitkin: Elizabeth, it is common for most bills to pass at the end of the 90-day session. In the Maryland legislature, the committee process is well-respected. Almost all bills receive a hearing in a legislative committee, and the committee votes them up or down. Favorable bills come to the full House or Senate for consideration, then need to cross over to theopposing chamber if they pass.

To track bills, use the General Assembly Web site. Search for a bill by number, topic or sponsor, and when you call it up, you can see its status.

Jeff, Baltimore: O'Malley is touted as a homeland security expert. Given that in [fiscal year] 2005, the federal Department of Homeland Security granted Baltimore City $11.3 million as part of the DHS Urban Area Security Initiative Allocations, has there ever been an audit on how that money is being spent?

DHS gave Baltimore money in 2003 and 2004, as well. Why is it that Baltimore's first responders are dealing with shortages in personnel? Why doesn't every Baltimore City police officer have a functioning radio capable of inter-jurisdictional communication? Whyhasn't The Sun done the job of investigating just how good or bad thehomeland security expert O'Malley is doing?

Nitkin: The Sun has done extensive reporting on homeland security issues, including work by Michael Dresser and Greg Barrett on the port of Baltimore (see this link). Barrett has also looked extensively at how local jurisdictions spend their homeland security dollars (see this link). We've been out front on this issue.

Scott, Lutherville: Why don't you report more favorable aspects of marriage involving the union between two people regardless of gender? There's got to be something, right? Would you write an article about South Africa or Canada, for example, countries that are in the forefront on this issue and believe it is discriminatory not to allow same-sex partners to marry? Or even an article expressing some of the positive aspects of same-gender ("gender"sounds better than "sex") marriage? Or is it just too much for some (in Annapolis) to comprehend?

Nitkin: Those are interesting ideas which could be mentioned to our foreign editor. If gay marriage truly were close to becoming a reality in Maryland, perhaps such stories would be worth our time and effort. But it's not, so we need to use our reporting staff on other issues.

BiasEditor's note: The following two comments from the same reader are taken together.

David, Bel Air: Thanks for responding to my question about always criticizing the governor, but not the mayor. Not sure what you said, but at least [I] received a response. I still believe The Sun is pro-Democrat and favorable to O'Malley. Obviously, The Sun and yourself have personal reasons for disliking the governor. How about being objective, and positive when reporting [and] commenting about both the governor and mayor?

David, Bel Air: Read your column again, and realized you didn't respond to my question. You did to Michael, which is good -- now [I] know I'm not the only one who had the same question about The Sun's coverage of the governor and mayor. But thanks for answering Michael's question.

Nitkin: I think the paper, as a whole, has been equally aggressive covering the O'Malley administration in Baltimore and the Ehrlich administration in Annapolis. As a journalist who primarily focuses on state government, I've been more involved in the latter. That could change as the election season unfolds.

Mike, Severn: Without looking specifically at the point by point contentions of the governor, isn't the overwhelming bias of the opinion page of this newspaper reason enough for the governor to want to cease discussion with The Sun? And frankly, despite The Sun's assertion that the opinion page is separate from the news organization, isn't itreasonable for a person to conclude that there is a pervasive, left-wing bias that affects both the opinion and the news? Can they really be separate?

Whoever assigns the titles and captions to the news articles clearly shows an anti-Republican bias that is there for the world to see. And it seems to me that Republican politicians will increasingly circumvent papers like The Sun if they believe that they can't get a fair shake.

Nitkin: My view is that politicians and elected officials from all parties should maintain a dialogue with both the news side and the editorial sides of newspapers. True, there are many other media out there through which political leaders can try to communicate, from blogs to talk radio to their own direct mail pieces. But large metropolitan newspaperscontinue to have unmatched reporting resources and some of the sharpest opinion writers around.

I don't think it serves anyone well -- not politicians and not voters -- for elected officials and candidates to decide that they won't communicate with the largest and most respected information provider in the state.

Andrew, Perry Hall: Always enjoy your verbal contortions to in some way take aslap at the governor or Lt. Gov. [Michael S. Steele] in every paragraph. [This is a] follow-up to an [earlier] question. ("How come you are never writing any stories critical of O'Malley but are constantly writing negative articles about Ehrlich?" To which Nitkin responded: "As I said last week, most of our articles about O'Malley are written by our very capable City Hall staff. I think negativity is in the eye of the beholder and is a subjective term. Just because articles critically examine a position, statement or policy does not mean they are 'negative.'")

Perhaps you could critically examine a position, statement or policy issued by the mayor with the same fervor you critically examine the governor? Doing so just might relieve you of tedious e-mails such as this one, or would doing so cause you to be called on the carpet by The Sun's higher-ups for daring to criticize their pick for Annapolis? Waiting for your reply, but I won't hold my breath. Thank you.

Nitkin: Whether or not I write about O'Malley in depth has nothing to do with being called on the carpet by higher-ups. It mainly has to do with the fact that we have other reporters who are covering the mayor right now. As I said above, perhaps that will change during the height of the election season.

