“The Kochs don’t have Michael Swartz.” So what do they have?

The Democrats send me the silliest e-mails sometimes.

Today they are whining that “The Koch Brothers plan to spend nearly $900 million to buy the 2016 election.” After I laughed, my first question to them was, “so?”

I saw the news pieces about this yesterday (here’s one) and it rolled off my back like water off a duck. Listen, I know there are people who will spend a lot of money on politics simply because they can, and as it turns out the Koch brothers are perhaps the leading conservative/libertarian donors. The Democrats don’t have a cow about the hundreds of millions bundlers and grifters on their side plunk down on the races; suffice to say that both sides do this.

But $889 million is a lot of money – heck, I’d be happy to see 1/100 of 1% of that come my way. And the great thing about the Koch brothers is that they wish to limit government, not expand it and try to cut themselves a slice of the pie.

Ever since the Citizens United decision, the liberals have cried that we need to get money out of politics. This wasn’t altruism at work, though – since most of the media outlets favor Democrats, conservatives not being able to pay for advertising and speech at election time gave the Left an advantage. That’s not to say spending more money always leads to a positive electoral result – if it did, we would be in the early days of the Brown administration, for example – but oftentimes the funding is better for incumbents and they tend to win re-election at a significant rate. Taking that advantage away helps to level the playing field.

Of course, I can see my liberal friends all worked up over someone like the Koch brothers, who are just very successful businessmen spending their money on politics. It’s better than yet another palatial mansion or a fleet of private jets, right? But compare that amount to the overall budget of just one county in Maryland – granted, it’s the largest one at a population of about one million – and $889 million is chump change. In the grand scheme of things, spread out over multiple states, it’s not a great deal of money in comparison.

So I’m glad the Democrats are whining. I don’t think there should be a limit in campaign spending because to do so would be counterproductive. My campaign spending may be miniscule in comparison to the Koch brothers, but between Kim and I we have just as many votes and that’s the key.

Differing transportation thoughts

Last week at Blue Ridge Forum, regular author Richard Falknor stepped aside for a two-part series by writer Peter Samuel, a specialist in writing about toll roads. In part one, Samuel advocated for a reduction in tolls and license fees, which was good, but in return we would have to endure this:

Fairness and efficiency will be best served by moving toward transport systems that self-finance with user fees: more precisely, fees-for-use roads should finance themselves with fees based on the cost of providing road service, road use fees, or tolls based on the distance traveled, the scarcity of road space, and the costs the vehicles impose.

Unfortunately, this raises the prospect of abuse by the state. Imagine portions of U.S. 50 and Maryland Route 90 becoming toll roads from the Bay Bridge to Ocean City, such as the bypass around Salisbury and any future routes around Easton and Cambridge. Sure, you could avoid the tolls and go through town but the traffic would become the same issue it was before the current U.S. 50 portion of the Salisbury bypass opened a decade or so ago. This would also be discouraging for truck traffic.

Maybe the best example of the problem with this philosophy is the Inter-County Connector between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The ICC, as it’s called, was in the pipeline for decades before finally becoming a reality under Bob Ehrlich, with Martin O’Malley finishing it last year. But the ICC isn’t popular with drivers because of its lower speed limit and heavy enforcement of traffic laws, so it hasn’t met revenue projections.

It’s likely Samuel is thinking more of the urban areas with their existing HOT lanes and other means to divide express traffic heading to the suburbs and local traffic which may hop on the highway for a couple exits. But Samuel’s second part discusses the fate of the Red Line in Baltimore and Purple Line in the Washington suburbs.

In that case he is correctly diagnosing the problem with mass transit solutions such as these:

Project advocates list all the jobs created during construction, but this is only a measure of cost, and avoids the real question: what value are they creating?

In any enterprise there is positive net value if the users are paying sufficient user fees (fares) to both cover operating costs and provide a competitive return on capital (ROI).

To the extent fares won’t cover costs plus return on capital, we have a clear measure that the value to users falls short of costs, making the project a net loss to any operator.

Rail transit in Maryland presently collects in the ‘farebox’ less than 30 cents on the dollar spent on operating the system and, of course, makes no return on capital invested. Light rail is the very worst with lower farebox recovery (currently under 20 cents per dollar.)

Some of those results could be improved, but almost no rail system in America come close to the black (100 on the dollar + ROI).

If you read further, Samuel likes the concept of the Red Line but is concerned about the construction cost and likelihood of overruns. On the other hand, his thought on the Purple Line is that it should change its form and become a bus-only route. The construction would be far cheaper and the schedule could be more easily adjusted to suit the needs of consumers. That’s an approach which makes more sense, although one has to ask why automotive traffic couldn’t utilize the route then.

