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David Nitkin on state politics issues

City schoolsStuart, Baltimore: How can the mayor of Baltimore whine about the state takingover 11 failing Baltimore City schools? It is about time that the statestepped in to take some dramatic steps to improve the failing educationalsystem in Baltimore City. This is the same school system that "lost" $60million.

Nitkin: Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and state schools Superintendent Nancy S.Grasmick say that state intervention is needed in these troubled schools,and that the poor performance as measured by test scores there cannot beallowed to continue. But city leaders say the state did not communicatewith them before announcing the takeover.

More substantively, they say thatthe city has improvement plans in place -- paid for in part with foundationdollars and approved by the state -- for the high schools on the list, andthat city schools are heading in the right direction.

Mary Lewis, Baltimore: Why is it that city officials in the mayor's Cabinet arerequired to live in Baltimore City but not required to educate theirchildren in public schools? How can the mayor justify his reasoning fornever having sent his own children to city schools?

Nitkin: While many cities have residency requirements for their topemployees, a "public education" requirement would be of questionablelegality. Many elected officials prefer to send their children to privateor parochial schools -- including both Mayor Martin O'Malley and Ehrlich (who also went to private high schools themselves). They do soknowing they will have to answer questions about why they did not selectpublic schools for their children.

Davis Malloy, Baltimore: There has been a lot of bickering on both sides about theproposed state takeover of some of the city schools. One of the big arguments against the takeover has been that the city schools are improving and they just need more time. Most of the arguments I have seen have been talking about the improvements the city schools havebeen making across the board.

What I want to know is how are the schools that are proposed in the takeover performing in relation to the rest of the schools? Are they showing the same improvement? Or are opponents of the takeover using the citywide numbers to skew the argument? Personally, Ithink the "partnership" model is a joke and only enabled both parties toclaim credit for the good and point fingers for the bad. We have seen thecity run the schools into the ground, and the "partnership" make[s] it worse,with no accountability. I think we owe it to the children to see what state-run schools can accomplish. Will it work? I don't know, but I don't thinkit can be any worse.

Nitkin: This is from Sara Neufeld, our city education reporter:

"The improvement the school system has seen in test scores has beenin the elementary schools, and all 11 schools targeted for takeover aremiddle and high schools. The school system readily acknowledges thatperformance in middle schools is very weak. System officials and the mayortalk about the improved graduation rate in the high schools, but notimprovements in test scores.

The 11 schools have the longest low performance over time in thesystem. All have failed to meet state standards, first under the [MarylandSchool Performance Assessment Program] and now on the [Maryland School Assessment], since at least 1997. All 23 of the city's middle schools had very lowtest scores last school year.

For example, at Thurgood Marshall Middle --one of the 11 schools -- 79 percent of eighth-graders failed in reading and99 percent failed in math. Citywide, 60 percent of eighth-graders failedlast year's reading test and 81 percent failed the math test. Thoseaverages are even lower if you look at the performance of just themiddle schools, since scores are higher, on average, at the 30 K-8 schools,but the state doesn't break it down that way.

Citywide, 22 percent of students last year passed the state algebra test,which as of 2009 students must pass to get a high school diploma. AtFrederick Douglass -- a high school targeted for takeover -- 4.8 percent ofstudents passed the algebra test."

BGE ratesCate, Baltimore: Please explain why there can't be a rollback of the [Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.]/Constellation split. If they were again one company, wouldn't the priceof energy be less, since a middleman's markup is then eliminated? Barringthat, what about forcing BGE to become a publicly owned company throughsome kind of "eminent domain" legislation? It just seems that privateownership of utilities is a bad idea in general. No one should be making aprofit for supplying a necessity of life (heat, lights, etc.)

Nitkin: It would be difficult to turn the clock back as you suggest.As part of the 1999 deregulation plan, BGE sold its power plants toConstellation and became an energy distribution company. To return to aregulated or public model, BGE would have to buy back the plants, and -- ifyour suggestion is carried out -- the public would have to come up with themoney for the purchase of the plants and the company.

Paul Adams, our utilities reporter, says this would require the Federal Energy RegulatoryCommission relinquishing control of the former BGE plants, which it nowoversees. That would be unlikely. Some lawmakers in Annapolis are talkingabout this, but it's a decision that won't be made for a long time -- ifever.

A baltimoresun.com reader: It seems that the same environmental turmoil from HurricaneKatrina and civil unrest in the Middle East that has caused gas prices tomore than double over the last several months is also the reasonelectricity rates will increase after the rate caps expire. Why haven't thepoliticians that have attacked Constellation Energy and BGE also attacked theExxon Mobil's of the world?

Exxon has recently reported record profitsgreater than any American company in history. A 72 percent increasein electricity seems reasonable in comparison to the gas-price increase. Isthis purely a political ploy in an election year or are the politiciansreally concerned with the public well-being?

Nitkin: I think it's a combination. Politicians are concerned abouttheir constituents, but they are extra concerned this year because it's anelection year, and they know they could receive blame for increased rates.Constellation and BGE are the main subjects of attention becausestate-imposed rate caps are expiring in July.

Lawmakers are also concernedabout the impact of a merger between Constellation and BGE. Together, therate-cap lifting and the merger have created what some have called a"perfect storm" of worry. Exxon Mobil and other multinational energycompanies are not regulated by the state.

