Thursday, December 18, 2014

Howard County Budget: Contesting Priorities


Last night I attended my fourth Howard County Budget Hearing.  These hearings have a distinctly regal affect to them; a reenactment of the common pleas brought to the king in times past.  County Executive Kittleman did his best to break down the wall between him and the audience, making personal comments regarding either the budget request or the individual speaking for each submission.

These events also involve quiet competition.  Howard County is far too civil a place for us to bring this competition into discussion, but in times of budget restraint, every dollar spent is a dollar withheld from something else.  And in a County of "bests" (best schools, best library, best community college), the temptation is great to say "maybe this other thing deserves some attention too."  Those "bests" do not come without budget prioritization, often over other worthwhile, but low-constituency, endeavors.  This was the first year I did not mention the County's efforts on homelessness in my remarks and I regretted it the moment I left the George Howard Building.  I have no illusion that my testimony would sway the will of an Executive who may not be inclined to listen to anything I have to say, but at least that low-constituency concern would have had a voice.

The County, and its various interests, should be commended for the turnout.  I would estimate that there were over 125 people in the room to start the night, many of whom were there to support the Community College.  I, along with the rest of the room, was most impressed by a 7th grader (pictured above) who testified in support of computer programming and engineering programs at the Howard County Library.  I don't know how the motivation for testimony spread between parents and child on this one, but great job on both counts.

My testimony focused exclusively on Ellicott City flooding.  Whether County Executive Kittleman serves for four or eight years, there is a high likelihood that he will either steward innovative new efforts to protect Main Street Ellicott City from devastating floods or oversee a prolonged clean-up effort in the ruins of a great town.  A place like Ellicott City can only tolerate so many Tropical Storm Lees before structures weaken and business owners decide it is no longer worth it.  While many will say that Lee was a 100 year storm (only predicted to occur once every 100 years), it is worth noting that an identical storm (if not slightly more powerful) came within three miles of Ellicott City last year and flooded BWI instead.  While many will say that Ellicott City is situated on a river and presumed to flood, it is worth noting that due to storm-water runoff from development upstream Ellicott City now floods from the top of the hill, a very peculiar place to flood indeed.

Estimates range from $8 million to $14 million on what will be required to make any meaningful impact on Ellicott City flooding.  I don't expect that money to be in the FY16 budget, which is already projected to be curtailed due to revenue shortfalls.  What I do expect is a long-term plan.  We need a four, eight, and ten year capital plan to give the folks on Main Street and West End some solace that while they have been made to wait, help is on the way.

This Administration is on notice of the threat, just as County Executive Ulman was.  The difference is that Executive Kittleman's watch starts now.

Addendum: In case it has to be said, losing an election is embarrassing.  You really don't feel like being "out", particularly not among people that pay enough attention to local affairs to know you lost.  Nevertheless, I really can't help myself and last night I figured I would just find a chair, write my testimony (whoops), and wait for my turn.  To all of you who came up to me and made that impossible, thank you so much.  It filled my heart up.  Same goes for all those who posted on Facebook.

Have a great Thursday doing what you love!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Lull

A busy week at work and an absence of inspiration has left this space empty more often than not the past few weeks.  If that changes, you'll be the second to know!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Permissive Leadership (Monday LINKS)

I read a great op-ed in this Sunday's Washington Post relaying a Georgetown professor's observations from talking to his students about torture.  One particular line from Daniel Byman stuck out:

"I hope my students learn to be cautious about public opinion, especially when it appears permissive."

I don't intend to write anything else about torture (at this time), but I did want to comment on this idea of a permissive electorate.  How often do you hear the word "mandate" or "the people have spoken" when directing the action of an elected official?  This is the essence of political capital.  "The polls say X."  "Voters want X."

But what Professor Byman is saying is that it is in these circumstances that our leaders should be the most cautious.  I've often said that when it comes to public affairs if you don't have to fight for it, its not worth doing.  Byman remarks on a much different circumstance - action for which the leader is merely a conduit for public will.

The antidote for the political cynicism that permeates every level of government is not populism.  It's courage.  I could name dozens of politicians who run with the current and say what people want to hear, but the leaders that I admire are those who talk and act in ways that may be unpopular, but are made popular by the conviction of will by which they are conveyed.

Leaders lead, yet the leadership part of public office is often missing.  In fact, I would suggest that it is often resented.  "You are my employee.  Do what I tell you to do."  And there is some comfort there.  It is the unstated rule of democracy that we have a bias towards prohibiting people in power from using that power.  Unless they persuade us.  And that's leadership.