At the end of part two, Peter also adds a map of proposed changes, including a westward extension of the ICC which crosses over into Virginia and provides another Potomac crossing west of Washington, as well as an eastbound addition which connects to U.S. 50 near Bowie. Also noted is a “new span Bay Bridge.”

What I would propose, though, is a truly new span Bay Bridge that’s several dozen miles south and connects Dorchester County with Calvert County. There’s no question the environmentalists (and some of the locals) would scream bloody murder, but they would for any attempt at progress anyway.

I think this bridge would encourage more tourism from the Washington area and, if combined with an extension of I-97 to its original destination near Richmond, could open up the Eastern Shore as a new tourist destination as travelers seek an alternate route around the traffic presented in Baltimore and Washington. Adding a bypass around Easton and cutoff between U.S. 50 and U.S. 301 through Queen Anne’s County (paralleling or upgrading the existing Maryland Route 213) could make this route even more desirable. Samuel could even get the cutoff to be a toll route.

There is a lot which can be done in lieu of wasting money on the Red Line and Purple Line because both are destined to be money pits; on the other hand, investing in transportation alternatives which maximize options and freedom makes more sense. As Samuel writes:

Better mobility provides greater employment opportunities, better shopping choices, more specialized health and medical services, more social and family interaction, better education, sporting. and recreational opportunities.

Our travel is not frivolous. People don’t drive the Capital Beltway for the scenery. We travel because the trips provide value.

There would be value in having a second Bay Bridge as well as the other roads for which I advocated. People and goods could move more freely up and down the East Coast, avoiding the bottlenecks presented in northern Virginia and around Baltimore, while the Lower Shore would have more direct access to a route across Chesapeake Bay, allowing for easier movement west and south.

It’s time to think on a larger scale while accepting the reality that people want the freedom to be able to jump in their cars at a moment’s notice and go wherever they wish. Mass transit simply creates dependency on the provider and allows them some level of control of movement. That may be acceptable to some, but the rest of us want to get where we want to go as quickly as possible – on our terms – and this is where government can be of service to the public.

The wailing begins

I alluded to this the other day when Governor Hogan announced he was dropping the proposed PMT regulations, and almost as if on cue there was negative reaction from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the (so-called) Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition – so-called because it has nary an agricultural group in it.

Allison Prost, the executive director of the CBF, called it “a sad day” for Maryland:

This is a sad day in the long fight to make Maryland waters clean enough for swimming and fishing. Governor Hogan’s decision has hurt the rivers and streams on Maryland’s Eastern Shore where 228,000 tons of excess manure will continue to be applied to farm fields each year, and to wash off into nearby creeks and river. The new governor rolled back 10 years of progress when he withdrew the Phosphorus Management Tool, a common sense, science-based solution to the manure crisis.

Agriculture is the largest source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, and is also the cheapest to reduce by far. Many farmers deserve credit for their efforts to stem pollution from their barn yards and fields. But just as those who live in our cities and suburbs are doing more to clean the Bay, so must farmers.

Businesses with technologies to help reduce phosphorus pollution from poultry manure are ready to come to Maryland and help ease the burden of excess manure. But these technologies will only have a significant impact if farmers are required to not apply excessive amounts of phosphorus to their crops. Regulations create demand for problem-solving technologies that otherwise would languish.

Additionally, by withdrawing regulations that would have reduced pollution from coal-fired power plants, Governor Hogan’s decision also has put corporate interests above the people of Greater Baltimore. Nitrogen oxides are linked to ozone which can be harmful to children and sensitive adults. As a greenhouse gas, nitrogen oxides are 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Also, nitrogen from coal plants and vehicles adds millions of pounds of harmful pollution to the Bay each year. The power industry used the same hardship argument in 2006 when the legislature approved the Maryland Healthy Air Act. In the years afterwards, electricity prices dropped, and the industry prospered.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation welcomes the opportunity to work with the Administration to ensure farmers have the resources they need to implement the PMT, and all residents see cleaner water. But we can’t compromise on science, or accept further delays on cleaning up Maryland’s rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay. (Emphasis mine.)

I pointed out that one sentence in the CBF statement because it’s telling about their philosophy, If the market wouldn’t otherwise support these technologies, then they must not be that effective. Put another way: we know broccoli is relatively healthy for us, but not everyone likes broccoli. (Actually, I do when you cook it with a little butter like my mom used to.) It’s a market that languishes in comparison to, say, McDonalds. The CBF would have us compelled to eat broccoli every night because it’s good for us, not because we would want to.

It’s the same with the PMT as the process of spreading chicken manure on the fields supplements the soil. Otherwise, farmers would be forced to resort to artificial fertilizers which actually worsen the problem.

