A ‘loophole’ is only bad if the government thinks it’s being stiffed

For what is being described as “financial stakes (that) are small, (yielding) just $3 million to $4 million annually.” the Washington Post sure has its collective panties in a wad over the prospect Larry Hogan may veto the “travel tax.”

When I did my last look at the idea, I didn’t really know how much the difference was to the state. Now that I know it’s only a rounding error in a $40 billion budget. the prospect of Democrats (and, sadly, a handful of Republicans) trying to fill in this supposed budget hole looks to me like a “gotcha” moment set up by General Assembly Democrats who will turn around and bash Hogan for enacting the “travel tax” in four years – after all, if they can perpetrate the fiction that school funding was cut this year (never mind the increase of over $100 million) they can make up anything to tell unsuspecting voters that the sky is falling.

But it’s really funny to me that the Post considers this a “travel agent loophole” and “undeserved windfall” when it’s actually a legal transaction. Even the Post admits it:

Rather than collect sales taxes from the agencies based on the actual prices they charge customers for hotel rooms, most states have accepted a reduced payment based on bargain room prices the agencies manage to negotiate with hotels.

That’s as it should be, so it sounds to me like General Assembly Democrats have some sour grapes. The transaction in question is at a reduced rate – why should the state collect the sales tax on the full rack rate if the place of lodging offers the rooms first to a reseller at a lower price? There is no gun being placed at the proverbial head of the hotel or motel to sell the rooms to an online travel agency; they can go it alone and try to market themselves without a middleman. (Hence, loyalty programs and other perks provided by hotels who prefer to keep bookings in-house.)

But it’s obvious that many hotel chains prefer the assurance of knowing they would get something – a “something” that is about 60 to 70 percent of full rate – for a room which will be paid for many times over before the paint dries on the renovation or new construction based on future reservations already on the books. Chances are your room rate is really paying for the employees who check you in and take care of the rooms moreso than the bricks, mortar, and furnishings in the facility, and that factor can be adjusted easily by management. (To use a local and somewhat extreme example, just drive through Ocean City in January and note how many hotels and motels shut down completely for the winter. No one is there to pay for the bricks and mortar, so no employees save a caretaker and maintenance are needed.) So even getting a reduced rate from a travel agency which reserves the rooms just in case isn’t a bad thing. It’s just a cause for complaint by a state which hasn’t completely given up the attitude that “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine, too.”

Conversely, to use another traveler analogy, you won’t hear the Post (or any of their liberal allies) tut-tutting if gasoline prices go up and the state collects more sales tax as a result – no one there would consider that an “undeserved windfall” for the state. I’ll explain.

Should the per-gallon tab for gasoline go up another 50 cents (as it has over the course of the last few months, from about $2 locally to north of $2.50) the state will make up the $4 million “lost” by vetoing the “travel tax” in no time. A 50-cent per gallon increase, as we have already had, nets yet an extra half-penny to the state per gallon come July as an additional 1% gasoline sales tax increase takes effect then. Just based on that 50-cent gas price increase alone coupled with the 1% increase (to 3%) – hence, the half-penny – and assuming the state consumes 7 million gallons per day (probably still in the ballpark despite these old statistics), they will make an “extra” $4 million from what they could have anticipated receiving when 2015 dawned in less than two weeks.

Yet the Post will not throw a pity party for motorists – I guarantee it. Ignore their whining and leave the hotel room rate system be.

Sneaking laws into the books

Important update: Per the Maryland General Assembly webpage, the date of presentment was actually fixed as May 3. This means the legislative limbo can run as late as June 2.)

On Tuesday Governor Larry Hogan risked carpal tunnel syndrome by signing hundreds of bills into law. The extraordinarily high output was made necessary by two factors: the events in Baltimore that scuttled a planned bill signing back on April 28, and the desire to enact these laws within the period mandated by the state’s constitution. As a refresher, Article II, Section 17 (c) of the Maryland Constitution states:

Any Bill presented to the Governor within six days (Sundays excepted), prior to adjournment of any session of the General Assembly, or after such adjournment, shall become law without the Governor’s signature unless it is vetoed by the Governor within 30 days after its presentment. (Emphasis mine.)

There are a handful of bills which may make it into the books this way. Since the General Assembly session ended at the stroke of midnight April 14. 30 days hence would be tomorrow, May 14. (Update: presentment doesn’t happen with adjournment, as I have found.) Some of the bills in limbo happen to be those which are part of the monoblogue Accountability Project, so you can bet there are some calculations going on about whether a veto can be sustained.

Many of these bills Hogan has held off on signing establish or extend fees and taxes, with a few being issues local to Calvert, Charles, and Howard counties. Two of them extend or increase fees in state courts; in another case I wrote about the “travel tax” of Senate Bill 190 a few weeks ago. Senate Bill 183 would mandate the adoption of the Geographic Cost of Education Index, which would be a budget-buster. He’s also passed on extending the film production activity tax credit that the producers of “House of Cards” wanted.

Business interests, though, should be happy that Hogan hasn’t signed the de facto two-year fracking ban or the extension of flexible leave.

On the social issue end of the spectrum, we do not yet know the fate of bills which would decriminalize marijuana, allow for same-sex couples to have their IVF procedures covered under insurance, let those who have undergone the treatment to revise their gender to change their birth certificates to reflect this, or allow felons who are out of prison but still on probation or parole to vote.

These are less than 5% of the bills which were passed. Many others have already been vetoed as duplicative, but those above are the ones most likely to get an attempt at overriding the veto – or they can try, try again in the next term knowing that the votes for passage were there the last time. Some bills may be improved with a few minor changes that can be worked out while others should just be put out of our misery.

