There's been a lot of public hand-wringing and breast-beating over the small number of bids received to operate slot machines in Maryland - only a total of six bids were received for the five possible sites. Two of the bids came without the required deposit, suggesting that they might be less than serious and probably will be disqualified. Many have said that the slots legislation needs to be changed already, before the first machine is in place or any bid has been accepted, to give the potential operators a bigger cut.
I say that's a bunch of rubbish. In case anyone hasn't noticed, the economy is not doing too well these days and credit is tight. It can't be easy for some to come up with the required deposit. Further, there are still uncertainties about some of the sites that need to be cleared up. But these problems will be solved eventually - the economy will improve, credit will loosen and the issues around a couple of the sites will be resolved. There's absolutely no need to panic and start throwing more money at the potential slots operators.
We need to look no further than right here on the Shore where William Rickman, arguably the most experienced slots operator among all the bidders, submitted a bid to place 800 machines at his Ocean Downs race track. Mr. Rickman, who is the principal in the Delaware Park slots operation just up the road is experienced, understands the cost and income from operating slot machines and has chosen to put up the required money, even given the relatively small share of proceeds that Maryland allocates to operators. If he can do it down here, other operators can do it at the other sites. It will just be a matter of time.
Similarly, Cordish, who has some experience in the business, submitted what seems to be a viable bid for the Anne Arundel County site. It looks as though the bids for the Cecil County and the Baltimore City sites are also good. All of the bids, except for Cordish's are for fewer slots than the legislation allows, but give them time and eventually the'll reach the cap.
So don't panic and start throwing money at the slots operators. They don't need it.
[I've been offline for a while due to a combination of events. I hope to get back to posting regularly soon!]
Opponents of nuclear energy frequently cite the problem of 'waste disposal' as their rationale for opposing this energy source. And it's true that, for various reasons, including political infighting, this problem has not been completely solved. But the primary alternative to nuclear power doesn't look so good either.
The recent spill of coal ash at Kingston, Tennessee may have finally focused the attention of some on the problems of disposing of the waste from coal-burning power plants. The spill, which released some 300 million gallons of coal ash sludge and water into the surrounding area and a tributary of the Tennessee river is a disaster for the community, for the environment and for those living downstream who depend on the river for their water supply.
Federal studies have long shown coal ash to contain significant quantities of heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and selenium, which can cause cancer and neurological problems. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates the power plant and is responsible for the coal ash predicably denied there was any problem.
Yet a 2006 study by the EPA showed that coal ash does contain significant amounts of carcinogens and heavy metals. The report found that concentrations of arsenic in the coal ash could enter drinking water and increase the risk of cancer several hundredfold.
United States coal plants produce some 130 million tons of coal ash a year - the second highest waste stream in the country after municipal waste. A second report by the EPA said that at least 67 towns had their groundwater contaminated by heavy waste from coal ash dumps. Safe disposal of coal ash is a national problem that needs a solution now.
But you don't have to travel across the country to find communities impacted by coal ash. There are problems right here in Maryland an on the Eastern Shore. In Anne Arundel County in Maryland, residentlal drinking water wells have been polluted by heavy metals, including cadmium, thalium and arsenic, which leached from a sand-and-gravel pit used to dispose of coal ash from a plant run by BG&E. Right here in Delmarva, the Indian River Power Plant in Millsboro disposes of some 140,000 tons of coal ash in its 144 acre disposal pit on the shores of Indian River - an environmentally sensitive area. This coal ash contains significant quantities of arsenic and mercury.
The operators of the power plant - NRG Corporation, of course deny that there is any problem, but it's clear that heavy metals from the ash can leach into the ground water and Indian River Bay. Further, there is epidemiological evidence of a cancer cluster in the area. While there is no hard evidence linking this cancer cluster to the presence of millions of tons of coal ash here, it's hard not see a potential connection.
The solid waste from coal combustion is not the only problem, of course. The stuff that goes up the smokestack, primarily carbon dioxide but also small amounts of other chemicals, posses just as intractable a problem. It's becoming more and more apparent that disposing of huge amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere might just be a big mistake.
