Addressing the challenge

Many years ago, when I was a mere political babe in the woods, I volunteered to help out a candidate by the name of Maggie Thurber. At the time, she was running for a full term as Clerk of Courts in my former home of Lucas County, Ohio, having won the office in a huge upset two years earlier. She went on to win that election and one more, plus serve a term as a County Commissioner before leaving politics.

She parlayed that political success into a stint as a radio host and also has blogged for several years at a site called Thurber’s Thoughts, although now that seems to be used as additional material for her work on Ohio Watchdog (a subsite of Watchdog Wire.) And that’s where I pick up the story.

I happened to come across a piece she wrote regarding the “Live the Wage” challenge, something set up by this website. This movement is backed by the same people who connived Maryland into raising its minimum wage earlier this year.

The premise of this challenge was to buy groceries and gas on $77 a week, which was the amount deemed to be left over once taxes and housing expenses are paid. Thurber writes that:

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland gave up. He started on a Sunday, but ran out of money by Thursday, he explained in a column for Politico. He said he skipped meals to save money and ate smaller, less healthy meals.

“Because fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find at a price within a minimum wage budget, I turned to bread, peanut butter, bananas and bologna more than anything else,” he wrote. “That was what I could find when I took this budget to the grocery story (sic) last Sunday. And that’s why I ate lunch from the McDonald’s dollar menu.”

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, spent his money foolishly, paying $7 for sardines and crackers, $5 for a Burger King Whopper, $2 for a cup of coffee and his “last couple of dollars to buy trail mix,” he explained on his Facebook page.

It’s obvious to me Strickland and Ryan didn’t take this seriously; otherwise they would have done as well as Thurber and her husband did. She bought a week’s worth of gasoline for $44 (using points from her local Kroger grocery store) and spent $82.83 on a basic menu of groceries for the week, with a couple splurge items. As for the leftover money?

We approached the challenge as if we had both lost our jobs and taken minimum wage jobs to get by. Under this scenario, we’d have some items on hand, like paper towels, detergent, aspirin, condiments and corn to make popcorn for snacks.

But with $27.17 remaining in our budget, or going without our two splurge items, we’d be able to purchase those supplies as we needed.

Of course, the banshees came out of the woodwork in the comments section and shrieked that she should live like this for a year or so before talking. Well, these (very well-paid) politicians didn’t even try hard to make it through a week – what does that say about their compassion, let alone their eating and cooking habits?

As I noted above, Thurber expanded on this Ohio Watchdog piece on her own site, which gave politicians a new challenge:

Don’t you think it’s funny that no one ever tries to live like a small business owner for week? To feel what it’s like to try to make a payroll, deal with government forms and mandates, handle local government rules and regulations, deal with happy and angry customers, supervise a work staff, promote your business, do the accounting and somehow find time for family and friends and an actual life outside of work?

One day in the life of small business owner is much more difficult and stressful than trying to live on $77 a week.

That’s the reality of this ridiculousness – and that’s why the whole “live the wage” publicity sham is such a travesty.

I talk about business climate a lot on this site because, as a state, Maryland is far too dependent on one industry – the federal government. In that, it mirrors the city of my birth which is overly reliant on the auto industry. But in catering to the auto industry you at least do things which benefit other businesses around the state, and overall Ohio is a diverse state with several distinct metro areas as well as a significant rural component.

In contrast, Maryland seems to work only toward enriching government and those businesses connected to government by hook or crook. So raising the minimum wage was no big deal to most of Maryland – it’s a world of almost automatic annual raises and the job security one receives when you work for a government which rarely, if ever, cuts itself. People can shoulder that burden more easily along the I-95 corridor.

But when you come out to the forgotten parts of Maryland, a minimum wage raise means jobs lost – there’s no other way around it. There were efforts to waive or slow down the increase for counties here on the Eastern Shore, but they were rebuffed in the General Assembly.

And if you think buying groceries on minimum wage is difficult, just try it being unemployed. That’s going to be the result of these shortsighted policies once the political stunts and game playing are forgotten.