I’m hoping that Governor Hogan sends a strong message by vetoing the following bills I advised voting against:

If he wishes to let the decriminalization of marijuana become law without his signature, that’s quite all right.

This all goes to show that my monoblogue Accountability Project should be a hot-ticket item when it comes out. next week. The good news is that it’s free and available for the taking once I upload it Monday. (See the update above.)

Secession over energy

You might recall that an ongoing, back-burner thought we on the Eastern Shore have had is the idea of seceding from the state of Maryland – a state which otherwise belittles us, doesn’t share our concern about the agricultural community, and tries to lord it over us because we only have a small percentage of the population. With a Republican governor that sentiment has diminished somewhat but it’s still active among a few.

The southern tier of counties in the state of New York have a similar beef. Their state is controlled by the denizens of the Big Apple, which overshadows both the urban enclaves of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany and the rural areas upstate. Those who represent the urban areas have prevailed on the state government to ban fracking in the state, which means areas within the Marcellus Shale formation can’t tap into that valuable resource, while just a few miles away Pennsylvania towns and cities are thriving. This story by Tina Susman of the Los Angeles Times makes it plain that residents in that area are frustrated, just as those who live in the western end of Maryland have been pleading for the state to lift its de facto ban on the practice. Instead, the Maryland General Assembly put yet another two-year delay on the books.

In both cases, the problem lies in the small minority of citizens who are blessed to live in an energy-rich portion of a state being forced by a majority who thinks they know better to suffer, watching those who live just a few miles away prosper.

Also in both cases, the chances of secession vary between slim and none, with slim vacating town to pursue a fracking job in an adjacent state.

Of course, this is the small drawback to having 50 different state governments: it allows for some to fail in their economic efforts. Both New York and Maryland have an economic engine which depends on the growing alliance and partnership between Wall Street and the federal government, with thousands of financial sector workers in New York City and thousands of federal employees in Maryland. In their worldview, we can secure all our energy needs from renewable sources and oil and natural gas are dirty, nasty fossil fuels. Problem is we still use an awful lot of those fossil fuels because renewables are extremely expensive or highly subsidized.

Perhaps what needs to secede is the crazy idea that fracking is something to be avoided at all costs from the laws of the several states. Until then, those poor people in New York and western Maryland will continue to see prosperity from afar.

Maryland: contrarian again

It’s been awhile since I looked at the energy industry, what with legislation, riots, and other general mayhem. Fortunately for me, I have several sources in that industry to return me to speed and one is writer Marita Noon, whose piece on NetRightDaily today detailed the efforts of forward-thinking states to repeal their renewable energy mandates - some by whopping margins in their legislature. In those states, the market-bending allocations to renewable energy are coming to an end, leveling the playing field and perhaps saving their taxpayers millions of dollars.

Unfortunately, Maryland isn’t one of those states rolling back its mandates; in fact, the only piece of legislation dealing with the renewable portfolio was a liberal Democrat-backed scheme to expand it some more. House Bill 377 and Senate Bill 373 both were aimed at significantly increasing the percentage of renewables up to 40% by 2025 – current law peaks renewables’ share at 20% by 2022. (Both these figures are a pipe dream.) The Senate version lost in the Finance Committee by an 8-3 vote, and the House version was withdrawn before it was voted upon.

It was good that a bad bill was thwarted, but it was unfortunate that no bill was introduced to repeal these mandates. Maryland would be in far better shape energy-wise, eventually with lower utility rates, if true reform was achieved: repeal of the renewable energy portfolio, the withdrawal of the state from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, repealing the subsidy for offshore wind, and encouraging energy production from hydraulic fracturing and offshore drilling.

Over the course of the O’Malley administration, energy companies took the brunt of new regulations and changes in the market; in particular, their cost of doing business was affected by the renewable energy portfolio and the RGGI. If you assume the goal of the utility is to provide energy as cheaply as possible to make a profit – while keeping prices low enough to maintain and grow a customer base – having the dead expenses of the “alternative compliance payment” made necessary by falling short of renewable goals and the CO2 allowances auctioned off by RGGI as a sweet redistribution scheme aren’t helping the cause. Meanwhile, more exploration and investment in energy infrastructure could bring Maryland closer to being at least even as opposed to a net energy importer.

I wouldn’t expect any repeal of these bills to pass on the scale that they’ve moved through some state legislatures, but 71-70 and 24-23 are perfectly fine margins to me. It would also likely require getting around the committee process and bringing the package directly to the floor. (The portfolio repeal, RGGI withdrawal, and repeal of the offshore wind subsidy could be one bill: call it the Maryland Energy Reform Act of 2016.)

The trick is getting the right people to advocate for the changes by showing how much can be saved by consumers. That portion seems like a job for a group like the Maryland Public Policy Institute, while the lobbying on the part of the energy providers should include a pledge of reducing rates. Shaving 2 cents a kilowatt hour off the bill may not sound like much, but it translates to about $216 a year based on average residential usage of about 900 kWh a month. I don’t know about you, but an extra $18 a month would be nice for me. Just think of the economic benefits we received last year when gasoline skidded to $2 a gallon – benefits being lost now as prices have edged back up over $2.50 a gallon.

To help in prosperity, Maryland needs cheap energy. As it stands now, we don’t have it but I think we can get it if the political will is there.

The other side of session

Since the General Assembly session came to a close last week, I’ve received my share of end-of-session wrap-ups from a number of members. But one has stood out because it focused as much on what wasn’t done as it did on the accomplishments. Sometimes keeping bad ideas from becoming law is as much a victory as any bill which is signed.