Dawn Stoltzfus, speaking for the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition, echoed the CBF sentiments:

We’re deeply disappointed about reports that Governor Hogan has blocked one of the biggest tools to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and local waters in more than 30 years.

Governor Hogan had the opportunity to move forward a long-delayed tool to reduce pollution from manure. Instead, he stopped the regulation to implement the Phosphorus Management Tool, adding another chapter to the history of ping-pong politics and capitulation to the agricultural industry.

Governor Hogan has sent a very worrisome signal indeed. Just hours after being sworn in as Maryland’s governor, reports say he has turned his back on clean water and sound science. He has ignored Maryland’s leading agriculture scientists, who have been working on updating this tool for more than ten years and who have repeatedly stated how its adoption is needed, now.

Phosphorus pollution from manure is getting worse, not better in the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland rivers. The Governor’s action is a threat to the health of Maryland families and to our economy that depends on clean water.

Now you would expect to hear these types of sentiments from Radical Green. But I wasn’t expecting this sort of reaction from Delmarva Poultry Industry:

Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc. respects Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s decision not to move forward, immediately, with the phosphorus management tool regulation. During the campaign, he pledged that it would not, in its present form, become state policy. His pledge to study the issue further to make sure it is scientifically and financially valid is a wise one that we endorse.

We have said all along that this risk management tool, even according to its developers, could not estimate how much less phosphorus might reach the Chesapeake Bay. It makes no sense to create costly regulations on all farmers throughout Maryland, not just Eastern Shore farmers who use chicken manure, without knowing what the environmental benefits might be.

We look forward to working with Governor Hogan and his team and members of the General Assembly to develop a regulation that will provide improved environmental stewardship by the agricultural community.

Why do we need a regulation? The very fact they are conceding a regulation is needed loses half the battle. I have heard some rumblings about the impotency of DPI, and this statement seems to confirm that sentiment. You would think DPI would be thrilled to have that weight removed from its chest.

Until someone can figure out a better use for chicken waste than utilizing it as the natural fertilizer – a purpose it has served for hundreds of years on Delmarva – the farmers will continue to take the blame. I can understand if a sludge pile is exposed to the elements that runoff water will carry the phosphorus directly to the nearest body of water, but if chicken waste is spread into the soil I can’t comprehend how it travels distances to the waterway. After all, the minimum distance between well and septic leach field is usually 100 to 150 feet, which is supposed to give a large enough buffer of soil to protect the water supply on a semi-permanent basis, yet we’re expected to believe manure spread across a 240 acre field is a threat to a body of water or a stream hundreds of feet away?

Honestly, I think the problem is that those who travel from the urban areas to the beach in the warm months don’t like that occasional reminder that they are out in the country thanks to the foul (or is that fowl) smell. But that’s the smell of the Eastern Shore, at least in one governor’s mind, and to many farmers it’s the smell of a better crop and more money. It’s hard enough coaxing a good harvest from the Eastern Shore in the best of times, so a little natural help is always appreciated.

Think of it as truly organic farming.

Wage deflators?

The Center for Immigration Studies put out an unusual list yesterday, one which details the worst offenders for abusing H-1B visas. As CIS explains it:

The H-1B program is one that allows, in general terms, U.S. employers to hire nonimmigrant foreign workers, usually (but not always) into high-tech positions, at wages lower than those that would be paid otherwise. Thus all users of the program are at least nibbling away at labor standards, and are involved with denying jobs to available professionals who are citizens or green card holders.

Naturally I looked on the list for any local companies, but did not find any in the immediate area. Four different companies, two of which I suspect are the same entity, are listed from Newark, Delaware. There is also the Prince George’s County school district as well, for which CIS notes:

Prince George’s County, MD public school system qualified for the list by their extensive and controversial use of the H-1B program to hire foreign schoolteachers.

That should help the learning process out.

It should be noted this program is a little bit different than the J-1 student visas often used by foreign students, mainly from Eastern Europe, who annually descend on Ocean City and the other beach resorts each summer to work. The H-1B program operates under the notion that there aren’t enough qualified Americans to do these jobs, when opponents argue that there’s simply not enough Americans who want to work under the pitiful wage scale allowed.

Yet the process for an employer to secure H-1B visas is mind-boggling, so it’s hard to believe anyone is abusing the system unless there is a huge difference in wages that makes the various application fees all worth it. Perhaps that’s why there are comparatively few scofflaws.

But I suppose the real enforcement needs to come on the end of verifying these H-1B workers are making an appropriate wage. If a company would have to pay an entry-level engineer $60,000 a year but gets away with paying a foreigner $20,000 because they’re here under an H-1B visa, that is an issue and should be prosecuted under law. It’s the problem with the lack of scruples in our society that some employers look to take advantage of the system like this.