J.H. Clemson, Towson: Where is the competition we need for electricity and cableservice? It seems to me that the $528 million was an investment in BGE. Where is our return on that investment? If the power plants are worth morenow, then BGE owes us more that just the $528 million!

Nitkin: That's exactly the argument made by Sen. E.J. Pipkin, anEastern Shore Republican who sponsored legislation that would require BGEto return the money it collected as compensation for a loss in value of itspower plants -- which rose in value instead. The governor vetoed the bill.

There is no residential competition for electricity, although commercialpower users do have a choice. Proponents of deregulation argue that pricecaps have prevented other companies from entering the market, and thatafter the caps are lifted in July, competition could develop.

IssuesEditor's note: The next two questions are answered together.

John F. Johnston, Huntingtown: What is the status of the teachers' pension reform? What is the chance of passage this year? If so, when might reform be implemented? Thank you.

David, Annapolis: What are the chances of HB 1737 or SB 1019 passing thissession? Both bills are supporting state pension enhancements.

Nitkin: The Assembly agreed to improve pensions for teachers andstate workers, considered the worst in the nation. The plan calls forworkers to contribute more money toward their retirement, from 2 percent to5 percent over three years. Employees will get retroactive benefits datingto 1998. Legislators say the change will put Maryland in the middle of thepack nationally.

William Neil, Rockville: There are now proposals for very expensive highwayconstruction and expansion on the table -- like the $2.4 billion [Intercounty Connector],as well as new private toll lanes on the beltway.

Why do you think that there are no new expansion plans for the Metro or MARC rail systems, when auto travel is such a nightmare, and these railsystems work pretty well?

Nitkin: Transit systems often run at a deficit and need publicsubsidies. And transit users and supporters are not a particularly forcefulor well-organized lobbying group. In Maryland, transit systems such as MARCand Metro cross jurisdictional lines, making agreements among governmentstricky.

Road builders and contractors, however, are regular campaigncontributors and are usually well-represented when state transportationplans are being drafted. The governor wants to build the ICC to fulfill acampaign promise, and many Montgomery residents support the road, althoughopponents are numerous and active.

Andrew, Jacksonville: There have been several gasoline leaks in Baltimore County,including several thousand gallons leaked from an Exxon in Jacksonvillelast month. I have heard that a bill was signed by Ehrlichpreventing stations from being located within a certain distance of homesthat are on wells for water supply. Do you know why this bill was notenforced by the governor and what the governor is doing about protectingour homes and the environment?

Nitkin: This is from Tim Wheeler, our suburban growth writer who hasbeen the lead reporter on gas-leak issues:

"There has been no state legislation, as far as I know, that requiresservice stations to be located away from homes that rely on wells.However, Maryland and other states are required by federal Safe DrinkingWater Act to have "wellhead protection" strategies, and the state hasrequired each county to do its own. Those can include zoning restrictions,but more likely focus on educating the public about the need to be aware ofand careful about contaminating their own wells.

I'm not sure if all ofMaryland's counties have adopted wellhead protection strategies yet --perhaps this is the lack of enforcement to which Andrew is referring. Theonly locality I know of that has taken a serious look at zoning servicestations away from homes is Harford County."

Dave, Bel Air: Do you think the legislature's constant criticism andcrying for a change in how the governor appoints individuals to "at will"positions is intrusive? Seems that when we had Democratic governors, thelegislature always gave them their way on issues. I personally think it isstrictly partisan politics by the Democrats. Your thoughts?

Nitkin: I think the personnel inquiry by the Assembly is acombination of politics and policy. Many lawmakers, such as Sen. Brian E. Frosh and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, are gravely concerned about theway state workers were treated at many agencies, and the "brain drain" fromgovernment that may have occurred as Ehrlich employees made their imprinton state government. But to be sure, if it were a Democratic governor doingthe firing or replacing, there would be no legislative committee and muchless outcry.

Ron Martin, Cumberland: What is the status with Jessica's Law? Is this a subjectthe liberal Sun refuses to discuss? At least give us the details of whatthe holdup is. Thanks.

Nitkin: Many lawmakers were opposed to Jessica's Law, with itsmandatory sentencing provisions for sex offenders. The disagreement held upmore substantive legislation on sex offenders.

Tia Rouse: I work for [the] Department of Corrections and I want to know if we are still going to receive our raise?

Nitkin: Alone among state employees, corrections officers are gettingpay raises averaging 6 percent starting April 12. They and all other state workers will receive a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment in the budget year that begins July 1. The corrections raises are not retroactive, as the governor first proposed.

ElectionsJack Woodward, Lutherville: I'm starting to see [Dennis F.] Rasmussen bumper stickers throughout Baltimore and Harford counties. Is he really a player in the U.S. Senate race?

Nitkin: It's still too early to tell, but the former Baltimore Countyexecutive and state senator fared poorly in anunscientific and nonbinding straw poll last weekend at the WesternMaryland Democratic Caucus in Flintstone.

U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin got58 votes; American University history professor Allan Lichtman received39; former NAACP head and former congressman Kweisi Mfume got 38; forensicpsychiatrist Lise Van Susteren received 14; and businessman andphilanthropist Joshua Rales earned 11. Rasmussen got one vote.

Editor's note: David Nitkin is on vacation next week. His weekly Q&A will resume on April 25.

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