So when I read Mary Beth Carozza’s assessment of the recent session, I noted that a significant part of her remarks focused on what did not pass.

While serving you here in Annapolis, sometimes the bad legislation we are able to stop is just as important as the bills we are able to pass. This year a number of new tax increases were proposed but did not pass due to our efforts to stop them. Among the worst of this year’s proposed tax increases was the so-called “Chicken Tax,” which would place a 5-cent per chicken tax on every chicken raised in the State of Maryland.

Another agriculture-related tax increase we were able to kill this year was a proposal to repeal the sales and use tax exemption for agricultural products and equipment, such as feed and tractor fuel, that go into producing a final good for sale. The repeal of this exemption would have increased taxes on our state’s farmers by approximately $212 million starting next year and increasing to $251.2 million by 2020.

Other taxes which did not pass this year include the “death tax,” which would have eliminated the “death tax” repeal passed by last year’s General Assembly, a “bottle tax” that places a 5-cent tax on every bottle, a “bag tax” that would ban plastic bags and place a 10-cent fee on paper bags, a $90 million increase in the tobacco tax, and a tax on utility bills for solar and wind that would eventually ramp up to a $566 million annual tax.

Having studied the General Assembly for several years, I can tell you that many of these tax proposals reappear session after session. The “chicken tax” was around last year, a number of Democrats were upset that the death tax repeal passed last year (as they were the ones who voted against it), and the others are proposals which are perennial. The repeal of the agricultural products exemption is a fairly new one to me, though.

To hear Democrats tell it, we need all those new revenue streams for various pet causes. As examples, one version of the “chicken tax” was going to pay for cover crops and to help replace failing septic systems, one previous incarnation of the “bag tax” was intended for stream cleanup through the Chesapeake Bay Trust, and a small portion of the increased tobacco tax was (ironically enough) slated for a smoking cessation fund. (Most was intended for that vast fiscal hole we call the General Fund.)

But taxes weren’t the only thing needing to be stopped:

Members of the Eastern Shore Delegation also were able to kill another bill that would have increased the regulatory burden on farmers known as the “Farmers’ Rights Act.” This bill would have required the Attorney General’s Office to review all livestock production contracts before they are approved. In order to meet the bill’s requirements, the Attorney General’s Office would have had to hire three new, full-time Assistant Attorneys General at an expense of over $200,000 per year. This proposal is another example of an attempt to grow government bureaucracy at the expense of our citizens, especially our farmers.

I also worked closely with the Hogan Administration and local small business owners to pull regulations that would have hurt small arcade businesses in Ocean City and across the State of Maryland. For the last several months, the State Lottery Commission had been attempting to advance a proposal which would regulate these small businesses in the same way the state regulates casinos. I am happy to report that Governor Hogan directed the Lottery Commission to pull these proposed regulations.

These were all well and good, but I remain disappointed by the PMT regulations which will disproportionately affect local farmers, who are the victims of the “good faith negotiations between all stakeholders on this issue.” Remember, the eventual success of these regulations hinges on being able to use the excess chicken manure that local farmers can no longer use. If these schemes of creating energy or other by-products don’t succeed in creating a viable market, the state either has to continue to subsidize these failing enterprises or will simply leave local farmers hanging. Given the usual preference of Annapolis to side with environmental interests over those of farmers, I suspect the latter will eventually be the case, although we may be forced in the meantime to use millions more in taxpayer subsidies as the state tries to goose that manure market along.

I can tell you that I have picked out all the bills I will use for the monoblogue Accountability Project. Over the next few weeks I will be compiling the votes and seeing how all the new Delegates and Senators (as well as the holdovers) did. Will the change to a Republican governor be reflected in a more conservative overall voting pattern? Stay tuned.

Religious Freedom, Childrens’ Rights, Capitalism and Gay Marriage

April 11, 2015 · Posted in Cathy Keim, National politics, Politics, State of Conservatism · Comments Off 

By Cathy Keim

Today a friend (hat tip Sam) sent me an article from American Thinker called “The Gay Marriage Wake Up Call,” which tied together a lot of loose ends in my thinking. I certainly recommend that you read Robert Oscar Lopez’s whole article.

As Michael and I mentioned earlier this week, one of the reasons that the Maryland General Assembly should reject HB 838/SB 416 is due to the ethical issues behind paying for IV fertilization procedures for lesbian married women.

Dolce and Gabbana, the gay Italian fashion designers, made a huge stir several weeks ago when they were quoted in The Telegraph:

We oppose gay adoptions. The only family is the traditional one. No chemical offsprings and rented uterus: life has a natural flow, there are things that should not be changed.

Gabbana also stated:

I am opposed to the idea of a child growing up with two gay parents. A child needs a mother and a father. I could not imagine my childhood without my mother. I also believe that it is cruel to take a baby away from its mother.

The reaction to their statements was vicious, but they stood their ground. One letter of support came from six adult children raised by gay parents. At Life Site News, they said that they “want to thank you for giving voice to something that we learned by experience: Every human being has a mother and a father, and to cut either from a child’s life is to rob the child of dignity, humanity, and equality.”

Here we see that the children need somebody to speak up for them. Usually the discussion is centered on the desires and needs of the adults in a marriage, but for millennia, the main point of a marriage was to produce heirs. With the advent of no-fault divorce, contraception, and the sexual revolution, the main focus of marriage shifted to adult satisfaction and fulfillment. Now with gay marriages being declared legal in several states and the Supreme Court taking up the question, we are potentially going to have gay marriage forced upon the entire nation.