A quick score for the good guys

Facing a 4 p.m. deadline today, in the first few hours after Larry Hogan was sworn in as Maryland’s 62nd governor he found a few minutes to inform the Maryland Register that the proposed Phosphorus Management Tool regulations should be pulled from Friday’s edition. However, Phil Davis of the Daily Times notes there is some question about the legality of Hogan’s move, with the lack of precedent cited as a concern. I would rate the chances of a legal challenge from one or more of the state’s environmental groups as good, although Timothy Wheeler of the B’More Green blog noted yesterday:

According to an opinion issued last month by then-Attorney General Douglas Gansler, the rules can be withdrawn or simply held up by preventing them from being published in the register, which is printed and posted online every two weeks.

Naturally that doesn’t mean new Attorney General Brian Frosh wouldn’t side with environmentalists, but it sounds like Hogan has the legal leg to stand on.

So the attention now will turn to the General Assembly, where it’s expected legislation with the same goal will be introduced in the next few days. Because of the way regulatory language is written for the Maryland Register, it’s relatively easy to translate to bill form. And as the Eastern Shore delegation only makes up 9 House seats and 3 Senate seats, their objections mean little when suburban Montgomery County has 24 Delegate and 8 Senate seats by itself. (Out of 124 Democrats in the General Assembly, that county makes up over one-fourth.) Few, if any, of those General Assembly members have been on a working farm – for the most part, their impression of the Eastern Shore seems to be that of knowing where all the speed traps are on the way to the beach.

But just taking the delegations from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore City – areas which range mostly from urban to suburban, with little in the way of agriculture – gives that side a bloc of 63 House members and 22 Senators, meaning that prospective PMT legislation has a very good chance of passing. Add in the fact that the relevant committee chairs and vice-chairs mainly represent the three areas in question, with the fourth from a similarly suburban section of Baltimore County, and the skids are probably being greased right now. The Democrats aren’t going to let Larry Hogan get away with an opening victory that easily; it’s in that spirit of bipartisanship that they’ll demand these rules be enacted, you know.

Since word came down on this Hogan action late in the day, the environmentalists didn’t get a chance to formally react but some took to Twitter.

I look at it as withdrawing overly punitive rules when we haven’t even figured out yet whether the last set had an impact. When the entity that grades the Bay also solicits donations based on its assessment, we’re not exactly dealing with an honest broker.

So Larry Hogan’s initial major action as governor was a step in the right direction. Let’s hope it’s the beginning of a moratorium on these environmental regulations so we can evaluate the effectiveness of what we already have and see if dealing with the sediment that periodically leaches out of the pond behind the Conowingo Dam will make a difference.

The longest 2 1/2 months

Believe it or not, there will be 78 days between the time Larry Hogan won his election and the day he will be sworn in. Those 11 weeks have seen practically every other unit of government turn over since the November election – for example, Wicomico County changed over in early December while Congress went two weeks ago and the General Assembly last week.

In that timespan we’ve seen much of Maryland turn in a decidedly more conservative direction. But as one Facebook observer pointed out, Larry Hogan has bent over backwards to appease most of the groups in Maryland with his cabinet and executive branch selections, which include at least one O’Malley holdover and several former Ehrlich staffers. The one group he has not tapped, however, is the TEA Party branch of the Republican Party.

And with most of the prime spots already taken, it looks like the Maryland government will shift rightward but only about as far as the middle of the road because there’s not going to be anyone there to really push it hard right. Likely this is by design as the perception of bipartisanship may be necessary to win again in 2018, but then I always work under the assumption that the dominant media will support the Democrats in this state so it really doesn’t matter just how much our side panders to the left. So why not try to beat back the other side with conservatism on all fronts?

Now I also know that there are people on my side and who I call friends who say that we have to work with Democrats on things we can agree on. That’s okay as far as that goes, although I think that list of agreements is a lot shorter than my more moderate friends think it is. There are some functions of government I believe are necessary, though, and to the extent that we can improve them to make them more user-friendly I can deal with it.

But then take budget items like the Purple Line. In the 2 1/2 month lame-duck gap between the election and Larry Hogan’s inauguration that special interest has taken the time and money to lobby for its very existence. History and logic would dictate that the Purple Line would be a cronyist boondoggle to build and a money pit to maintain because ridership will never pay for the cost of running the trains, but I’m detecting a softening of Hogan’s previous hardline stance. A couple billion dollars would fix a lot of bridges and potholes, but those aren’t as sexy as a rail line which proponents will claim will improve the environment – of course, that’s based on full trains which we won’t see.