Instead, we have what Byman describes.  Public opinion drives decision-makers as opposed to decision-makers driving public opinion.  In theory, this may be ok, but in practice it is ugly.  There is no consistency in action and accountability is hard to stick.  Listen to what we hear about things like torture - "It was a bad time for America and we did what we thought we had to do."  Sort of.  You did what you thought the people wanted you to do.

You should have been cautious about public opinion, especially when it appeared permissive.

LINKS

I posted about Death with Dignity a week or so ago.  Here is a good article about end of life care in the Washington Post.

Amanda Yeager writes that over 100 people gathered for the Black Lives Matter vigil on Friday night, including Council-member Calvin Ball and retired Delegate Liz Bobo.

Dan Rodricks separates myth from fact when it comes to distributing chicken manure on fields in Eastern Maryland.  It may sound romantic to use suburbanites (i.e., the circle of life on a farm), but such romanticism overlooks the waste-load of a modern day chicken farm and the simple fact that it is killing the livelihoods of another romanticized industry - fisherman.

Doug Donovan with The Sun writes about nonprofits investing in offshore accounts to avoid taxation on unrelated business income.  After reading this piece, I was more concerned about the fact that we tax unrelated business income for nonprofits than whatever they may do to avoid that taxation.  The things we do to corner tax scofflaws are truly offensive.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: Jason Booms is picking up the pace on his writing and covered Trash Free Maryland on Friday.  As always, a must read.

That's all for today.  Have a great Monday doing what you love!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Howard Continues to Lag on Breakfast Program (Friday LINKS)

Maryland Hunger Solutions has issued its School Breakfast Report Card and this is one we'll be keeping from Mom and Dad.  Out of all the counties, Howard placed dead last when looking at percentage of eligible students participating:


According to this report, 32.6% of all students participating in the National School Lunch Program also participated in the School Breakfast Program.  On the Report Card itself, Maryland Hunger Solutions made some recommendations on how to address the low marks:

I wrote about this issue in May and received some interesting feedback.  As you may imagine, we have elected officials in Howard who have dedicated significant time and attention to child hunger and know the story behind these numbers.  What they've told me is that despite efforts to expand the breakfast and summer lunch programs, poverty is just too diffuse in Howard County to make a meaningful impact.

There is also the secondary issue of serving meals that go uneaten.  How do you offer free breakfast in a way that is available to students in the time between arrival and first bell, but also does not include the stigma of eating "poor people food"?  Other jurisdictions have found that the only way to do this is to make it free for all to eat, but even then meals go uneaten.

This is a sticky problem, but I hope our leaders at the Board of Education will dig back in, meet with representatives of Maryland Hunger Solutions, and work towards getting us out of last place.  We can admit a problem is hard to solve, but we have no excuse for giving up.

LINKS

CA is moving!  Luke Lavoie writes that the Columbia Association will be relocating its headquarters from the Lakefront in Town Center to The Teachers Building in Steven's Forest.  This move has been in the works for at least the past three years and possibly longer.  The lease was up and renewal was going to price CA out of the space, which really needs an overhaul anyway.  As a member of the Board, I heard about many of the alternative locations and can't say there were options much better than this new locale next to the emissions shop.  CA needs to keep overhead low to keep up with the lien caps it has placed on itself.  Said otherwise - you get what you pay for.

Blair Ames with the Flier writes that Main Street Ellicott City will receive $10 million in Sustainable Communities Tax Credits.  And talk about burying the lead - Joe Squared Pizza is coming to Main Street!  (I'm no business-man, but I would have tried to tempt Nate Sowers into opening a brick and mortar River House Pizza before bringing in a chain, however local that chain may be.)

Governor-elect Hogan explained that we will need "strong medicine" to cure our state's budget problems, according to Erin Cox with The Sun.  Yet again, I feel like Mr. Hogan is learning for the first time just how our state budget works.  The vast majority of state spending is wrapped up in mandates and entitlements with much of that merely a pass-through for federal dollars.

I've joined millions of listeners across the world in my addictive listening to the Serial podcast.  When discussing with friends, it is easy to forget that there are families behind the story who are hurting and likely thought they were well into the healing stage before the first episode hit the air.  Justin George with The Sun writes a great piece about the Sayed family and their experience with this new notoriety for their imprisoned son.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: MM writes about the "dangerous alliance" between HCCA and The People's Voice.  I have no problem with this as it brings to light a partnership that has been working together for some time. Where I do have a concern is the lack of transparency on who is funding this PAC.  The People's Voice produced an "Ethics Ballot" that was printed and distributed on election day, started a website, and has been buying Facebook ads to promote its page, yet remarkably submitted a campaign finance report (search "The People's Voice") stating it had not received contributions or made expenditures in excess of $1,000. 