And, of course, it's not just when coal is burned that it creates a mess. Mining companies dump huge amounts of waste in to streams and valleys. Open pit mines are 'reclaimed' leaving behind something that resembles the surface of the moon. After the mining is finished, the mines are abandoned. Communities all over Appalachia are dealing with the hazards of abandoned mines including acid mine drainage, long-lasting underground fires, collapsing terrain and other problems.
Then, of course, there is the physcial damage to the miners. Coal mining is one of the most dangerous occupations there is. Each year hudnreds of miners are killed or seriously injured. And the miners are in danger even after they stop mining. Between 2000 and 2004 more than 4,000 coal miners in the United States died from black lung disease, a disease caused by breathing coal dust. Many more are disabled.
It should be clear that there is no such thing as 'clean coal'. Coal is dangerous and dirty to mine and transport and there is no current safe solution to the disposal of the waste products from the combustion of coal. We need to move as quickly as possible to stop the large-scale use of coal to generate electricity in this country.
Yet coal is our number one fuel for electricity generation. How can we replace it? Many point to renewable sources such as solar, wind energy and hydropower. But there is only limited additional hyrdropower potential in this country. Wind and solar energy are promising but they share one major problem and that is their high variability. The sun shines only during the day and the wind doesn't blow all the time. The 'capacity ratings' that you hear when people talk about these sources refer to their maximum capacity, which they reach only a small portion of the time.
The only feasible replacement for the hundreds of coal plants which are progressively contaminating our country and the atmosphere is nuclear power. True, nuclear has its problems, but it's much, much cleaner than coal, is efficient and cost effective. It's the only choice we have.
[The photo at the top is of the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant]
The hits just keep on coming for the Maryland State Police. Yet more embarrassing revelations surfaced the other day in their long running spying scandal. The State Police can't seem to make this problem go away and there's a good reason for that. They still won't admit it was wrong.
Let's back up a bit and look at what happened and what the State Police have said and done about it. Back in 2005, the State Police decided they needed to spy on anti-war and anti-death penalty groups because the police were worried about what might happen at demonstrations against the death penalty in Maryland.
The state police sent spies into the meetings of these groups, recorded all their activities and added the names of the groups and members to a multi-state terrorist database despite the fact that no illegal activities were ever discussed or carried out.
Despite the fact that no evidence of illegal activities was ever found, the State Police continued and expanded the surveillance to include such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and numerous peace groups and anti-death penalty groups.
To this day, neither the man who was police superintendent at the time, Tim Hitchins, nor the current superintendent, Terrence Sheridan, see anything wrong with what was done, except for a possible waste of resources.
Well, a waste of resources it certainly was. But it was much more. It was a brazen action by the State Police to investigate and infiltrate politically active groups that happened to espouse positions that the State Police may not have agreed with.
The ridiculous justification offered by the police that they were worried about violence at scheduled executions is nonsense on its face. There has never been violence by any of the groups investigated. Certainly there has been civil disobedience, but there's a simple solution to that - arrest the people when they break the law. It's always worked.
Besides, civil disobedience has a long and honorable history in this country, from the Boston Tea Party and the patriot groups that were organized around the War for Independence to the abolitionists to those who demonstrated and conducted sit-ins for women's right to vote, for civil rights and for other causes that have become part of our country. Sure, civil disobedience can be a bit messy, but democracy and freedom of expression are inherently a bit messy.
The State Police and Colonel Sheridan assure us that the surveillance of activist groups and political groups has stopped and won't be started again unless he thinks its necessary. What kind of assurance is that? He doesn't even seem to understand what was wrong with it to begin with.
We need two kinds of change in Annapolis. First, Colonel Sheridan needs to leave. If he doesn't understand the basic problem with the spying that went on, he is unfit to command the State Police. Second, the General Assembly needs to enact legislation placing the strictest of controls on this kind of activity. Civil rights, the right to free expression and the right to peaceably assemble should mean something in the Free State.
I've been busy on other projects, but it's time to get back to posting. The 426th session of the Maryland General Assembly begins on January 14th and runs until April 13th, 2009. The session will be, as always, in the historic State House which is reopening after a $10 million renovation. The Maryland State House has the distinction of being the oldest state house in continuous operation. It served as the U.S. Capitol in 1783-1784. George Washington resigned his commission as Commander of the Continental Army in the Maryland State House; but enough of that.
