Note: First installment of a new weekly baltimoresun.com feature.
Frank Martino, North East: Are the state employees going to get anything to cover all they lost to make the state surplus?
Nitkin: Salaries and benefits for state employees will largely be determined by the proposed budget for the next fiscal year submitted by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in January. Health care costs for workers are rising and continue to be a budgetary problem for the state. It is more likely that surplus funds -- leftover from previous budget years and due tohigher-than-projected tax revenues -- would be spent on one-time expenditures such as buildings than on ongoing expenses such as salaries or benefits. But such spending could conceivably include a one-time "bonus" for state employees, which would not add to ongoing expenses.
Several officials, including Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, an Ehrlich ally, have called for workers to receive a cost-of-living increase and better prescription drug benefits. The governor has not committed to such spending.
LC, Baltimore: Why is there such a lack of Maryland media coverage on the JackAbramoff, Michael Scanlon, Gus Boulis, Congressman [Tom] Delay and Congressman Bob Ney connections to a huge money-laundering scandal? Abramoff and his wife owned the Eshkol Academy in Maryland. Recently, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel identified one of them having a gun conviction in the city of Baltimore.
Nitkin: On the state level, The Sun has written several prominently placedstories about Edward Miller, a deputy chief of staff to Ehrlich who founded a company that appears to have been used by Abramoff to launder money from Tyco and other companies he represented.
Mark, Baltimore: Assuming that the Democrats win the governor's race next year andmaintain current legislative majorities, do you think that there will be a much higher number of bills that are signed by the new governor (in early 2007) than we saw during the last few years?
Nitkin: What we have seen in the past couple of years are a relatively high number of bills vetoed by the governor (somewhere around two dozen), and a relatively high number of veto overrides by the Democrat-controlled Assembly (about three or four a year, but the votes have been very contentious, with the governor fighting vigorously for his vetoes to be sustained). If a Democrat were to win in 2006, chances are there would be fewer bills vetoed by the new governor in 2007. Overall, however, roughly the same number of bills would probably pass and be signed, which annually is in the hundreds.
Gregory Thomas Jr., Baltimore: Who will be mayor of Baltimore after next year's general election?
Nitkin: If Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan wins the gubernatorial primary or Ehrlich wins the general election, the mayor of Baltimore will continue to be Martin O'Malley.
O'Malley does not have to resign his current position to run for governor, and would step down only if he wins both the primary and the general elections (the terms of mayor and governor are not concurrent). The next mayoral election is in 2007. If O'Malley is elected governor, City Council President Sheila Dixon would serve as mayor until the 2007 election.
William Marye, Millersville: Is it true that William Donald Schaefer has been given theauthority to review the benefits to retired state employees and make cuts and/or adjustments to their retirement plans as he sees fit?
Nitkin: William, after getting this question, I did some reporting and the answer appears to be that what you describe is not true. Schaefer, the state comptroller, is chairman of the board of trustees of the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System. The board administers the pension system, but has nothing to do with benefits for retirees.
Michael Golden, a spokesman for Schaefer, said he knows nothing about Schaefer being given authority to review and adjust pensions or benefits unilaterally. Nor does Tom Lee, the executive director of the pension system. Lee notes that benefits for retirees are determined by statute, and the laws must be approved by the General Assembly.
Randy Gogatz, Atlanta: Why do so many blacks treat [Maryland Lt. Gov.] Michael S. Steele, who is obviously a source of pride for their race, with such uncivil, vociferous, almostadolescent disdain? What has he done that warrants such harsh reaction?
Nitkin: Actually, Randy, my experience is that blacks in Maryland -- both elected officials and residents -- treat Steele with the respect that his office of lieutenant governor accords. You are probably referring to media accounts of several racially tinged incidents, such as Oreos appearing at a 2002 debate and a doctored minstrel photograph of Steele ona blog. Those incidents are either old, or not related to Maryland.