Since a gay couple cannot produce heirs without an outside party, then we are left with many troublesome ethical problems. What are the rights of the sperm or egg donor/surrogate mother? Should the taxpayer have to pay for the technology necessary to produce children for a gay married couple through their health insurance? Is there a problem with designer children – selecting the genetic attributes desired from blue eyes to IQ?

Perhaps most importantly, does a child have a right to a father and a mother? One or the other is missing by necessity in a gay marriage. Do two mothers or two fathers make up for the missing parent?

These six adult children of gays (COG) do not think so. It does not take a lot of imagination to decide that two mothers or two fathers does not bring the same experience to a child as being raised by a mother and a father. The world is made up of both men and women and the home should be the first place that the child learns to interact with a male father and a female mother.

We know that adopted children long to know their biological parents, so why would children of gay parents not long to know their missing biological parent?

The necessity of IV fertilization to produce a child for a lesbian couple and the need for a surrogate mother to produce a child for a gay couple leads us to the capitalism part of the discussion. These are very expensive medical procedures and there is money to be made from opening up a new market of wealthy gay clients.

The “synthetic children” comment by Gabbana also involves a lucrative money making potential. This is already occurring, but with the legalization of gay marriage and the implicit right to children that that implies, then the market for choosing your child’s traits will increase and that will spill over into the heterosexual married population. Why should a heterosexual couple just have a “normal” child when everybody else is having genetically “superior” children? You can envision the liabilities involved in having your children the old fashioned way and having to accept whatever child you create. Why not stack the odds in your favor by choosing to modify the genes?

With no theological background to stay the tide, then this market will be huge and very profitable.

The COGs that are speaking up for the rights of all the voiceless children now and to come that are being or will be raised by gay parents have a powerful point to make. They have filed friend of the court briefs with the Supreme Court for the upcoming gay marriage case. That along with new studies that show that COGs have more emotional problems, lower graduation rates, etc. makes for a powerful testimony against gay marriage being the same as marriage as we have traditionally understood it.

Now it becomes clear why the sudden attack on the RFRA laws. This is a trick to get people to not focus on the rights of children to have a mother and a father, but rather to say that religious bigots are causing troubles for poor discriminated against loving gay couples. This amounts to let’s change the subject to an easier topic to score points.

Christians as a group are increasingly being marginalized and stigmatized in our culture. The gay lobby would much rather turn the focus to adult Christian “bigots” than to the concerns of a child’s right to a mother and a father.

The largely secular elite has already decided that sexual freedom is more important than religious freedom and now they are going to exhibit their power.

The Democrat Party has completely thrown in with the sexual freedom at all costs group. The Republican Party elites are tied to corporate interests and unfettered capitalism. They will pretend to be against gay marriage to pacify their base, but they really don’t care. They would prefer that the issue go away just as they have always wanted to ignore social issues for economic ones.

The conservative base is all that has kept the Republican Party afloat for many years now, but their leaders keep folding anytime anybody sneezes at them.

Even liberal churches are choosing to change with the times by dropping “outdated” creeds for newer, more culturally friendly ones. The number of people standing up for marriage between one man and one woman is shrinking daily.

Should the Supreme Court decide in favor of gay marriage, then our country is on a collision course between the rights of the sexual freedom group and the religious freedom of orthodox believers. At this point it looks like the Christians had better know their core beliefs because they are going to need to stand firm in the face of increasing cultural ostracism.

Redefining marriage wasn’t enough. Now some in Maryland want to redefine birth.

By Cathy Keim and Michael Swartz

The twin byline is present because Cathy came to me with her thoughts on these bills, writing up a post quoting Delegate Parrott at some length along with some of her thoughts. I liked the direction of the piece, but thought I could add more and she was amenable to the changes. So here you go.

Recently Delegate Neil Parrott sent out a newsletter that had some information about two “shockingly bad bills” that are about to pass in the General Assembly. We had both heard from Robert Broadus with Protect Marriage Maryland about the first bill, but Delegate Parrott alerted us both to the second bill. Both have more or less passed under the radar in a session which has focused more on the budget, gubernatorial appointments, and environmental regulations.

In his message to constituents and other interested observers, Delegate Parrott stated:

Two shockingly-bad bills…are on their way to passing.

(snip)

HB 838/SB 416 is going to cause your health insurance rates to go up, when Maryland already has some of the highest health insurance premiums in the nation. This bill forces Maryland insurance companies to cover the cost of expensive In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF) treatments ($12,500 each time) for same-sex married couples.

Our high insurance costs in Maryland are primarily due to the great number of insurance mandate laws already in effect, and this new bill will simply make the problem worse. Governor Hogan and I both support leading Maryland towards more fiscally-responsible laws and policies, and the voters overwhelmingly agreed in the last election. However, the majority of Delegates and Senators still voted to create more complex and unnecessary insurance mandates in our flawed health system.

(snip)

Under current Maryland law, a husband and wife must donate their own sperm and egg to be eligible to receive insurance benefits for IVF treatments. If the couple requires a donation of an egg or sperm, IVF treatments would not be covered under current Maryland law. Under this new law, a same-sex couple would obviously need to get a sperm donor to have a child. This is a very unequal situation.

Same-sex couples have been allowed to adopt or have children, but many studies have been done that confirm that children born into a family with a mother and a father do the best in all measures – economic, social, educational, and emotional. Not only does this law create an unequal and less-stringent requirement for same-sex couples, but our insurance premiums will also be paying to have a child brought into the world to a situation where they will most likely be statistically worse off than other children. By passing this law, we are intentionally putting a child into a “family” where a father will knowingly be absent.