For the most part, it's not going to be an enjoyable session. There are a lot of contentious issues and, looming over everything, is the budget, which will have to embody significant cuts from earlier projections. Let's take a look at what's on the table.
First and foremost, of course, is the budget. Tax receipts continue to fall well below projects as the economy stalls and real estate values decline and the Governor has been playing a game of catchup in trying to trim the current budget to match revenues. Next year, of course is looking worse. The state could be looking at a deficit of as much as $1 billion with a general fund budget of about $16 billion (for the fiscal year beginning June 30, 2009.)
Of course, a lot of the projected deficit is not really due to a reduction in revenues, but rather to increases in the budget baseline - what it will cost to keep state services steady. Due to a variety of factors - changes in student enrollment, changes in prison population, changes in the number of medicaid recipients, as well as cost increases, the amount required to provide the same level of services can increase. One of the things the Governor and the General Assembly will have to look at is whether the state can afford to pay those increased costs in the face of stagnant or declining revenue. A list of the 'adjustments' can be found here. Take a look and see what you think.
In any case, it's clear that there are going to be cuts and that some of the cuts inevitably are going to fall on education and on aid to localities. These two items are simply too large a proportion of the total budget to be ignored. We've already heard complaints from Montgomery County and Baltimore City even though the first dime has yet to be cut from the 2010 budget. I'm sure we'll hear much more.
Death Penalty I discussed in a recent post the issue of abolishing the death penalty in Maryland. The commission that was put into place to study the issue and as a handy way to dodge the issue last session has made their report recommending that the death penalty be abolished and the Governor is going to introduce legislation to that effect. While there is a solid majority in the House of Delegates to abolish the death penalty and what appears to be a smaller but viable majority in the Senate to do the same thing, it's not certain that it will pass. Last session in died in a Senate Committee and there's a strong possibility it will happen again.
Speed Cameras This issue will certainly come up again. Following the successful introduction of speed cameras into Montgomery County, legislation to authorize localities around the state to install the devices passed both houses last year, but the bills were slightly different and the measures died in the end-of-year rush. It's almost certain to be resurrected this year and likely to pass, generating waves of complaints from those who feel that speed limits are an affront to their manhood.
Smart Growth After years of fooling around with various kinds of 'smart growth' packages, the state seems to have finally realized that, since almost all zoning and development decisions are made at the local level and not at the state level, tougher legislation is required to override local prerogative if we want to control growth and development. This will be a contentious issue. County governments guard these authorities carefully since real estate developers and contractors are major contributors to local election contests. The state is going to have a tough time here.
Universal Health Care A group of Marylanders is proposing that the state take steps to provide universal health care for Maryland residents. Chances of this $15 billion proposal passing in this session are zero. The state is already struggling with the budget and simply can't afford to add to it at this point. Look for the proponents to keep on pushing, though.
Gasoline Tax No, the Governor is not going to propose an increase to the gasoline tax. Despite the shortfall in the state's transportation fund, there is no appetite for tax increases. Instead, look for a proposal to replace the current cents-per-gallon tax with a tax based on a percentage of the sales tax. That way, when the price of gasoline begins to climb again, the tax will climb along with it. The state argues, with some justification, that as the price of road construction and maintenance increases, the dedicated taxes to support it also needs to increase. This should be interesting.
The most recent commission to examine the death penalty in Maryland released their report today. The final report of the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment can be found here. The Commission voted 13 to 7 to recommend that capital punishment be abolished in the State of Maryland. Of the seven commissioners who voted to retain capital punishment, six joined in a minority report which is included in the final report document.
Since 1978 when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, five persons have been executed in Maryland, the latest in 2005. Five more remain on death row. Of the five executed, four were convicted in Baltimore County and one in Baltimore City. Of the five remaining on death row, two are from Baltimore County, one from Baltimore City, one from Prince George's County and the fifth, Jody Miles, was convicted in Wicomico County in 1998.