That's all for today.  Have a great Friday doing what you love!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Shortfall Nothing New in Howard County (Thursday LINKS)

County Executive Kittleman is coming into office with a $13 million budget shortfall to address, writes Amanda Yeager with the Flier.  However, budget shortfalls are nothing new in Howard County.  There was a $13 million shortfall in FY2010 and a $20 million shortfall in FY2011.  County Executive Ulman managed to fill these gaps with most of us being none the wiser, while County employees saw pay freezes and furloughs.

According to the article in the Flier, Allan will be addressing a $14 million gap by asking department heads to propose cuts that will trim 5% of planned spending by the end of this fiscal year (June 30).  So long as there is flexibility built into this approach, I think it is a fair way to proceed by empowering those who know how far each dollar goes in their department.  My concern is that a hard line on 5% may create Howard County's version of sequestration (i.e., "stupid cuts").  There are some departments in Howard County government that can afford to cut 5%.  There are others that cannot afford to cut anything.  Where is the differentiation being made?

But that is to presume an approach that has not been adopted by the County Executive.  If I'm in his shoes, I collect these 5% reports and use them to make my decision as opposed to merely signing them into effect.  Pursuant to Allan's focus on transparency, I think it would be interesting if he released these reports to the public to get a better view of how government dollars are spent and the effect of spending cuts on government services.  This would be particularly powerful and persuasive from a Republican Executive when many Republicans believe the "spending cuts = service cuts" component of public spending is a myth.

The last bit that interests me about this issue is how much we hear about it in FY2015, FY2016, etc.  As noted in earlier posts, "the mess the other guy left me with" is a tried and true line for making hard sells to the public on necessary action.  History suggests that these shortfalls are directly related to the unpredictability of County revenue, but this particular shortfall, with a new political party in power, may provide a foothold for more drastic cuts down the way.

LINKS

Howard County teacher Doug Lea has been named to the National Board for Teacher Certification, writes Blair Ames with the Flier.  I had a chance to get to know Doug through the campaign and my HCEA endorsement.  He is one of the truly good guys in local education and I am so happy to see him receive this honor.

Howard County seniors met to discuss the creation of a Master Plan for our County's "aging population", writes Blair Ames (who has had a busy week).  I've always said that any Master Plan for Seniors needs to begin with advocacy for expanded delegation authority for nurses.  Our heavily curtailed practice allowances for RN's and LPN's makes full-spectrum medical care in the home, and not in a nursing facility, too expensive to afford.

Attorney General-elect Brian Frosh's "fight like hell for justice" may bring him nose-to-nose with Governor-elect Hogan, writes Timothy Wheeler with The Sun.  As the article notes, the Governor has a significant advantage in determining how the AG's office is funded and the ability to decline state action under certain circumstances.  Nevertheless, if there is legal room to move, I wouldn't want to be on the other side of a brief filed by AG Frosh.

Meanwhile, the Sun editorial board writes that Comptroller Peter Franchot is in the "cat-bird seat" in relation to Governor-elect Hogan.  He will be the deciding vote between Hogan and Democrat Treasurer Nancy Kopp on the Board of Public Works and has a bully pulpit to rough up Hogan should he find the need to do so.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: HowChow writes that Garbanzo and Gadsby's have closed. I never did get a chance to try the latter.

Have a great Thursday doing what you love!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Partisan Delusion

We're witnessing something interesting that allows us to examine the underpinnings of partisan loyalty and adherence.  With notable exceptions, the same politicians, voters, and media outlets that lament taxation and regulation as "government oppression" are supporting and defending the use of lethal force by law enforcement and torture abroad.  And they are doing so without explanation of the cognitive dissonance between the two.

We need to accept one thing first - actions of government are done on our behalf.  This is not a perfect system, with prejudice and corruption affecting the result as well, but in its most simple terms we are accountable for the actions of our democratically led government.  The basic premise does not change based on the action involved.  The government taxes on our behalf, regulates on our behalf, goes to war on our behalf, builds roads on our behalf, etc., etc.

From that premise, we have a platform for political debate.  If these things are done on our behalf, we should have a say on whether or not certain activity is permitted.  If taxes are too high, we vote in people who will lower them.  If we've entered an unnecessary war, we vote in people who will get us out of it.  We cloak these decisions in political parties, but these constructs are really just machines to unify voting blocks and simplify voter decisions.

Lest we mistake political parties for political philosophy, there are instances such as the one I've pointed out where those who would like the government so small that it may be "drowned in a bathtub" would also like to arm it to the teeth.  As a political watcher (and sometimes participant), I thought the important issues of Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, drones, the war on drugs, and torture would create an unstoppable union between libertarians and conservatives by pointing to government excesses and saying "stop".  Instead, due to the pesky inconvenience of whose party was in power when such methods were used, that union seems weak.