Everyone who is a prospective victim of the budgetary chopping block will be out in force over the next month or so trying to plead the case that they should be spared the axe, like the state’s arts community. But catering to everyone is how we got to where we are in the first place.

Obviously Larry Hogan needed a little time to make sure he won the election and mull over those people who he will need to run his administration. But this change in government couldn’t come soon enough for those of us who would like it rightsized, and while job one of the Hogan administration has to be that of getting the state’s economy back on sound footing and moving in a positive direction, not far behind that effort should be one to have a FY2019 budget that’s no larger than the one we passed last year.

The question about Common Core

My friends up in Delaware are blessed to live in a relatively small, easy-to-get-around state. While its national reputation is that of a reliably Democratic state, they have a significant conservative grassroots presence and one subpart of that group, the 9-12 Delaware Patriots, is trying to spread the word about a Common Core Workshop to be held at the University of Delaware Saturday morning. It’s a free event but you have to follow the link to get a seat. While it may be somewhat Delaware-centric, other surrounding states are in on Common Core as well.

The event is sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Education Alliance, which has some interesting opinions on Common Core, and is set up to be a debate between those who support and oppose the Common Core concept. It’s good to see the 9-12 Delaware Patriots involved because they are an activist TEA Party group (witness their recent pro-police rally I spoke about earlier this month) which stands up for that which they believe.

But I also wanted to focus on one aspect of Common Core that is bothersome to me, and that’s the role of crony capitalism. While the goals of Common Core were admirable when the concept was introduced in 2008, it’s come to mean a nationalized approach to schooling – ironic when one of the original goals of Common Core was to note:

A number of studies… have found that students perform better in systems that give schools greater freedom to hire and reward teachers, purchase supplies and make other school-specific budget allocations, and choose curriculum materials and teaching methods. Those studies also show that decentralization works best when it is combined with various forms of accountability. According to one team of researchers, the positive impact of school autonomy coupled with choice and accountability amounts to more than one-and-a-half grade-level equivalents on the PISA assessment.

Instead, we seem to be saddled with a one-size-fits-all approach, perhaps because it’s a really lucrative market with a captive audience. This has led to questions about motives and who actually controls the system (hint: it’s not our Board of Education, whether elected or appointed.)

So because one group, formed by government and financially backed by a wealthy philanthropist, decided the United States lagged behind the world academically we had to adopt new standards in the name of competing in a global marketplace. Wouldn’t it be better to let each state pick and choose the methods which work best for their children?

Much as we try to teach down to a bland sameness, drug down the mischievous tendencies of boys through medication to calm them down, and wring our hands about every manner of politically incorrect social interaction, we need to remember that all kids are different and learn certain things at their own paces, which can vary from subject to subject. The girl who may struggle with math could master five languages or the boy who can’t tell you the concepts behind a particular book may be adept at vocational skills and excel at robotics.

While other nations may have more of a top-down approach, Americans pride themselves on local control and that’s a significant reason why Common Core has had trouble being accepted. Add in the large gobs of federal money dangled as incentive for state governments to adopt Common Core and you get a distinct “us vs. them” mindset.

For the most part, parents want their children to be well-rounded, well-mannered, and well-educated. Unfortunately, there are too many who don’t care or can’t be there to assist their offspring and that leads to poorly-educated, poorly-prepared kids who drop out of schools that they cause trouble in before they leave. Common Core does nothing to address that problem because that is a cultural divide and not an educational one. In fact, throwing money at the issue can even make it worse.

Yet there is a bucket load of taxpayer dollars involved, so the advice is the same for this matter as it is for almost everything else: follow the money. It may have started out with good intentions, but it seems to me that Common Core is just another scam being perpetuated on unwitting taxpayers and fattening the coffers of well-connected groups.

Different perspectives

It’s not quite a GO Friday, but relatively close. I’m going to point out a piece on the Manufacture This blog, which is a product of the Alliance for American Manufacturing. In it, they note: “We asked Americans in manufacturing about the State of the Union. Here’s what they said.” The post excerpts from interviews with 10 Americans about how they assess the current economic situation; of course, most are worried about some of the pet issues AAM talks about and advocates for as well.

Jobs, opportunity, and a growing economy are what middle-class families want President Obama to speak to during Tuesday’s State of the Union address. The faces in the Alliance for American Manufacturing’s (AAM) “Manufacturing State of the Union Box” will not be in Washington for the speech. Instead, they will watch from home or work, hoping President Obama will offer solutions on issues that matter to them, including manufacturing jobs that afford them a middle-class lifestyle.