Move on to a new energy supplier

December 18, 2013 · Posted in Watchdog Wire · Comments Off 

Under a slightly different title (the above was my original submission), this is my latest for Watchdog Wire.

Electrical customers throughout Maryland may be receiving – or perhaps have already seen – a solicitation for switching their electrical service from their current utility to a relatively new player in the industry called Ethical Electric. I received a solicitation last week, with the message:

As a Delmarva Power customer, you now have the option to ensure that every kilowatt of electricity used in the Swartz home comes from clean, renewable sources.

As I read on, I learned that a large portion of my electricity comes from dirty, supposedly finite sources.

(continued at Watchdog Wire…)

Maryland treads water in two key reports

October 15, 2013 · Posted in Watchdog Wire · 1 Comment 

Crossposted from Watchdog Wire – Maryland.

In a nation where each state can (somewhat) determine its own destiny through the laws and regulations they adopt as well as the promises made to its citizens, two reports that came out this week determined the Free State needs a lot of improvement in both present and future policy.

The 2014 edition of the Tax Foundation’s State Business Climate Tax Index showed Maryland in a familiar position: lagging in the bottom ten of the country alongside a roster of states which mainly share the similarity of Democratic-controlled governments. For the second straight year, Maryland ranked 41st overall, with its lone bright spot an 8th-place rank in the sales tax category. While Maryland has a 6 percent sales tax rate, higher than several surrounding states, the complex calculations performed by the Tax Foundation give our state a better score. Ironically, applying the sales tax to gasoline, which the state began collecting on July 1st, may have proven politically unpopular but bolstered the state’s ranking in the eyes of the Tax Foundation.

As the report points out, however, a state can assist itself practically overnight. Despite its 44th place ranking, upcoming changes in North Carolina promise to vault the state into the top twenty in coming years:

While not reflected in this year’s edition, a great testament to the Index’s value is its use as a success metric for comprehensive reforms passed this year in North Carolina. While the state remains ranked 44th for this edition, it will move to as high as 17th as these reforms take effect in coming years.

One can speculate, then, that if a governor came to office willing to decrease the state’s corporate income tax – as many candidates promised to do at a recent manufacturing summit – and could make other key changes to the system, Maryland could place itself into a position at least competitive to its neighbors. While Delaware remains a top contender at #13, other surrounding states are in more pedestrian positions: West Virginia ranks 23rd, Pennsylvania 24th, and Virginia – somewhat surprisingly, given Martin O’Malley’s grudge against all things Bob McDonnell – is 26th.

Maryland may need to look into changing its anti-business policies soon, since another study from State Budget Solutions regarding unfunded public employee pension liabilities found that Maryland is staring at over $110 billion in promises made. This report, entitled “Promises Made, Promises Broken – The Betrayal of Pensioners and Taxpayers”, found that just 34 percent of the various pension programs (in Maryland’s case, these are the State Pool and Municipal Pool of the State Retirement and Pension System along with the Transit Authority Pension Plan) are currently funded. In actual dollars, the unfunded portion is just over $73 billion.

However, when compared to the rest of the country, Maryland fares a little more toward the average. While their 34 percent funding ratio ranks in a tie for 30th among the states, the percentage of GDP represented is 19th overall. Despite itself, Maryland has the potential to grow out of the problem if corrective measures can be taken. Indeed, $73 billion is certainly a lot of money – by comparison, the entire FY2014 state budget weighs in at just over $37 billion – but consider that Ohio, with roughly twice Maryland’s population, has a hole of $287 billion to fill. (Ohio’s funding ratio, however, is just about equal to Maryland’s 34 percent figure.)

Across the country, the amount promised to pensioners by states is staggering: over $6.7 trillion is pledged to retirees, with only $2.6 trillion in the bank to cover them. But it’s a small ticking time bomb of debt when added to the arsenal of unfunded federal liabilities that may be over $100 trillion.

It will take a lot of tax reform and GDP growth to make good on those demands.

The stricter pro-life line: so who is more pro-life?

This was originally written as a two-part series for Watchdog Wire, with a few minor changes made there to “neutralize” the content slightly. I’ve left the original page break in as a “more” tag.

Unlike Texas, Maryland doesn’t have its equivalent to Wendy Davis, the legislator now famous for talking down a measure to prohibit most abortions after 20 weeks - mainly because our state doesn’t need one. Over the last two decades, those who support murdering children in the womb have pressed ahead into making Maryland one of the leading states for abortions. In most cases, the Republicans in the General Assembly stand for the unborn while the Democrats pander to the abortionists. But there are exceptions, and it’s for that reason I started looking into what I’m about to post here.

My involvement began when I asked about a notice from the newly-created Maryland Pro-Life Alliance (MPLA), which is backing a Maryland counterpart to the Texas law recently passed called the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, or PCUCPA. (I say newly created as MPLA joined Facebook June 25, which is also the date of their first website blog entry. It was literally produced in the immediate wake of the Wendy Davis filibuster sideshow.) The MPLA note blasted State Senator E.J. Pipkin, who is one of the few Republicans with a spotty pro-life record, according to data tabulated over the last several years by Maryland Right To Life. (Worth noting: Maryland Right To Life is not affiliated with the Maryland Pro-Life Alliance.)

Indeed, in following the Pipkin voting record, he has often stood alone among Republicans in opposing more abortion restrictions in the Maryland Senate. (A few House Republicans, most notably Delegate Robert Costa, also have sided with the vast majority of Democrats when it comes to snuffing out the unborn or supporting embryonic stem-cell research.)

Here’s what MPLA had to say about Pipkin’s record:

Almost every legislative session, during budget deliberations, Republicans have proposed pro-life amendments to end taxpayer funded abortions in Maryland.

I think you can guess how E.J. Pipkin comes down on these votes.

He had a choice.

He could have abstained. He could have voted to protect life.

But E.J. Pipkin didn’t do that.

He stood up on the Senate floor and voted to give your tax dollars to abortionists throughout the state of Maryland to kill the unborn.

Now Pipkin has always had a voting record that’s been a little bit unusual for a Republican; however, this is where he supposedly stood on the issue during his 2004 Senate race.

At this point, the e-mail decrying Pipkin’s record is all the MPLA has to show for its efforts against the Senator. But as you’ll see in part 2, it wasn’t the last move made by the nascent group. They have upped the ante with two Harford County delegates, Wayne Norman and Donna Stifler, in a robocall regarding a 2013 version of the bill introduced in Maryland - a phone message which one claims broke federal election law.

That and other reaction will come after the page break.

Read more

Is it truly ‘My Maryland’?

Billing itself as “Democracy’s First Online Town Hall”, the website MyMaryland.net recently went live with backing from the Sunlight Foundation, a group which advocates for governmental transparency.

The website is a pilot project where users can sign up and learn about and contact their elected officials. So I decided to make myself a guinea pig and sign up.

From the homepage, I selected “Join” and was taken to a landing page where they asked the basics: e-mail, password (for your use), name, and postal code. They also needed date of birth, why I wasn’t sure – perhaps it matches voter registration information.

After that, I was advised to check my email for a link. Sure enough, a few seconds later I had my e-mail and clicked the link.

(continued at Watchdog Wire…)

Has RGGI lived up to its purpose?

July 1, 2013 · Posted in Watchdog Wire · Comments Off 

In the wake of President Obama’s unilateral decision to do something – anything, as long as it doesn’t need approval from Congress – about the perception that climate change is anthropogenic and the United States must take a lead role in changing our planet’s temperature, this may be a good time to review the effects of an earlier attempt at combating global warming known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Nine Northeastern states, including Maryland, are members of this group – the others are Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and Delaware. New Jersey was also an original member of the cabal but left in 2012 at the behest of their governor, Chris Christie, who called the RGGI effort “gimmicky” and “a failure.” The group, and its associated non-profit corporation, describe themselves as such:

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is the first mandatory market-based regulatory program in the U.S. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. RGGI is a cooperative effort of Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the power sector.

RGGI, Inc. is a non-profit corporation created to provide technical and administrative services to the states participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

While the idea was supposedly one of making utilities pay for the messes they create by using carbon-based fuels to create the electricity we all need, the reality is that RGGI, at least in Maryland, mainly has served as yet another method of redistributing wealth.

(continued at Watchdog Wire…)

Land of opportunity for the politically correct?

June 14, 2013 · Posted in Business and industry, Delmarva items, Maryland Politics, Politics, Watchdog Wire · Comments Off 

This piece continues a theme I undertook a few days ago, but adds the rebuttal from the DBED, among other things…

Last week on my home site I speculated on the motives of selecting three Maryland companies for inclusion in a state-sponsored program called MaryLand of Opportunity. The program puts three businesses in the spotlight through a series of television and radio spots, paid for in part by the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.

The three businesses selected are B’More Organic, which manufactures and sells an Icelandic yogurt variant called skyr in smoothie form, wind-powered electrical broker Clean Currents, and Apples & Oranges, a Baltimore-based supermarket located in an area of the city determined to be a “food desert.” The theme used to sell the trio to the public was one of “Good for you, Good for Maryland, Good for the Planet.” At this point, the campaign has put together a thirty-second television commercial for B’More Organic and radio spots of thirty and ninety seconds for Clean Currents; DBED is also promoting the campaign on social media via Facebook and Twitter.

Conventional media outlets included are the Baltimore Sun, CBS Radio, and WJZ-TV, which are matching the $130,000 chipped in by Maryland taxpayers with services to bring the campaign’s total value to $350,000.

(Continued at the Watchdog Wire…)

Farm vs. farm

After the whole  Waterkeeper Alliance, Inc. vs. Hudson court case was finally settled in favor of the Berlin farm family, you would think Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. would be persona non grata in the agricultural community.  Perhaps he is, but the irony of a Baltimore group which, among its other ventures, runs what it calls the “Real Food Farminviting Kennedy to speak for a fundraiser didn’t escape notice from an internet-based farmers advocacy group.

In a letter from SaveFarmFamilies.org addressed to ‘major civic leader(s) in the Greater Baltimore area,” the group noted:

…we wanted to make you aware of an event featuring a voice that has been most troublesome in Maryland. It is to our deep disappointment that the Baltimore-area organization, Civic Works, is choosing to honor Waterkeeper Alliance President Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. on April 24 at Goucher College. It is unfortunate that a venerable organization seeking to do so much good could honor Mr. Kennedy after he spearheaded an unjust lawsuit to bankrupt a 4th generation Maryland farm family struggling to make ends meet.

The group goes on to quote Governor O’Malley’s letter to University of Maryland Law School Dean Phoebe Haddon on the Hudson lawsuit as well as remarks from House Appropriations Committee Chair Delegate Norm Conway regarding $300,000 added to this year’s state budget to help pay the Hudsons’ legal fees. Having Kennedy speak to Civic Works would “tarnish the celebration of its achievements,” concluded the letter, signed by Lee Richardson of Save Farm Families, defendant Alan Hudson, and Herbert Frerichs, Jr. of Perdue Farms.

(continued at Watchdog Wire…)

Maryland ranked among least business-friendly states – by business owners

April 12, 2013 · Posted in Business and industry, Delmarva items, Watchdog Wire · 1 Comment 

For the second year in a row, a nationwide survey of business owners found Maryland lagged behind the bulk of states in overall business climate.

The survey, conducted as a joint effort between the business-to-business website Thumbtack.com and the Kauffman Foundation, quizzed nearly 8,000 business owners and operators across the country, asking them to grade their respective states in a number of categories related to their perception of the business climate.

While Maryland graded out as a “C” overall – improving from a “C-” grade in 2012 – it ranked ahead of just 12 states in the survey; on the other hand, 26 states made a better impression on their entrepreneurial denizens. (Eight states lacked the requisite number of responses for their results to count; included in that group were neighboring Delaware and West Virginia.) While Maryland paled in comparison to Virginia, which received an “A” grade overall, it did better than Pennsylvania’s “D+” mark.

Another unique feature of this survey, though, was the addition of written responses from various business professionals throughout the state. Maryland’s overall “C” grade seems to be belied by some of the comments given in response to the survey – for example, a marketing specialist in Baltimore wrote,”The tax structure in Maryland is hurting small businesses and their owners. A more business friendly environment in Virginia is causing me to consider relocating the business there.”

Sure enough, Virginia seems to have earned its grade given the number of businesses relocating there (many from Maryland) over the last few years.

Another business owner, this time a general contractor in Gaithersburg, bemoans the tax climate here, pointing out that,”To start business in my state has been a long time period of paperwork and fees and examinations. Once the process is started, there has been no help from the state or county to obtain business. The only thing this the state cares about is your taxes and fees.”

A Walkersville production company owner adds, “Sales tax is charged on services. No other state that I have lived in requires services to be taxed.”

In general, “Maryland is a very unfriendly business state,” said a cleaner in Owings Mills.

And while not all the responses were negative, with one photographer saying “it was easy to start a business in Maryland,” and praising the state’s SBA and websites, all but a couple of the fifteen or so written responses panned some aspect of starting and succeeding at business in Maryland.

And this isn’t lost on those who conducted the survey, either.

“It is critical to the economic health of every city and state to create an entrepreneur-friendly environment,” said Dane Stangler, Director of Research and Policy at the Kauffman Foundation. “Policymakers put themselves in the best position to encourage sustainable growth and long-term prosperity by listening to the voices of small business owners themselves.” It’s likely that 37 tax increases in a row over the last six-plus years does not an entrepreneur-friendly state make.

When I asked Sander Daniels, who commissioned the study as the co-founder of Thumbtack.com, about his perspective on the problems a state like Maryland faces, he made several points.

(As for) general advice for state/local officials (on improving their grade), I would say that it makes the most sense to identify the primary pain points for your small businesses and to balance this with what are the low hanging fruit in terms of improvement.

For example, we found that licensing/permitting regulations are very important to small businesses. They often need to be reformed along two dimensions: the requirements themselves, which are often outdated or were the result of regulatory capture by extant businesses, and the number of overlapping regimes…covering the same issue at the city, county and state level. Fixing these issues is important; however, it is also time consuming and challenging. So, while working on these important but long term reforms, the state could simultaneously focus on smaller improvements like ensuring that more forms and processes are handled through easy to use websites…

(On taxes) our analysis was on a national level. Also, I should probably clarify slightly. It’s not that taxes weren’t important – in fact they were one of the most important factors – but that licensing regulations were often more important, particularly to new and expanding firms. We felt that this is an important thing to highlight given that while taxes are a frequent topic of conversation, licensing and permitting regulations get comparatively little airtime.

But the lesson which needs to be learned comes from a Virginia businessman who noted, “Maryland is losing companies to Virginia due to heavy taxation, although the federal government presence is as prominent there as it is here in Virginia. When government gets out of the way – companies thrive.” It’s not clear which portion of StateStat or the so-called “Genuine Progress Indicator” (read: excuses for poor economic performance) might cover this part of the equation, but the message couldn’t be more clear.

Crossposted on Watchdog Wire, with quote from Sander Daniels added here.

The Question 7 money question: a questionable donation to the MDGOP

March 20, 2013 · Posted in Business and industry, Delmarva items, Maryland Politics, Politics, Watchdog Wire · Comments Off 

The title was changed there (I originally called it “The Question 7 money question”) but this is my latest for Watchdog Wire.

Today we shine our light in the crevice of campaign finance and ponder the question: which side of the gambling fence was the Maryland Republican Party really on?