And for that reason, I think we need to pull this nugget out of the regular political conversation and examine it.  Democrats do this too - entering conflicts on humanitarian grounds while disregarding the simple proposition that war propagates poverty more than most other evils in the world.  We are often encouraged to vote against our interest and the most common means for doing so is political party.  It's ok to stop and think every once in a while.

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Lasting Power of Maryland GOP

This weekend Howard County was host to the Maryland Republican Party's State Convention at Turf Valley.  Based on coverage by Erin Cox in The Baltimore Sun the theme, plastered on five boot banners and the convention programs, was "We're Back!"  Said otherwise, Republicans were dancing in the end zone.

And they had every right to dance.  2014 represents the high water mark for GOP success in Maryland and many (inside the Republican party) see it as a platform for future success.  Howard County GOP Central Committee member Dave Myers was quoted shortly after the election by Amanda Yeager on this subject:

"I think looking back 10, maybe 15 years from now, we're going to see this election as the beginning of a two-party system in Maryland, and maybe even in Howard County," he said. "I think it really shows that the Republican party in Howard County is relevant, it's relevant in Maryland, and they can't be written off."

Notably, Republicans are taking every opportunity to remind the world of Senate President Mike Miller's (D) 2006 quote promising to "bury the Republicans six feet deep, faces up, so they won't come out for 20 years."  Mike was about 12 years off.

But future Republican success is based on the same principle of politics that Democrats have been consoling themselves with for the past month - voter sentiment is cyclical.  As Professor Rust Cohle would say "Time is a flat circle."  I think it bears examining what issues may determine whether our state breaks further purple or deeper blue over the next four years.

1. The Economy - I recently read a long piece about Mitch McConnell called The Cynic and in it the author observed that the most important skill any politician can have is a sense of timing.  It is more important than oratory skill, policy depth, or money.  Success and political advancement occur for the right person at the right time and no amount of effort can change it.

Larry Hogan's election seemed to be based almost entirely on timing.  He was the right candidate at the right time for the right electorate.  Whether Governor-elect Hogan receives four years or eight will depend on how things look four years from now, particularly with regard to the state economy.  Not so much in terms of unemployment rate, but rather state revenue. Maryland taxes went up because Maryland leaders wanted to pretend there was no recession when it came to state spending.  Presumably, Larry Hogan does not subscribe to that concern.  If Marylanders are made to feel the recession in reduced services or user fees, you can expect there to be some resulting frustration.

2. Social Issues - Another element of Larry Hogan's timing was the clear absence of any pressing social issues.  Marriage equality was settled.  Death penalty repealed.  Reproduction rights relevant only insofar as they provided a historical background for candidates, but nothing that was of concern for the next four years (at least according to most voters).

I predict that over the next four years the most pressing social issues will relate to the war on drugs and mass incarceration.  Maryland is well-poised to have this discussion.  I think Republicans have political wiggle room to break from their "tough on crime" planks from years past and Governor Ehrlich was particularly strong with regard to the concerns of the incarcerated when he was in office.  But if Hogan holds firm or loses touch with a social wave (as I expect here), his party could do everything else right and still get knocked out of office by a social justice movement paired with a sound economy.

Oh, and he'll have to do everything else right when it comes to social issues.  Gun rights, women's rights, and LGTB rights are all very important to Maryland voters and will have to be played with a deftness that I have not seen from Larry Hogan.

3. Environment - The Washington Post recently did a story about the here and now effects of Climate Change on the Eastern Shore, which likely is only a small hint of what may be the biggest challenge facing our state government - how to mitigate the effects of increased storms, rising sea level, and extreme weather.  The "I'm not a scientist" bit may work for Republicans out west, but we're going to need someone who understands Climate Change and, at the very least, will make the investments necessary to protect our infrastructure from its effects.  

I am not particularly hopeful on the renewable energy front.  Without monetizing externalities, like carbon and methane, green energy can't compete.  I think Maryland will likely be left behind as Maryland cuts subsidies and other states try to capture this new frontier of economic growth.  But the electorate is moving, slowly, on this issue and if Marylanders don't find Republicans competent to address a clear and present threat to our coastal state, they'll vote back in leaders who are.

How do these things affect County Executive Kittleman?  I don't think they do.  I think Allan is mostly insulated from state politics and has identified the trouble spots well in advance of his party.  I'll probably put together a more substantive post on this issue later, but I think the bigger challenge for him is the inclusivity of his term.  

That's all for today.  Have a great Monday doing what you love!