This sort of social engineering and fiscally-irresponsible law-making, solely for the pleasure of adults without any regard for the children that will grow up in these situations, is reprehensible. What homosexuals cannot do naturally, the General Assembly has now mandated must be provided by all insurance plans, creating a false sense of equality, with little to no regard for the children who will be negatively affected.

This leads to the concern of what could come next if this bill is passed. Will the General Assembly pass a mandate requiring insurance companies to cover the costs of hiring a surrogate to carry the child for male, same-sex marriages? (Emphasis in original.)

As Cathy wrote Sunday, our culture is under attack to redefine and destroy every institution that has sustained us as a nation since our founding. Marriage and our families are worth defending. The progressives only exist to tear down. We are the ones that believe in ideals that are true and good and have stood the test of time. When this country is a faint memory, the family will still exist. They may destroy our culture, but they cannot destroy truth. The family is the basic building block of society. Despite the malice and ridicule heaped upon the traditional family with a father, mother and children living and growing together in love, the family will still survive.

Delegate Parrott has made the case, as Cathy has before, that children do best when raised in a home with a married mother and father. Why should the state pay to circumvent this?

Senator Jim Mathias and Delegate Sheree Sample-Hughes both voted for this bill. When somebody says the Eastern Shore is conservative, just remember to check how Senator Mathias and Delegate Sample-Hughes vote.

The second bill that Delegate Parrott wrote about was HB862/SB743, which as Delegate Parrott notes:

…allows people to rewrite history. It would allow someone who gets a note from their doctor saying they are transitioning from male to female or from female to male to literally change the gender on their birth certificate. The new birth certificate would not even indicate that it has been “Amended,” as is the case when an individual decides to legally change their name. The change would not require that the individual has had a sex-change operation, but just relies on hormone therapy and how the person feels at the time. The change caused many of the legislators who work in law enforcement to question how they could even solve crimes given these false records. For example, suppose they are looking for the DNA of a male, but all they have is a female suspect.

Changing factual birth records without leaving a record of the change could have significant and harmful consequences for our society and is simply irresponsible policy.

Senator Mathias also voted for this bill as did Delegates Carl Anderton, Jr. and Sample-Hughes. Needless to say, we’re both disappointed with Delegate Anderton’s vote as he represents us in Annapolis. We would have expected this out of his predecessor, but Carl was supposed to be different.

At this point in time these bills are on their final step to passage, and it seems like the skids are being greased as the House versions of the Senate bills are passing without any amendments – this is important because no conference would be necessary.

Yet besides the many objections Delegate Parrott raised, both bills also raise a number of ethical questions about child rearing. Regardless of who has to pay for in vitro fertilization, there’s also the ongoing concern about the rights of the third party which needs to be involved with any same-sex attempt at creating progeny – either the surrogate mother for a gay couple or the sperm donor for the lesbian pair.

And much like the Hobby Lobby situation with abortifacient drugs, there’s a legitimate question of whether a religiously conscientious business should be forced to cover this procedure since it involves two partners of the same gender. It’s a situation which becomes quite complicated and I feel this is needlessly so.

As for the birth certificate bill, it would be more palatable if there was a notation of amendment. A law such as this may open the door to parents who are trying to raise a child as if it were the opposite gender (such as this recent case) to amend his or her birth certificate as a minor.

We believe that gender is not a mistake, nor was it an error that a person of each gender was required to create a new life. Even with in vitro fertilization, there’s no escaping the need for a male to do his part and a female to be the willing host for the embryo.

While there is an element of humanity in the selection of gender, I think I speak for Cathy when I say we believe that it was our Creator who made the ultimate decision as to whether we were male or female. Taking hormones, undergoing genital mutilation surgery, and identifying as someone of the opposite gender doesn’t change the fact one was born with the chromosomes and genitalia of a particular gender in all but a few extremely rare cases. It’s what the birth certificate should reflect.

However, it’s likely these bills will pass the General Assembly, so we call on Governor Hogan to use his veto pen on these ill-considered measures. And it’s all but certain these votes will be among those I use for the monoblogue Accountability Project later this spring.

Splitting the difference

April 1, 2015 · Posted in Business and industry, Delmarva items, Maryland Politics, Politics · Comments Off 

A couple weeks back I alerted you to an issue brought to the fore by Delegate Christopher Adams, a situation which would leave a large number of Medicare patients with long drives to a pharmacy as opposed to perhaps being able to use a more convenient hometown outlet.

While the deadline has come as of today, Adams has introduced and advanced a bill, HB1290, that would halve the distance prescribed by the state. Recall that:

According to a source in the know, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene sets the criteria for considering a patient to be “covered” and it depends on their location, stating,”as long as pharmacies are within 10 miles in urban, 20 miles in suburban and 30 miles of patients in rural communities the standards for access to care are met.”

HB1290 would simply cut those distances in half, meaning no one in the state would have to travel more than 15 miles to a covered pharmacy.

Oddly enough, HB1290 is the second-to-last introduced House bill, with the final one (HB1291) also dealing with the subject and introduced by Democratic Delegate Eric Bromwell. His bill would ensure that “an enrollee may elect to receive pharmacy services at a site in the pharmacy provider network of any managed care organization.” Bromwell’s bill was introduced four days after the Adams bill, perhaps as an effort for House Democrats to secure some credit for solving the problem. (Bromwell is on the committee that will deal with both HB1290 and HB1291.)