Since December of 2006, when the state's highest court ruled that the protocols used in Maryland to carry out the death penalty were improperly developed, there has been an effective moratorium on the death penalty here. The Governor, who opposes the death penalty, has reluctantly moved toward ending the moratorium by ordering that new procecures be drafted.
The death penalty has been contentious in Maryland for years. Last year the General Assembly effectively ducked the issue by ordering the creation of the Commission to examine the issue. This is not the first commission to do so and there have also been several 'studies'.
Opponents of the death penalty make several arguments:
Proponents of the death penalty dispute each of these arguments. They contend that there is no real racial disparity - that the appearance of racial disparity in some studies is really the result of jursidictional disparity. That is, since most death penalty cases originate in Baltimore County and most murder victims in Baltimore County are white, statistics will appear to show that the death penalty is predominately sought against those who murdered whites.
Proponents defend the jurisidictional disparity as simply a democratic exercise of local option. They acknowledge that death penalty cases are more expensive to prosecute and carry out, but believe the study by the Urban Institute overstates the case because it looks at opportunity cost rather than out-of-pocket cost.
Proponents of the death penalty believe that the chance of a guilty person being executed is very small, particulary given the powerful evidence that DNA analysis can now provide. Proponents further believe that the death penalty is a powerful deterent to crime and that it needs to be part of the state's arsenal of weapons to apply to the most heinous of crimes.
Finally, death penalty proponents believe, to put it bluntly, that some crimes deserve the death penalty. This notion of retributional justice is common to many of us - that the punishment should fit the crime, an eye for an eye, measure for measure, etc.
This is going to be another contentious issue for the General Assembly. Last year, it was approved by the House of Delegates but was tied up in a committee in the Senate and never came to the floor. That could easily happen again.
Personally, I think it's time to abolish the death penalty in Maryland and replace it with the option of life in prison without parole.
First, the reality is that death penalty cases can drag on forever - three of the current residents of death row in Maryland were convicted in 1984 - twenty-four years ago. Such a lengthy period of uncertainty is expensive for the state and difficult for the families of the victims.
Second, I do believe it's possible for an innocent person to be convicted, even with modern investigative techniques. There have been numerous cases both in Maryland and nationwide where people convicted of capital crimes and sentenced to death were later found to be innocent. The frailty of even eyewitness testimony is well established and there have been numerous cases of false confessions. Once an innocent person is executed, there is no way to undo the sentence.
Third, the idea that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime assumes that the decision to commit a crime results from a rational, logic-based thought process that weighs the benefit of committing the crime against the chance of getting caught and the perceived cost of the likely penalty. I don't think this is ever the case.
While I understand the argument for retributive justice, I don't think the purpose of the criminal justice system in Maryland is to exact revenge, rather the purpose is to keep us safe.
So, let's hope the General Assembly can put together the intestinal fortitude to do the right thing this time instead of putting the decision off yet again. While some surveys show that a majority of Marylanders support the death penalty, only a minority support it if an alternative of life without parole is offered. That sounds like a good option to me.
[The image is of the 1833 painting by Paul Delaroche of the Execution of Lady Jane Gray. It currently hangs in the National Gallery in London]
In my last post I took a look at the election results on the Eastern Shore where the Democrat Frank Kratovil ended eighteen years of Republican success in the First Congressional District by narrowly beating Republican Andy Harris. I also pointed out that, despite Kratovil's win, the Shore still looked pretty Republican as Democrat Barack Obama got pasted by Republican John McCain in every county on the Shore.
Let's take a look at those numbers again.
|County||Obama||McCain||Others||% Obama||% McCain|
Those are some pretty convincing numbers. Except for Somerset and Kent counties - the two smallest - McCain dominated everywhere.
But, if we look back at the 2004 Presidential contest, we see an interesting phenomenon.
|County||Kerry||Bush||Other||Kerry %||Bush %|
As we can see, the Democratic ticket improved their showing in 2008 in every county on the Shore. In most counties the improvement was in the 3 - 4 % range, but in Wicomico there was a big 6% jump and in Talbot the increase was 5%. These numbers not only offer hope to Democrats that they will do even better in the next Presidential election, but also point to possible gains in the state and local elections in 2010.
So keep your eyes on the Shore in 2010, we may have some surprises here.