Quite honestly, the AAM’s leftward bias shows through in that statement because it’s highly likely both the Republican and TEA Party responses will advance possible solutions for what ails the middle class as well. In fact, I would be brash enough to state that government is not the solution at all – getting it out of the way as much as possible seems to me a more likely prescription to cure an ailing economy. Let entrepreneurs of all stripes thrive, workers have the freedom to work in a union shop without joining the union, and minimize regulations so that more labor is spent being productive than reactive. Somehow, though, I don’t think these will be addressed in either the State of the Union speech or its responses, although the TEA Party one may come relatively close. Unfortunately, not a lot of people will see it because viewership for the SotU is relatively light to begin with and the patience of most Americans with Barack Obama wears thin quickly.

So it will be interesting to follow the reaction of the AAM ten after the speech on Tuesday, and whether they paid any attention to the Republican or TEA Party responses.

Losing momentum?

The big news around these parts today was the announcement that Labinal Power Systems would be closing its Salisbury plant and consolidating operations in Texas. Gone will be an estimated 600 jobs as the plant phases out operations over the next two years.

On top of that, there are rumors that both of the April tourist draws to Salisbury – the annual Salisbury Festival and Pork in the Park – have been scrubbed for 2015. While another local blogger swears this is not true and the Salisbury Festival is simply being repositioned to the fall, one has to ask how that would fit into an October already crowded with other local events. (As for Pork in the Park, my understanding is that it was a money loser as the county had to plow too much into it up front for its continued survival.)

Salisbury’s downtown has been doing well with the increased popularity of 3rd Friday, a successful New Year’s Eve event, the upcoming opening of Headquarters Live - an entertainment venue which is the remodeled former Fire Station 16 – and a popular Thursday – Saturday night trolley service connecting these venues with nearby Salisbury University, but other parts of town haven’t done as well over the last year. The closing of Labinal decreases further the traffic to a once-booming part of the outskirts of Salisbury that formerly boasted the old Salisbury Mall, torn down several years ago for a development that never got off the ground.

Everything is cyclical, of course, and one example is the development around the SU campus. But losing these Labinal jobs would be a major blow to a county already on a long losing streak when it comes to year-over-year jobs. And the problem with such a long transition to a shutdown (almost two full years) is that lag time is going to be longer than some potential employers want to wait for the facility.

We all better hope that Maryland becomes a lot more business-friendly over the next two years. It’s ironic that Senator Mikulski made a big deal out of a large federal contract secured for the facility just weeks before the announced move to Texas. Call it Rick Perry’s revenge.

186,000 reasons to smile (and one to worry about)

In the quest to get America back to making things, it was good news to find that manufacturers added 17,000 jobs in December. That brought the 2014 growth in that sector to 186,000, continuing the steady growth in that sector since the job market hit bottom there in 2009-10. When you consider that 2012 predictions saw the manufacturing sector losing jobs through this decade, having a very positive number nearly halfway through is a good sign.

Naturally Barack Obama tried to take some credit for this during a speech at a Ford plant near Detroit last week. As I noted in a piece I wrote for the Patriot Post, it’s ironic that the plant was idled due to slow sales of hybrids and small cars built there, but the auto industry has played a part in the resurgence of manufacturing jobs in America. This is particularly true in the construction and expansion of “transplant” auto plants in the South by a number of foreign automakers.

But there has been criticism of Obama from his political peers. As a carryover from my American Certified days I often quote Scott Paul, the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, because his organization is strongly influenced by Big Labor and presumably supported Obama in both his elections. Yet Paul is none too happy with Obama’s progress:

Manufacturing job growth slowed to 17,000 in December, which portends some of the challenges an overly strong dollar, weak global demand, and high goods trade deficits may bring in 2015. While President Obama is touting factory job gains and our Congressional leaders are looking for ways to rebuild the middle class, what’s missing for manufacturing is good policy.

Congress and the president need to hold China and Japan accountable for currency manipulation and mercantilism, and invest in our infrastructure. New innovation institutes are a good thing, but their presence alone won’t bring manufacturing back. And as the president enters the final half of his second term, he’s falling way behind his goal to create one million new manufacturing jobs.

The innovation institutes Paul refers to are public-private partnerships being created around the country in various fields, in the most recent case advanced composites. But Obama lags behind on his promised 1 million new manufacturing jobs for this term as it nears the halfway mark as he’s created just 283,000. It’s great if you’re one of those newly employed workers, but his policies are leaving a lot of chips on the table. In fact, National Association of Manufacturers economist Chad Moutray frets that:

…manufacturers still face a number of challenges, ranging from slowing global growth to a still-cautious consumer to the prospect of increased interest rates. With the start of the 114th Congress, manufacturers are optimistic that there will be positive developments on various critical pro-growth measures, including comprehensive tax reform, trade promotion authority and a long-term reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, and focusing on important infrastructure priorities like building the Keystone XL pipeline and addressing the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund.