In a release today, Adams noted that:

This bill originates from a very real problem on the Eastern Shore where pharmaceutical services are not readily available. And under the existing 30 mile rule, it would have made existing pharmaceutical services beyond the reach of many senior citizens. This is just another example of the unintended consequences of the State of Maryland’s early embracement of Obamacare. HB1290 is a reasoned response that will make pharmaceutical services more accessible to senior citizens on the Eastern Shore, as well as save hundreds of pharmacies from going out of business throughout Maryland.

Adams also quotes local pharmacy owner Jeff Sherr:

I am encouraged that small businesses like ours will continue to be able to serve our patients. This bill addresses not only issues with access to care, it is also a protection for businesses that serve our rural Eastern Shore communities and employ our local citizens.

The fact that Adams’s bill got a quick hearing (on tap for tomorrow) is an encouraging sign that the General Assembly may address this problem before it goes home in a couple weeks. While it’s hard for late introduction bills to make it through the process, it has been done before – the gas tax we were saddled with in 2013 was a similar late introduction.

When it comes to services in rural areas, it’s often up to small providers to handle the diminished volume of business that may come from a little community like Snow Hill, Crisfield, or Hurlock. While some may have a larger chain, for the most part they depend on family-owned outlets that may not have the lowest price but are far more convenient.

We’re always told family-owned small businesses are the backbone of the community, so if we can lend them a little support with a common-sense law it should be encouraged. Hopefully Adams will have the legislation to his credit once the session is over.

The noisy, tiny minority wins again

March 27, 2015 · Posted in All politics is local, Delmarva items, Maryland Politics, Politics, State of Conservatism · Comments Off 

It’s concession time in Annapolis: for another year, the will of Wicomico County voters will be thwarted by a group refusing to accept that the answer to the elected school board question should be decided by the voters, not a small group who’s worried that their power base may be threatened.

Today I received a press release from my Delegate, Carl Anderton, admitting the bill is defeated for the session. In it, Anderton noted that:

This delay affords us the opportunity to have an inclusive year-long dialogue about the issue. It will give everyone more time to weigh in and reassure anyone with concerns that next year’s bill is reflective of community input.

Yet if the “dialogue” is in the tone and tenor of the testimony offered by Jim Ireton, there’s no use in conducting the discussion. In fact, he said at the hearing, “I think the discussion should end now.” After all, according to Jim, an elected school board would “debilitate our public schools.”

And if there are public hearing with a number of proponents speaking, I’m sure Ireton would echo his charge about a “sparsely attended public hearing” attended by only proponents. It’s the “small band of supporters” who also gerrymandered the county, placed us under a “crippling revenue cap” and “refuses to be responsible.” These are all quotes from his testimony before the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee. (He comes on at the 4:00 mark.)

Here is the dirty little secret Carl will eventually learn – there is no amount of dialogue which will satisfy them. For whatever reason, the appointed status quo satisfies their desire to have a malleable board that has generally been selected with the approval of the teachers’ union. Since the Democrats have occupied the governor’s office for much of the last forty years, the appointments were made with that interest group in mind. The only accountability was to the sponsors who backed them, and as long as a couple of those “yes-men” were from a minority group, all was peachy keen in their world.

To them, an elected school board is scary because accountability may be introduced. Again, consider what Ireton thought about the voters of the county which chose to install a revenue cap and would prefer an elected school board.

They are scared. But we’ll give them the public hearings, and for that I better damn well see Jim Mathias as a co-sponsor. I honestly think his not sponsoring the bill is what prevented it from going forward.

As the old Brooklyn Dodgers fans used to say, “wait ’til next year.” No more excuses.

WCRC meeting – March 2015

Those members who attended last night’s Wicomico County Republican Club meeting got a somewhat different perspective on the Annapolis political arena. Instead of hearing from one of our representatives – who were sort of busy at the moment, seeing that Monday nights are session nights in our state’s capital – we instead gained the perspective of Pat Schrawder, the district representative for Delegate Mary Beth Carozza, who brought “mostly good news from Annapolis.”

She explained that not all members of the General Assembly have a district representative, but given Mary Beth’s “frenetic” schedule as a member of the Appropriations Committee, she thought it was prudent to have someone back home. (Appropriations meets five days a week, according to Pat.) As it turned out, though, the Eastern Shore delegation “is running very well” in Schrawder’s opinion, in part because those on it represent all the key committees, and they have met with “most of” the large groups.

The good news was that the “chicken tax” and a “farmer’s bill of rights” had both been killed, and a “full-court press” was being placed on the Pinsky bill to instill the PMT regulations. (This may be a moot point, as Pinsky placed a hold on his regulations pending acceptance of a deal between stakeholders which would put a revised version in place.) Schrawder pointed out regulations are more flexible than legislation, which was an advantage for the agricultural community.

Pat also relayed that the Hogan budget, which was in balance as submitted, was still a better deal than the O’Malley budgets as most of the structural deficit had been eliminated.

And while Delegate Carozza was “working as hard, if not harder, than anyone else up there,” Pat added that Mary Beth was still interested in hearing from her constituents, and happy to receive the correspondence. Moreover, one goal they had was to have as strong a link to Wicomico County as they had to Worcester County.

Schrawder also announced that a legislative scholarship was available to a student in her district, with the application deadline coming up on April 15.

Turning to Central Committee news, we learned that our Lincoln Day Dinner would be put on hold until this fall as the preferred speaker, some governor named Larry Hogan, wasn’t going to be doing speaking engagements until then. We may need to change the venue because of this. Mark McIver also noted the upcoming state convention in Ocean City, encouraging those at the meeting to attend and see how a convention is run.

I also reminded the group that we had sent the names of prospective Wicomico County Board of Education applicants to the state.