Thanksgiving is over, Christmas shopping has begun, the hunters are out in full force and it's cold here on the Eastern Shore. So I guess this is as good a time as any to take a closer look at results of the recent election, particularly here on The Shore.
The Eastern Shore has, for the past twenty years or so, been a Republican stronghold. Wayne Gilchrest won nine elections in a row for the first district congressional seat and Republicans hold every state senate seat on the Shore. Democrats were understandably pleased when Gilchrest was defeated in the Republican primary by a much more conservative candidate, giving them a fighting chance to win the seat. They were ecstatic when Frank Kratovil won the seat for the Democrats.
With that win, there is only one Republican left in Maryland's congressional delegation, Democrats hold every statewide office and dominate the legislature. Republicans were devastated by the results and Democrats looked forward to a new day on the Eastern Shore. But is it really? It's well known that Democrat Frank Kratovil won every county on the Shore, but does that really tell the story? Let's take a closer look.
|County||Kratovil||Harris||Davis||% Kratovil||% Harris|
We can see that Kratovil did well in every jurisdiction and, with the possible exception of Cecil County, would certainly have won every county even if Libertarian Richard James Davis had not been in the race. Kratovil's margin was more than seven percent in every county on the Shore except for Cecil and reached thirty-three percent in Kent County - the home of Representative Gilchrest who crossed party lines and endorsed Frank Kratovil. Looking at these numbers one would be tempted to say that the Democrats are dominant on the Eastern Shore.
But, of course, this is just one race. Let's look at the Eastern Shore results of the Presidential race.
|County||Obama||McCain||Others||% Obama||% McCain|
These numbers tell a much different story. With the exception of Kent County where Obama/Biden edged out McCain/Palin by 48 votes, the Republican ticket dominated every county.
How can we explain this discrepancy? Well, for one thing, Frank Kratovil is a conservative Democrat and was able to convince voters that he would be a moderate in Congress, much like Wayne Gilchrest. Gilchrest, of course, was much beloved on the Shore and his loss in a bitter primary contest to Andy Harris certainly cost Harris some votes, as did Gilchrest's endorsement of Kratovil. And certainly the fact that Kratovil makes his home on the Eastern Shore won him some votes here.
But there's more to the story and I'll save that for my next post.
It's good to hear that President-Elect Obama is planning on more fiscal stimulus for the American economy and even better to hear that he plans to stimulate the economy by investing in infrastructure rather than just sending out checks to everyone. We have been ignoring our infrastructure requirements in this country for some time and the results are definitely showing. So, since I know Barack is reading this blog, here are some suggestions:
High Speed Rail Most other industrialized countries are far ahead of us here. Japan has been running their Shinkansen 'bullet trains' since 1964. France began working on their TGV (train à grande vitesse, "high-speed train") in 1976 and the Paris-Lyon line opened in 1981. The phenomenal success of the TGV has encouraged the French government to build six additional lines and other countries in Europe have built their own high speed networks - the Thalys in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, Eurostar linking Britain to France and Belgium as well as systems in Spain, Italy, Sweden and Norway. High-speed rail networks are also being built in China, Taiwan and South Korea.
Here in the United States we don't have true high speed rail. The Acela trains in the Northeast Corridor (Washington-New York-Boston) are called 'high-speed', but track conditions limit them to a top speed of about 125 mph rather than the 200 mph common on true high speed rail.
High speed rail doesn't make sense for much of the United states - the distances are too great to compete with air travel. However, in the northeast corridor, the Chicago area and possibly the Dallas/Fort Worth/Houston area, high speed rail will produce city-to-city travel times that are considerably less than comparable air service while producing less pollution and being less subject to weather delays. As an added bonus, the elimination of dozens of flights between Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston and New York will do much to reduce air travel delays in the country by reducing congestion in the New York City area.
Construction of these lines will generate thousand of jobs and the construction of the trainsets, signalling equipment and other ancillary requirements will generate thousands more. A $50 billion commitment here will get us off to a good start.
School Construction States and local jurisdictions have been falling behind on funding the expansion and replacement of existing school buildings. Many existing school buildings were built in the 1950s and 1960s and need either replacement or substantial renovation. Further, existing schools are being stretched well beyond capacity. Temporary classroom buildings are a common sight throughout the country. Finally, most of our existing schools do not meet today's technological requirements.