Bryan, Olney: Mr. Nitkin, do you believe you owe Ehrlich an apology after the results of The Sun's recent appeal?

Nitkin: Always a pleasure, Bryan. I'm not being glib: I know of nothing I need to apologize for. If there are errors in stories, we correct them.

CounterpointDan, New Market: The Ehrlich administration has done an excellent job of diverting attention away from themselves and the issues brought to light by The Sun and other papers. Instead of addressing the land deal or the personnel policies, Ehrlich and the GOP machine have used talk radio, blogs and editorials to attack the messenger or to claim some plot by the Democrats to entrap the governor and [former aide Joseph F.] Steffen [Jr.]. Do you think these issues will ever really get addressed by the administration, the GOP or the public?

Nitkin: I think the administration's view is that neither the land deal nor the activities of Steffen warrant much attention. Ehrlich frequently uses the term "non-story," pulling out theadjective to describe everything from his fundraiser at the exclusive Elkridge Club to the first lady's salary and employment at Comcast.

Clearly, the governor's views of what warrants news coverage are very different from that of newspaper editors and television producers across the state.

I think there's been quite a lot of media attention on both the 2004 St. Mary's County land deal and the Steffen-triggered personnel probe. I think the administration feels it has addressed them for what they are worth. Whether you and others agree is a different story.

Michael, Parkville: How can the Ehrlich administration and Republicans ingeneral continually press on in full partisan attack mode while simultaneously whining incessantly about the "liberal media" being unfair and biased? I have never heard a Republican complain about the bias of Rush Limbaugh or Fox News. Yet, they label anything that does not praise them as "liberal bias." The tale about people living in glass houses that love to throw stones comes to mind.

Nitkin: The Ehrlich administration clearly favors some media over others, particularly AM talk radio, chatty sports radio shows and smaller, rural newspapers. We continue to encourage him to have a dialogue with the large metropolitan papers in the state, as all of his predecessors did before him. The governor feels he is unfairly being attacked by newspapercoverage. We believe we're doing our jobs by holding a spotlight to the administration.

Ehrlich's golfing partnersDonald Brady, Columbia: While in the House of Representatives, Ehrlich served as Tom Delay's deputy whip. Did Ehrlich, an avid golfer, ever play golf with Mr. Delay or Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff?

Nitkin: Ehrlich has been photographed playing golf with Rep. Tom Delay at the Congressional Country Club in June 2005. The photograph is available on the Internet; I found it at a site called www.firedupmaryland.com, which does not appear to support the governor. There is no indication that the governor has played golf with Jack Abramoff.

Curran dealDavid, Dayton: There's a rumor floating around that [J. Joseph] Curran [Jr.] will runfor re-election as attorney general, and if O'Malley wins as governor, Curran will resign shortly thereafter. O'Malley will then appoint [running mate] Anthony Brown as attorney general.

Apparently, this was a deal made to get Brown to be O'Malley's running mate. If you could get O'Malley, Curran and Brown to comment on the rumor or the possibility of Brown being appointed attorney general at any time, I would appreciate it.

Nitkin: That's an intriguing rumor, and it's based on a couple of known facts. The first is that Curran, who is the mayor's father-in-law, says he would not seek re-election if his candidacy is shown to be hurting O'Malley's gubernatorial bid. It's going to be hard todetermine whether that is the case, and whether more than a few political insiders know and care about the family relationship between the two. And if his running does harm O'Malley, then Curran says he would get out of the race -- not stay in.

The second fact is that Brown has expressed interest in being attorney general, as have several other qualified politicians. Beyond that, I can't shed any light on the hypothesis.

If there is a vacancy in attorney general, the governor appoints someone to fill the office, according to the state constitution.

SchaeferS. Francis, Baltimore: First, thanks for these Q&As. I appreciate your information and how you present it in a balanced way. (How about a blog format?)

Count me among the thousands (I hope) who have cast their last ballot for Comptroller [William Donald] Schaefer. Is anyone challenging him? What can you tell us about him/her/them? Thanks.

Nitkin: Schaefer is being challenged in the Democratic primary by Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat known for his quick tongue and his expertise on budget and transportation issues.

The winner of the primary will face Steve Abrams, a member of the Montgomery Countyschool board with a deep financial and business background who has alsoproduced Broadway shows.

Baltimore crime statisticsMark, Owings Mills: David, wouldn't it make sense for the mayor to just say that violent crime has substantially decreased under his administration instead of all of this bickering over the stats? If he would just try to take the high road on this, they could all find something else to argue about instead of whether crime dropped 25 percent or 40 percent.

Nitkin: Mark, that's an interesting point. We've reported that even if the drop in crime between 1999 and 2005 was based on raw 1999 figures, and not those that were adjusted upward after an audit commissioned by O'Malley, the decrease would still be sixth best in the nation. But because crime is readily measurable (indeed, part of O'Malley's record is theCitiStat program, which measures quality-of-life figures in many departments), and because the mayor cited a specific figure (175) as his goal for annual homicides, it's hard to avoid a discussion about exact numbers. I suppose one way to put it would be live by the statistic, die by the statistic.