Speaking on behalf of County Council, John Cannon noted that the “Evo bill” had passed the House of Delegates and Senate, although there was a minor difference between the two versions to work out. County Council was also watching the PMT regulations, the original version of which they opposed. Also, they had finished the Capital Improvement Plan and were now working on portions of the budget.

Cannon also commented that MACO (the Maryland Association of Counties) was “staying relatively conservative” with its actions this session.

John also explained some of the process behind the elected school board bill, conceding that “we rushed it through” but noting that the hybrid option was placed to appease the cries for “diversity” and to avoid the prospect of turning over the entire board in one election and eliminating all the institutional knowledge.

However, he believed the struggle to get this through the General Assembly would be “an uphill battle” because opponents wanted more public hearings. I made the case that the bill had the deck stacked against it early on when it received a late hearing date. If there needs to be a re-introduction next year it should be pre-filed as there was no one to do so this session.

At this point, the new officers were sworn in. Incoming president Shawn Jester said that “this club did more to make Wicomico County a Republican county” than anyone else and hoped the good work could continue.

That good work will be celebrated next on April 27, with a speaker to be announced.

Landlines, anyone?

March 23, 2015 · Posted in All politics is local, Cathy Keim, Delmarva items, Maryland Politics, Politics · Comments Off 

By Cathy Keim

Two or three weeks ago I was asked on a phone survey if I thought that landlines were still important or if I would prefer to allow the telecommunications companies to invest in newer technology rather than continuing with outdated landline maintenance. The question seemed deliberately skewed so I assumed that the phone company was behind the survey – but I did not get a clear answer when I asked.

I had two more phone calls about phone service that culminated today in a paid phone caller requesting that I call Senator Mathias and tell him that I wanted SB577 passed. I was not prepared to call Senator Mathias with so little information, so I decided to look the bill up and see what it was about. SB577 is the Public Utilities – Telecommunications Law – Modernization sponsored by Senator Catherine Pugh of Baltimore City and cross-filed with HB1166 sponsored by Delegate Dereck Davis of Prince George’s County. The summary states:

Providing that a telephone company is not required to file with the Public Service Commission a specified tariff schedule except under specified circumstances; limiting the type of services in which a telephone company may not establish a new rate under specified circumstances; allowing a telephone company to discontinue or abandon a specified service under specified circumstances; providing that a specified prior authorization is not required for specified transactions; etc.

Since the summary didn’t reveal much, I then called Senator Pugh’s office and spoke with a very friendly staffer. She said that the purpose of the bill was threefold.

  1. Currently telecommunication companies cannot discontinue a service or change their rates unless they ask the Public Service Commission (PSC) each time they wish to make a change. They pay a tariff to the PSC for this service. The new bill would remove this requirement.
  2. Change the franchising rules so that the current provisions do not apply to any transaction between a telephone company and another entity (that is not a gas company or an electric company) if a common parent entity directly or indirectly controls more than 50% of both the telephone company and the other entity.
  3. Change the securities rules so that the current provisions do not apply to any transaction between a telephone company and another entity (that is not a gas company or an electric company) if a common parent entity directly or indirectly controls more than 50% of both the telephone company and the other entity.

Since her boss, Senator Pugh, is sponsoring the bill, she had a very positive opinion of the legislation.

Next I called Senator Mathias’ office and spoke with his very pleasant staffer. She said that they had been getting several phone calls asking the senator to support SB 577, but that the callers did not seem to know anything about the bill. I suppose that they had received the same phone solicitation that I had received.

She had a much less positive view of the bill. She said that the bill would allow the telecommunications companies to abandon services, limit services, and establish new rates without authorization from the PSC. She indicated that the bill was still in committee, but if it made it to the floor, she doubted that Senator Mathias would support it in its current form.

For a more detailed comparison of the current law vs. the proposed law you can go to the Fiscal and Policy Note.

This statement in the Technology section made me wonder if this referred to the dropping of copper landlines in favor of the fiber optic system.

PSC or any other State unit or a unit of local government may not restrict, through an order, a regulation, a rule, a resolution, or an ordinance or in any other manner, a telephone company’s choices to use any otherwise lawful technology or facility to provide its services. A telephone company may satisfy its statutory and regulatory obligations through the use of any lawful technology or facility of its choosing.

Articles like “How Verizon lets its copper network decay to force phone customers onto fiber. Fiber is fast, but copper is reliable – even during multi-week power outages” paint an unflattering portrait of an evil corporation that is up to no good.

The lengthy article accuses Verizon of preferring the fiber optic system because it is cheaper to maintain, but it cannot be used without electricity so it is worthless in a power outage of a week or two like those that happen due to hurricanes. The cell phones are also worthless if the cell towers are down or out of power.

This brings us back to the argument for government regulation of utilities because we are dependent upon the utilities for society to function. Our dependency on electricity, gas, and communication systems is increasing each year. Most people no longer have the ability to survive for long without electricity. We no longer have backup systems like a fireplace for heat or if we do, the large woodpile to get us through a major power outage. Without electricity you cannot pump gas at the gas station. Food doesn’t get delivered to the stores. Without electricity your phone doesn’t work unless you have an old fashioned landline.

Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group. posted a letter to the Senate Finance Committee that concluded:

Maryland’s communications networks allow its citizens to conduct business, contact loved ones, and call for help in emergency situations. These services are too vital to the economic and social health of the state to prohibit the Maryland Public Service Commission from acting to protect consumers, especially in the face of impending technological and political changes. As Maryland legislators continue to deliberate on the future of its networks, Public Interest Advocates urge the Senate Finance Committee to ensure Maryland’s communications networks serve five core values: service to all, consumer protection, network reliability, competition and interconnection, and public safety. These values have served our phone network well for decades and have created one of the most successful communications platforms in the world. Maryland must continue to defend these values and resist ill-advised deregulatory pressures to ensure that the phone network continues to be a network that Maryland residents can rely on.