Many black Democrats, however, say they disagree with Steele's conservativeviews on the role of government in problem-solving.
Veronica Agent, Baltimore: When did the mayor and Baltimore City Council first start talks of the [convention center] hotel project? Was it the idea of the government or the GreaterBaltimore Committee?
Nitkin: According to Jill Rosen, our downtown development reporter who has covered the hotel deal extensively during the past year, the project has been discussed for many, many years. The original germ of the idea may be lost to history. Rosen says that the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association has been very supportive of the project, dating at least to 2002.
Howard Buhl, Annapolis: Baltimore newspapers, yours included, continue to see a decline in circulation. Do you think that part of the problem might be your paper's continuing support of a one-party political system? Perhaps a more-balanced format might produce more circulation and higher revenue.
Nitkin: Most media analysts, and the highest level of Sun executives, believe the decline in newspaper circulation at almost all large metropolitan papers -- including The Sun -- is a result in a fragmentation of the media market and changing habits of younger readers who get their news from a variety of sources, including online editions of papers.
As for what you refer to as "continuing support of a one-party political system," the news pages of The Sun do not support any party or system. We publish news as fairly, thoroughly and with the most balance as possible -- while providing analysis and context. The editorial board, which is separate from the news staff, in a different part of the building and with no say over news coverage -- expresses partisan opinions.
Mark, Baltimore: Don't you think it would [have] been a wiser decision for Governor Ehrlich to not seek re-election for governor in 2006, and instead run for the vacant Senate seat, allowing Steele to run for governor?
Nitkin: The possibility of Ehrlich running for Senate rather than for re-election was discussed among some people close to the governor. If Ehrlich were still in Congress and had not been elected governor in 2002, he would have seriously considered running for Senate -- and I bet he would have entered the race.
But the governor is right when he says he has not fulfilled all he has set out to do as governor; running for re-election is his best course of action. Steele's chances for higher office are better in the Senate race than they would have been for governor in 2006: President Bush, Karl Rove and others are aggressively raising money for him and providing early support. The same kind of national interest might not be available -- at least not this early -- if Steele were running for state office.
For the sake of argument, let's say Ehrlich wins re-election in 2006 but Steele loses the Senate race; Steele is still a well-positioned Republican to run for governor in 2010, although he'd presumably have to jockey past whomever Ehrlich selects as a running mate this time.
Henry, Hagerstown: Do you think Doug Duncan should have run for the vacant Senate seat? Would he have had a real chance to win that seat if he had run?
Nitkin: As the top elected official in the state's most populous county and a widely respected leader, Duncan would have a real chance to win any race he entered, including U.S. Senate. But his temperament, management skills and style seem more suited to an executive-branch position such as governor, rather than a legislative position such as U.S. senator.
Andrew, Gaithersburg: Do you think Martin O'Malley has presidential potential? Also, do you think it would have been a better route to the White House if he had instead run for the Senate seat?
Nitkin: The real question is not whether O'Malley has presidential potential, but whether he has presidential ambitions. Many people who have watched him think he does. But Maryland is a small state that does not have the cache, electoral votes or political significance of a New York, California, Florida or Texas, so a governor from Maryland would start with a pretty large handicap in mounting a national campaign.
However, modern American politics shows that governorships are good training grounds for the White House (think George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan). One has to go back to John F. Kennedy to find the last time a sitting senator was elected president.
Frank Martino, North East: Because most lower-level personnel at the state were not fired, but were forced to quit or retire, should the personnel probe be looking at these people?
Nitkin: In the eyes of many state observers, there's not much difference between "forced to quit" and "fired." The main purpose of the committee looking into Ehrlich's firing practices is to examine how lower-level employees were treated, and whether those workers should be afforded some sort of civil-service protection that would restrict their replacement after changes in administration.
There is widespread agreement that a governor has every right to choose his or her own high-level, policy-making or policy-implementing managers. It's the worker bees who form the institutional knowledge of state government that are at issue.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun