A plea for common sense

This could be the most unusual story idea I’ve ever had.

Back before Christmas I received the usual card from my parents, with some of what’s going on with them since we had previously spoken at Thanksgiving. So this evening I was cleaning off the coffee table and found the card, which I had kept out because enclosed was a clipping of a local op-ed piece where she wrote “Write a chapter about this!!”

At that point I remembered I was indeed going to write about it – not as a chapter in my book since it’s not TEA Party-related, but certainly it would be worth a blog post. The writer in question is a guy named Tim Smolarick, who is the editor of the Highlands News-Sun (their local paper.) So I dd a little bit of digging to link the article, called “More common sense and less red tape” for your perusal.

My mom’s highlighter isn’t the best, but this was the part she highlighted:

We have a two-party dominant system that spends entire cycles between elections blaming one another for all the problems that exist and, at the end, whoever convinces us better gets the seat. That has to stop. Back in the day we really believed in the people we voted for, not the party rhetoric. (That part was the most highlighted.)

The overall article talked about hunger as an issue brought up to the writer, and how, if the people of Highlands County put their mind to it “with common sense and less red tape” they could solve this problem. And, to be quite frank, I see no real reason they couldn’t do it on a local level.

(Just to set a scene: if there were an Eastern Shore of Florida, Highlands County might be it. Substitute orange groves for chicken houses and you get the picture. Unlike the perception most people have of Florida, Highlands is a very rural county that’s smack dab in the middle of nowhere insofar as the Sunshine State is concerned. But it’s where my late grandparents chose to go when they retired so my parents were familiar with it. The county compares with Wicomico County as far as population but has over twice the area.)

My mom’s point is valid in this day and age where we pit the Red Team against the Blue Team in an ongoing struggle for political power; one where people will look past the character flaws inherent in candidates if that candidate represents your side. Once we expected better of our representatives, but over the last 20 to 30 years we’ve become more forgiving of flaws in the pursuit of power.

Yet the beauty of Mr. Smolarick’s approach is that it transcends politics. If you’re not worried about who gets the credit and not in it to perpetuate a problem just to keep your job, there is a lot that can be accomplished. I tend to look at this as a faith-based operation because it’s a model I’m most familiar with, but there’s nothing that says it has to be denominational in that manner either. An atheist who has a good idea shouldn’t be dismissed on that basis alone.

As a society we’ve become conditioned to look to government as the only available problem-solver, forgetting that we have means and methods at our disposal if only we choose to employ them. “There oughta be a law!” scream the people, but sometimes they hold the solution in their own hands.

So I hope some people in the middle of Florida step up and figure out how to address their issues without having to hold the hand of government every step of the way. Back in the day that’s how Americans used to do it.

Say, maybe this is a TEA Party-related article after all – didn’t Tim Smolarick just advocate for limited government? I think he did! And thanks to my mom for the inspiration.

The ‘pay-to-play’ report hits the streets

Back when Change Maryland released the first teaser for this pay-to-play report sent out to media outlets today, I guessed that the release would precede the official announcement of Larry Hogan’s intentions by a couple days, in order to extend the news cycle surrounding hie entry into the race. But instead it came out today, just two days before the beginning of the General Assembly session and nowhere near Hogan’s yet-to-be-scheduled formal announcement.

And honestly, aside from the documentation of what Change Maryland terms a “deliberate, coordinated effort by this administration to to circumvent the intent of the law” and the influence it bought, the 15-page report on “alleged unethical relationships” begs the question: what can we do about it? Their lone attempt to address the situation notes:

Job creators looking to establish their business in the mid-Atlantic region want a stable and predictable business climate. They want to conduct their business without the heavy hand of politicians shaking them down for hundreds of thousands in ethically questionable political donations.

For the sake of transparency and good governance, we believe these allegations seriously warrant further investigation.

All this is correct as far as it goes, but probably the earliest we could have some sort of formal investigation would be 2015, after O’Malley is safely out of office – and only if a Republican wins the governorship. Even then, the cacophany of “this is just old news, nothing to see here, let’s just move forward” will be shrill coming from the current majority party.

On the other hand, I will say I got a little more direction from Hogan’s remarks accompanying the release of the document.

Our research reveals a disturbing pattern from this administration that is at the very least unethical and inappropriate. The people of Maryland deserve to know the truth about these donations and the state decisions that may have been influenced. Did the Governor solicit large contributions to help further his national aspirations and reward those donors with huge state contracts and favorable decisions?

Allowing a ‘pay-to-play’ culture of corruption to take a stronghold in our state government threatens every business and individual in Maryland. Even the perception of this practice prevents an honest and fair bidding process for all job creators who may wish to contract with the state. It allows complicit politicians to hijack millions, and even billions in taxpayer dollars that could serve a greater purpose, both in the government and in the wallets of struggling Maryland families.

Unfortunately, this culture of corruption is enabled when you have a political monopoly with no checks and balances. For almost eight years, this administration has run amuck without any accountability, and it’s Maryland’s working families who have paid the price. This is just the tip of the iceberg – we believe these allegations seriously warrant further investigation. (Emphasis mine.)

Hey, now there’s something to sink our teeth into! It seems some other party used the “culture of corruption” mantra to take over Congress after 12 years of minority status, so why can’t Republicans try and chip into 150 years of being on the losing side in this state? It can’t hurt.

The trick will be explaining just how this affects the average Marylander who knows instinctively that the state’s machine politics is rife with decay and corruption, but feels powerless to affect it. I’m just one vote, he may say.

That’s not necessarily true, though. When I get e-mail from the 9-12 Delaware Patriots, it ends with the tagline “you are not just one, you are one more.” If Change Maryland really has 73,000 activists who are clamoring for an end to the pay-to-play mentality in this state, the issue will be there for 2014. It will be up to candidate Larry Hogan to show leadership in the direction he wants to take us.

It’s far past time to clean up the state and end the Maryland culture of corruption.

More pay to play, the Martin O’Malley way

Damn, I can’t wait for this report to come out. Almost makes me wish Larry Hogan would drop this governor’s business and focus on getting more of this information out because too many will dismiss it as partisan opposition research:

Change Maryland has released new information that seems to reveal the appearance of a “pay-to-play” system within the O’Malley-Brown Administration where contractors received significant benefits from the state either before or after their donations to the Democratic Governors Association during Governor O’Malley’s tenure as its chairman.

“This additional data further suggests a disturbing pattern of behavior that, at the very least, is unethical and inappropriate,” said Larry Hogan, Chairman of Change Maryland. “I think the public has a right to know the truth about these practices. Did the governor and/or others in his administration solicit large contributions from contractors, then reciprocate by rewarding those donors with huge state contracts, contract extensions, or other special favors or decisions in return?” he added.

Obviously this has serious implications and gives the appearance of the potential for decisions being influenced by millions of dollars in “donations.” Recognizing the inappropriate and unethical nature of these relationships, state law currently prohibits state contractors from making contributions to an elected official’s campaign account. This evidence indicates the possibility of a deliberate, coordinated effort by this administration to circumvent the intent of the law by soliciting huge, unlimited contributions to a federal, rather than state, account.

The report released today by Change Maryland shows that healthcare services company Express Scripts received a $2.3 billion contract despite serious concerns about the company’s legal issues in Maryland and 28 other states. In 2008, the company paid over $9.3 billion in settlement costs to these states.

From March 2011 to February 2012, the Maryland Board of Public Works was deciding whether to approve the lucrative contract to Express Scripts to provide prescription drug services to state employees. In March 2011, two of the three members voted to postpone a decision out of concerns about the company’s legal issues and several flaws in the procurement process. Governor O’Malley was the lone vote to move forward with the contract.

During this same time, Medco – a company looking to merge with Express Scripts – donated a combined $225,000 to the DGA. In fact, their first contribution came just six days after Governor O’Malley cast the lone vote to move forward with the drug contract.

In late January 2012, the Board of Public Works again voted to delay the contract award, drawing significant criticism from Governor O’Malley at the time who complained about the endless delays. One month later, the BPW reversed course, awarding the contract to Express Scripts in a two to one vote. On March 27, 2012, Medco made their second and final donation to the DGA: $125,000. Medco and Express Scripts received final Federal Trade Commission (FTC) approval for their merger on April 2, 2012.

“Maryland’s working families deserve better from their elected leaders,” Hogan said. “This is what happens when you have an arrogant monopoly that feels they can get away with anything. What Maryland desperately needs is a healthy and competitive two party system, open and honest debate, and some real checks and balances to keep some of these outrageous abuses from taking place.”

In addition to this most recent research, Change Maryland released other questionable contributions from state contractors to the DGA.

Update: I was informed by a representative of Express Scripts that the correct settlement figure is $9.8 million (not billion.) This is incorrect in the original Change Maryland release, so I left the release as is and opted to clarify here.

Hogan’s group seems to be taking the Chinese water torture approach, leaking information on this report a drop at a time to both make the opposition wonder what else he’s got and keep up interest in the runup to the release.

This series seems to leave me torn as well. I’m an advocate for unfettered political contributions, even at the risk of these apparent pay-to-play contributions. But I also want full and relatively instant disclosure, and even though these are federal releases with a more aggressive reporting schedule than state accounts – at least in non-election years – there’s still a significant lag time involved.

The allegations also raise another embarrassing question: where was the state’s major media in reporting this? Didn’t anyone wonder why the vote changed? Certainly Comptroller Peter Franchot had his reasons for maintaining his vote against the issue; the vote which changed was treasurer Nancy Kopp – interesting, because hers is not an elected post. (The transcript of that meeting is painful to read because the state really seemed to drop the ball on a $2.3 billion contract, dropping a Maryland-based provider for the aforementioned Express Scripts.)

What I’m afraid of is that this Change Maryland report will be both the tip of the iceberg and dismissed as “old news” because Martin O’Malley isn’t running for anything in Maryland and Anthony Brown will escape culpability because Larry Hogan is now a political opponent instead of an honest broker.

We need to clean out the swamp, it’s true, but in order to clean it we have to secure the tools to do so first. I think it would also be a good idea for Change Maryland to reveal where it gets its funding, just to show leadership. That’s my two cents.

Buying votes seems to be a Democrat pattern

Speaking from the safety of civilian life and not seeking political office, former GOP Senator Mel Martinez of Florida told the Hotline in a Tuesday interview that he could have named his own price to support last year’s stimulus bill. But he noted instead, “I wanted a better bill.”

Expressing that talks with the White House on the stimulus left him “disillusioned,” perhaps this issue was one thing which hastened his surprising departure from the Senate last year. It’s also worth noting that while Martinez avoided a Florida version of the ‘Cornhusker kickback’ Florida Governor Charlie Crist still liked the stimulus as it was. Now it’s costing Crist in his Senate race against upstart Marco Rubio.

One also has to ask what GOP Senators Snowe, Collins and Specter (now a Dem) who crossed over to vote with the Democrats got for their votes? Likewise, in scrutinizing the jobs bill which just passed the Senate, people should be asking what Ohio, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Maine are getting as bribes for their support.

Yet this revelation brings up a more general question about how Democrats and the White House are attempting to push their legislative agenda through. Certainly, Congress has always been a home of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” horsetrading of favors, but when you consider the Democrats won Congress in 2006 in part by vowing to clean up a “culture of corruption,” the outright bribery which they’ve engaged in to get their legislation passed doesn’t match the image they campaigned on.

The GOP is on the right side of issues as the “party of no” and voters are now paying attention to what bribes and favors the White House and Democrats are dangling in front of soft Republicans to gain a bipartisan fig leaf for their unpopular legislation. The Martinez example shows what the acquisition and pursuit of total power has done to the Democrats, and voters need to remember this come November.