From what I can tell about SB577, I would say that it is poorly written and its passage would result in a lot of confusion. I am for limited government and concerned with the excess of government regulations that make it difficult for companies to innovate. However, the potential impact on our citizenry for their defense and public safety makes me place this discussion in the “needs to be under the government oversight” category for now, particularly since this is being discussed at the state level, which is exactly where this discussion belongs.

The state budget shell game

March 20, 2015 · Posted in Cathy Keim, Delmarva items, Maryland Politics, Politics, State of Conservatism · Comments Off 

By Cathy Keim

Governor Hogan was elected because voters had had enough of the O’Malley spending spree. Before Hogan was sworn in, the budget shortfall of $1.2 billion over the next eighteen months was already public knowledge. Everybody knew that cuts were coming; only the particulars were uncertain.

Because Maryland has a strong executive branch, the General Assembly can only cut the budget or move money around. It cannot increase spending. The House is squandering many hours debating how to find the money to undo cuts that Hogan made, particularly to schools and the state employees’ COLAs.

Last July, Martin O’Malley gave the state employees a cost of living increase of 2% despite knowing that the budget was not in good shape. I would like to point out that employees in the private sector are not seeing cost of living increases. Why the state employees deserve a taxpayer-funded pay increase when the taxpayers are not getting their salaries increased is hard to justify. Governor Hogan rescinded that increase in his budget because the state did not have the funds to support it.

He also declined to fund the schools to the level they desired. Yet his budget gave a 1.3% increase to education over last year’s budget, so it is hard to make the case that he cut the budget drastically. One might have expected a 0% increase when we are facing a $1.2 billion deficit in the upcoming months. That sort of deficit on a smaller scale is what causes taxpayers to choose ground beef over steak. But then we have to actually balance our checkbooks rather than use creative accounting to get the job done.

Let’s take a moment for some background information. Despite our budget shortfall, Moody’s just gave Maryland an AAA rating once again.

Why is this AAA Bond rating so important? “Retention of the AAA ratings affirms the strength and stability of Maryland bonds during difficult and volatile times,” said state Treasurer Nancy Kopp. “This achievement allows us to continue to invest in our communities’ schools, libraries, and hospitals while saving taxpayers millions of dollars thanks to the lower interest rates that follow from these ratings.” (Emphasis mine.)

Maryland is one of only 10 states that has the AAA bond rating from all three firms that assign ratings, Moody’s Investors, Standard and Poor’s, and Fitch Ratings. Moody’s included the following warning when assigning the AAA rating:

WHAT COULD MAKE THE RATING GO DOWN

  • Economic and financial deterioration that results in deficits and continued draw downs of reserves without a plan for near-term replenishment
  • Failure to adhere to the state’s tradition of conservative fiscal management, including failure to take actions to reverse its negative fund balance
  • A state economy that does not rebound in tandem with the rest of the country
  • Failure to adhere to plans to address low pension funded ratios (emphasis mine)
  • Downgrade of the US government

Why does Maryland have low pension funded ratios? Because all that pension money just waiting there for the retired employees is too tempting for the politicians. They have dipped into the fund before. In 2011 as a corrective measure, Martin O’Malley reached an agreement with state employees that if they would increase their contributions to the retirement fund from 2% to 7%, then the state would put in $300 million annually to fund the pensions at an 80% level by 2023. That would still leave the pension fund $20 billion short, but that would be an improvement. The state employees have been putting in their extra 5%, but the state has not been putting in the entire $300 million. They find other ways to spend that money.

Now we are finished with the history and back to the present. The House debated for hours yesterday whether to fund the pension plan with the full $300 million or to take a portion of the money to continue the 2% increase in state employee’s wages and increase school funding. As I write, it is uncertain how the issue will be determined and whatever the House decides will still have to be reconciled with what the Senate produces.

Politicians seem to prefer to pay their supporters now and to let the future take care of itself since they will probably not still be in office when that bill comes due. It is a pleasing shell game. The politicians appropriate raises and perks for their constituents who then pay union dues, and then the unions donate money to the politicians –  lather, rinse, repeat.

According to the Washington Post, those public servants/union members might want to take note that:

In an effort to block relatively modest budget cuts proposed by Mr. Hogan, mainly to schools and public employees’ wages, Democratic lawmakers in Annapolis are pushing a plan to revamp the formula for scheduled contributions. According to Comptroller Peter Franchot, one of the few prominent Democrats who opposes the scheme, it would shift $2 billion into the general budget over the next decade, then cost the state $4.5 billion in the following dozen years — meaning Maryland would face a net $2.5 billion in additional costs over time in order to keep its pension promises.

Additionally, even if the state did put all the funds into the pension plan that they promised, the pension fund would still be underfunded by $20 billion in 2023. Since over 382,000 current and former employees are covered in this plan, it would seem to be a rather important item for the state to fully fund the pension program.

So our esteemed politicians in Annapolis are willing to risk our credit rating which could lead to increased interest payments when borrowing funds, underfund the pension program that thousands depend on, and incur $2.5 billion in additional costs to finally keep its pension promises, just so that they can override Governor Hogan’s budget.

While that may be a winning hand for the politicians, their constituents that get the 2% cost of living increase, and the unions, it is not a winner for the taxpayers.

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