The need is tremendous. In 1995, the General Accounting Office estimated the backlog of school construction needs at $112 billion. In 1999, the Education Department estimated the cost at $127 billion. The National Education Association in 2002 came up with a number of $322 billion including technology improvements. There's no doubt the backlog has grown. Right here in my local jurisdiction of 50,000 people there are more than $100 million in unmet needs. The State of New Jersey estimates a $30 billion backlog in that state alone.
An investment of $400 billion will go a long way toward eliminating the backlog. Further it will provide work for thousands of smaller construction firms around the country and for hundreds of thousands of construction workers who are out of work due to the housing slump. As a bonus, the Department of Energy estimates that such a program would reduce energy costs for schools by some $2 billion a year.
Roads and Bridges We haven't done a good job of maintaining our road system let alone pay for the expansion needed to meet current demand. Tens of thousands of bridges are deficient, pavement is crumbling all around the country and huge traffic backups are way of life. A new commitment of $500 billion in Federal money will make a major dent in the backlog here, will stimulate the construction industry all across the country and put many Americans back to work. There's no reason to delay here.
Mass Transit Along with expanded spending on roads and bridges must come renewed investment into mass transit. We need our cities to work efficiently. Like it or not, the vast majority of economic activity in the United States is generated in cities, not in rural areas. An investment of $100 billion now will generate huge dividends in the future in terms of increased efficiency and lower energy use. In addition, of course, we'll see tens of thosuands of new jobs created.
Let's start now. We have no time to lose.
[The photo is of a Eurostar and a Thalys train in the Gare du Nord in Paris]
The opening of the 2009 session of the Maryland General Assembly is less than two months away and, of course, the maneuvering has already started. As expected, the early action is all about money.
Over at the Maryland Politics Watch, Adam Pagnucco reports that Rich Madaleno has become chairman of the Montgomery County State Senate delegation. Madaleno wastes no time in setting out his priorities for the year - make sure Montgomery County doesn't lose any money in the upcoming session. He wants to be sure that the state formula for funding teacher retirement (which primarily benefits Montgomery County) isn't changed and he wants to be sure that Montgomery County's school construction allocation is not less than the $46 million they receive this year.
The Baltimore Sun reports today that 'education advocates' including the Maryland State Teachers Association, the Maryland Association of Boards of Education and others are already running ads encouraging the General Assembly not to cut state education funding (which has increased by $1.3 billion over the past six years. In fact, they go beyond advocating that funds not be cut, they want an increase.
Now, readers of this blog know that I support education - it's the key to success in a global economy and the source of much of the prosperity Maryland enjoys. And certainly Montgomery County has a lot of needs, and their legislative caucus has the clout to get what they want, by and large.
But the state is facing a deficit of $1 billion or more in the coming fiscal year. When the richest jurisdiction in the state announces that it won't accept any cuts to the largesse it gets from the state, what is the message to the poorer jurisdictions - curl up and die?
I'm not thinking here of my own county. Worcester has sufficient resources for the time being even though the county commissioner just postponed $100 million in school renovations due to falling revenue. $100 million is nothing to sneeze at in a county with only 50,000 residents. But I'm concerned about Somerset, Dorchester, Garrett, Queen Anne's, Allegany and Caroline counties.
By and large these counties have average wages between 50% and 60% of the average wage in Montgomery County. But if we protect the big, wealthy jurisdictions then I guess the small, poor jurisdictions will take it on the chin in the budget game.
It's the same situation with education funding. Education is critically important. But primary, secondary and higher education account for about 37% of the state budget. Protecting the education budget, or even increasing it as the advocates demand would mean that all of the cuts would come somewhere else. So I guess that means the education advocates want to slash funding for health services for the uninsured and underinsured, cut funding for natural resources and protection of the environment, reduce transportation funding even further and cut funding for public safety.
So let's stop drawing lines in the sand and trying to bully our way to getting a bigger piece of the state pie. The Governor and the General Assembly are going to have a tough enough time trying to deal with the fiscal realities we are facing. Don't make it harder.