For those who have already forgotten the sordid history of last year’s Question 7, the ballot question and hundreds of commercial spots cluttering the media and airwaves beseeching a vote one way or the other on the issue, it came about when the General Assembly passed legislation in a Special Session last summer that placed the question of expanding gambling to include table games and a new facility at National Harbor in Prince George’s County on the ballot.

Before the question was decided with a slim majority favoring passage, both sides poured millions of dollars into the cause. On the pro-gambling side were factions supporting education, organized labor, and MGM Resorts International, which would develop the National Harbor project. Opponents mainly came from groups with a moral aversion to gambling, but corporate interests played a role as well: both the Cordish Companies (which owns the Maryland Live! casino at Arundel Mills in Hanover) and Penn National Gaming (owner of the  struggling Hollywood Casino in Perryville, Maryland as well as another Hollywood Casino in nearby Charles Town, West Virginia) actively supported the “Get the Facts – Vote No On 7″ initiative. They pointed out weaknesses in the proponents’ argument that money would be used for education, noting the ease of diverting gambling proceeds to the state’s general fund.

(continued at the Watchdog Wire…)

Gubernatorial hopeful Blaine Young speaks in Wicomico County

On Monday night the Wicomico County Republican Club held its monthly meeting with gubernatorial candidate Blaine Young as the guest. Young spoke for about a half-hour on a number of topics, mainly relating to events in Frederick and surrounding Frederick County, a place where rapid growth over the last several years has come from those he jokingly described as “refugees from Montgomery County.”

Blaine outlined his position as President of the Frederick County Board of Commissioners, although that position will soon be abolished as Frederick County will join a number of other Maryland counties which have adopted a County Executive form of government. In fact, just like Wicomico County, Frederick will have a similarly-comprised seven-member County Council as well beginning in 2014.

In speaking to those gathered, though, Young made it clear his biggest influence after completing a brief previous political career as an alderman in the city of Frederick was that of becoming a small business owner. “It woke me up and opened my eyes,” he said. Blaine is also a radio host, a daily enterprise he claimed the local papers and liberals hate. But his overall stable of business support between 120 and 140 people, stated Young.

But Blaine made the case that he took the appointment to the Commission in 2010 and subsequently decided to run for a full term because his predecessors “liked to spend money.” Instead, the slate he led into office is “a very property-rights oriented commission” which “started slashing away” at a $48 million deficit and turned it into a $29 million surplus. They did so by cooperating with the local Chamber of Commerce to adopt over 200 of their suggestions, eliminating taxes and rescinding “frivolous” fees. The number of county employees had also declined by 400 during his tenure, Young added.

(continued at the Watchdog Wire…)

Rising up from the Astroturf once again: a push to increase the minimum wage

Sometimes I get my information in the most curious ways, and these are the occasions which can pique my interest. So it was the other night when I got an e-mail update about new Twitter followers. Getting new Twitter followers is not an unusual occurrence for me, but this one was most unusual because it came from what would be considered a left-wing group: Raise Maryland.

For those of you not familiar with the group, Raise Maryland is a so-called “grassroots” organization comprised of what they term on their Facebook page (featuring a double-digit following) as “a campaign of over twenty organizations dedicated to passing legislation to raise the state minimum wage to $10 by 2015.” The group was formed January 21, and corresponding legislation was introduced in the Maryland Senate on February 1 (SB683) and House of Delegates on February 8 (HB1204), to be heard March 7 and February 27, respectively. Lead sponsors of the bill in the Senate and House are Senator Rob Garagiola of Montgomery County and Delegate Aisha Braveboy of Prince George’s County.

Based simply on number of co-sponsors, the Senate bill should pass that body because it has 25 co-sponsors; however, the House bill has only 58, meaning support isn’t quite as broad there. They’re a little short of the 71 votes needed to get House passage.

If passed, the minimum wage in Maryland would increase to $8.25 an hour on July 1, 2013, with increases to $9 an hour a year later and the coveted $10 an hour rate in July 2015. Thereafter – or in a case where federal law supersedes the state law with a higher rate – the minimum wage will go up annually based on inflation.

(continued at the Watchdog Wire…)

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