John H. Langley, Red Lion, Pa., formerly from Baltimore: Didn't the O'Malley administration inherit 21,000 outstanding arrest warrants from the [Kurt L.] Schmoke administration? If this statement is correct, what progress has been made?

Nitkin: I checked our library of stories and found that we haven't written much about outstanding arrest warrants lately. Our city police reporter, Gus Sentementes, tells me that the city now has a Regional Warrant Apprehension Task Force that may well be making progress in this area.

In 2000, Peter Hermann, then a reporter and now an assistant city editor with the paper, wrote the following: "Most of the 51,000 open warrants are for nonviolent or minor crimes. More than 6,000 people are wanted in Baltimore for failing to pay child support. About 260 people arewanted on murder or attempted murder charges.

Police in the past have only made cursory attempts to serve warrants dealing with minor charges -- many of which surface only when a suspect is arrested on another crime and a record check is conducted.

The state-run Central Booking and Intake Center, where arrestees are processed, has matched 20,576 unserved warrants to people arrested between September 1998 and August."

I'm not sure how many warrants are outstanding now, but it would be interesting to know the answer. If anybody knows and wants to e-mail me, I'll certainly post it here.

Jen, Jarrettsville: Recently, many individuals are calling for an audit of Baltimore City's crime statistics. If crime is going unreported because the police are either failing to take a report or are discouraging citizens from making a report, what will an audit show?

[Police Commissioner Leonard D.] Hamm on WBAL-TV told everyone that in some cases, even shootings, that if the victim doesn't cooperate, it is OK to call the case unfounded, which means the incident never happened. O'Malley has yet to refute this statement by Hamm as not being the policy of the police department. Wouldn't it be more beneficial to the citizens of Baltimore who live in daily fear of crime to do an investigation of [the department's] policy as it applies to crime reporting? Especially after Hamm's statements and O'Malley's silence on the issue. If this is being done with shooting incidents, one can only imagine what other incidents are being left unreported.

Nitkin: Jen, you are right. If crime is unreported, an audit won't show it. The examples of crime not going reported have been anecdotal, and it is not clear if there is a systemic problem. Some police officers calling in to radio shows or posting messages on the Internet say it is; others, such as police union officials, have told The Sun it is not.

Gary Solomon, New York, N.Y. : O'Malley is taking a lot of heat for the crime rate in Baltimore. However, on the positive side, why doesn't the mayor stress the investment in Baltimore that has occurred during his term? There are construction cranes everywhere. More people are moving into the downtown area, [and] these are more affluent people that should increase the city's tax base. I read somewhere that the city's population loss has beenturned around.

Even though the city has a poor image on crime, people are investing in the city with their money and presence.

Nitkin: True enough. There's lots of residential and commercial construction going on in Baltimore. How much of it can be attributed to the mayor's policies, as opposed to general national and regional economic health -- or the D.C. housing market pushing buyers to Baltimore -- is a debatable question.

Planning department moveFrank Booth, Baltimore: Mr. Nitkin, I appreciate you taking the time to answer myquestions about the senseless and wasteful move of the Maryland Departmentof Planning from Baltimore to Prince George's County -- no one in state government seems to have any answers.

However, there is part of your answer to my question that is misleading. You (along with Sen. [Ulysses] Currie, the Ehrlich administration, et. al.) seem to think that Prince George's County has no or few state jobs. While it may be true that the county does not have a state agencyheadquartered there, have you ever heard of the University of Maryland?

Prince George's County has the second-highest number of state jobs in Maryland. Baltimore City has approximately 35,000 state jobs and Prince George's County has around 20,000. Taken together, these two jurisdictions constitute the majority of the state's employees. Montgomery County has a much stronger case for getting state jobs than Prince George's.

Another key issue here is that Prince George's County is projected to have a job growth rate that is five times greater than Baltimore City's. Given [that] it will cost millions to move this small agency of 150 people, it just doesn't make a lick of sense to move them. How can people entrusted with the people's money get away with this? What kind of joy ride are theyon? It will be telling to see how comptroller contender Franchot (chair of the House budget subcommittee) handles himself with this issue.

Nitkin: Frank, excellent point, and one that I overlooked and that has not to date been part of the debate, as far as I can tell. Indeed, the University of Maryland, College Park campus is in Prince George's County, and many professors, researchers and students live, work and spend their money in Prince George's communities such as Hyattsville. Thanks forstaying on the case.

Closing commentDave Waltemeyer Sr., Bel Air: No question, just a comment. [I] read [the] article about "Governor's supporters cool heels in Annapolis." The Democratic legislature should hang their heads in shame. Nothing less than a bunch of "cry babies." The citizens of Maryland deserve to have "adults" represent them.

Nitkin: And with that, we'll end for the week. Cheers.

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