While manufacturers would like to see these measures, attaining some of them may be tough sledding in a conservative Congress. There are a number of representatives and conservative groups who don’t want to give the President fast track trade authority, wish to see the Export-Import Bank mothballed out of existence, and will not consider increasing the federal gasoline tax – an action for which Moutray uses the euphemism “addressing the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund.” These actions may benefit the large manufacturers but won’t help the bread and butter industries solely serving the domestic market like the 24-employee machining shop or the plastics plant that employs 80.

Turning to the state level, our local manufacturing (so to speak) of poultry has a big week coming up. On Wednesday morning, the final deadline to submit new regulations to the Maryland Register for the January 23 printing will pass. You may recall that the December 1, 2014 Maryland Register featured the new Phosphorus Management Tool regulations as proposed (page 1432 overall, page 18 on the PDF file.) The new regulations were not in the January 9 edition, so January 23 may be the last chance to get these published under the O’Malley administration due to the deadline being set in MOM’s waning days.

Yet I’m hearing the rumors that a legislative bill is in the works, to be introduced in the coming days by liberal Democrats from across the bridge. Doing this legislatively would perhaps buy a few months for local farmers because such a bill would probably take effect in the first of October if not for the almost certain veto from Governor Hogan. If Democrats hold together, though, they would have enough votes to override the veto in January 2016, at which time the bill would belatedly take effect. Still, it will be difficult to stop such a bill given the lack of Republicans and common-sense Democrats in the General Assembly. To sustain a Hogan veto would take 57 House members and 19 Senators, necessitating seven Democrats in the House and five in the Senate to join all the Republicans.

We haven’t received the data yet to know whether the installation of Bob Culver as County Executive was enough to break an 11-month job losing streak year-over-year here in Wicomico County, but his task would be that much tougher with these regulations put in place.

Is it time for wind power to step up?

January 9, 2015 · Posted in Business and industry, Radical Green · Comments Off 

The outburst of cold weather during the first few days of January was the result of a meteorological anomaly which happened to occur on the same days for two years in a row. The polar vortex which occurred on January 6 and 7 in 2014 struck again with full force on those same dates this year, and the cold weather proved to reinforce a point made by a surprising beneficiary.

According to the American Wind Energy Association, which advocates for wind power as an alternative source of energy, consumers saved $1 billion in the 2014 polar vortex thanks to the availability of wind power. As they note:

Wind energy does this by protecting against spikes in the price of other fuels in the Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes states. While other power plants failed in last January’s extreme cold or faced skyrocketing prices for fuel, wind energy continued producing electricity with zero fuel cost, not only keeping the lights on but also keeping money in consumers’ pockets.

With extreme cold now gripping much of the Eastern U.S., wind energy is once again helping to keep the lights on and protecting consumers against energy price spikes by diversifying the nation’s electricity mix. This is a repeat of the value wind energy provided to consumers during the “Polar Vortex” event exactly one year ago (Wednesday.)

Further, I also learned that the amount of electrical power created by wind reached an all-time high in two regions of the country overnight Tuesday night. Yes, it was blowing hard the other day so wind turbines were at their maximum effect and production.

In the last 24 hours wind set a new output record for the MidContinent ISO (MISO) and for the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), an area that covers much of the Midwest. Wind also performed at near-record levels in the PJM market (PJM).

Overnight on January 6-7, the MISO experienced a record 11,725 MW of wind production while the SPP region added another 7,625 MW – between the two, they powered 15 million homes. AWEA also claimed “near-record” production in the PJM area, which includes our region. In some areas, wind power was a far more significant provider during the event than its overall 4 percent share of the market.

Yet while wind power has made some significant achievements, no story is complete without pointing out a couple of realities: wind energy is not as reliable as fossil fuels, and its distribution pattern in this country makes it a tenuous backup plan for some regions, such as the southeastern part of the country. Negligible wind energy production exists there because of unfavorable conditions.

The reason wind power was so useful in this instance of cold weather was that natural gas has to serve two masters when it’s cold: electricity generation which occurs all year and home heating for the winter. With the difficulty in building the infrastructure needed to move our abundant supply of natural gas to markets in some areas of the country, the spot price surged. AWEA’s $1 billion assertion was based on that price spike for natural gas.

Because of the fickle nature of wind power, it’s interesting to note that PJM keeps a constant eye on the output of its wind turbines and their predicted effects. As of the moment I write this, the wind turbines are producing 4,424 megawatts, which is slightly below the 4,585 megawatts forecast. To meet needs other sources will have to come into play if they’re not already accounted for.

The economics of wind are fickle as well. While the on-again, off-again nature of the Wind Production Tax Credit of 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour produced has affected the building of turbines – opponents consider them a handout both to the industry and Wall Street – state government mandates for clean energy prop up the demand. Without the prescribed mandates from states like Maryland, which has a current goal of 10% of its energy source generation from wind and other renewables, it’s likely the wind energy industry would be non-existent in America.

But its legitimacy was bolstered from a surprising source this week. Each year, the American Petroleum Institute puts out a State of American Energy Report, and for the first time it addressed a number of alternative energy sources including wind power. As Jack Gerard of API puts it:

Rather than focus solely on the oil and natural gas industry, API this year is pleased to partner with organizations representing various energy sectors to highlight the contributions of each toward America’s current and future economic wellbeing, and collectively stress the importance of adopting a lasting “all of the above” energy strategy.

In their section of the API report, AWEA notes that potentially 35 percent of America’s electricity could be created from wind power by 2050. Of course, there are questions about the health risks of living near a wind turbine which will merit further study, but it is relatively convenient that most of the best places for wind production are in sparsely-populated areas.

If you subscribe to the “all of the above” energy strategy, you may be setting a place at the table for wind energy. Certainly it won’t serve all of our needs as well as the versatile roster of fossil fuels has over the years, and it may have to navigate a brave new world without the tax credits that have built the industry up over the last two decades – in fact, I think it should. Logic would dictate that, since the fuel is free of charge, the only cost should be the infrastructure, transmission, and occasional maintenance and monitoring, so who needs a tax break?

We won’t always have a polar vortex, but if the wind energy industry is where its backers say it is, we won’t need one to make wind a good choice. Let’s put it on a level playing field and see how it fares.

A question of priorities

The “90 days of terror” I call the General Assembly session do not begin until next Wednesday, but once some incumbent members were safely re-elected they pre-filed a small number of bills in each chamber – 39 in the House and 15 in the Senate.

Pre-filed bills are interesting because it gives a glimpse into what those members who introduce them believe to be burning questions. In the Senate, it’s apparent Senator Joan Carter Conway is most worried about the availability of prescription drugs in a state of emergency while Delegate Cheryl Glenn believes the establishment of the Hattie N. Harrison Memorial Scholarship for “students who pledge to work in fields of critical shortage in the State on completion of their studies” is top on her list. (Harrison was a longtime Delegate from Baltimore City who died in office early in the 2013 session.) Respectively, these bills were dubbed SB1 and HB1, presumably since they were the first bills requested for filing.

This stands in opposition to our Congress, which tends to use the lowest number bills for priority items. For example, there is no H.R. 1 yet in the 114th Congress because they reserve the number for the Speaker’s use on a bill he deems a priority. (It was used for the Tax Reform Act of 2014 in the last session.) S. 1 this term is the bill to build the Keystone XL pipeline, which Congress has tried to pass on several prior occasions.

Of the 54 bills in the hopper so far, most deal with mundane issues. But there are a few interesting Senate bills which could have merit: Senator Jim Brochin is trying to eliminate the annual indexing of the gasoline tax to inflation, while bills to exempt certain non-profits from paying a state-mandated minimum wage increase and to open up the election canvassing process to outside observers were introduced by Senator Joe Getty before he took a position in the Hogan administration. (This is interesting as Delegate Kelly Schulz also pre-filed bills on the House side. I’d be curious to know who would be considered to be the lead sponsor in the cases where that sponsor is no longer in the MGA.)

On the House side, Delegate Glenn also wants to accelerate the already-adopted $10.10 per hour minimum wage from 2018 to 2015 while Delegate Aruna Miller seeks to ban e-cigarettes from indoor venues. On the good side, Delegate Schulz wants to make sure only citizens register to vote, stop Common Core in its tracks, and eliminate one piece of the gun law.

Obviously there will be a lot more than this. Just as an example, one prospective bill that aroused a spirited discussion at an event for Delegate-elect Carl Anderton earlier tonight is Anderton’s as-yet-unreleased proposal to address our tax differential, an idea for which Salisbury mayor Jim Ireton (a possible 2018 opponent) is also pushing - however, the two probably differ on how to accomplish this goal. Once the legislation is written and introduced, it can get a fair hearing.

This also gives me the opportunity to remind readers about a great organization of volunteers called Maryland Legislative Watch, for which I have read and evaluated bills the last two sessions (and would gladly do so again.) They are a key to a more informed public, so I encourage you to check them out. Chances are we will once again see over 2.500 bills introduced and if the first 54 are any guide, it will be yet another intriguing session. And we haven’t even seen Larry Hogan’s legislative agenda yet.

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