Did Simonaire Violate Ethics Rules with Commercial?

Sen. Bryan Simonaire’s (R-31) Commercial

Sen. Bryan Simonaire (R-31, Anne Arundel) has done a commercial for Walt Eger’s auto service center. In the commercial, shown above, Sen. Simonaire uses his title and appears in front of his vehicle complete with Senate license plate and a Simonaire-State Senate sticker on the front of the hood.

The ethics laws governing conduct by members of the General Assembly prohibit commercials like this in a clearcut manner:

Use of Prestige of Office (§ 15-506) The Ethics Law prohibits the intentional use of a legislator’s “prestige of office” for private gain or that of another, but allows the performance of usual and customary constituent services that are provided without compensation.

Even more specifically, the ethics guidelines state:

Do not publicly endorse a commercial entity or product under circumstances that invoke one’s position as a legislator.

Unfortunately for Sen. Simonaire, this is exactly what he did.

If Sen. Simonaire got paid to do the commercials, that would move the problem to selling the prestige of office instead of just using it for the private gain of another.

Simonaire Serves on Ethics Reform Committee

Sen. Simonaire serves currently on the Senate Special Committee on Ethics Reform. In the past, he also was a member of the Work Group to Review Disclosure Requirements of the Public Ethics Law. While ignorance of the law would not serve an excuse, it seems especially thin in this case.

Eger Made Campaign Contributions to Simonaire

Sen. Simonaire received $1000 in campaign contributions from Walt Eger in 2014 election cycle, according to his campaign finance report filed on October 19, 2014.

This same report also reveal loans by Sen. Simonaire in the amount of $54,100 to his own campaign. The most recently filed report indicates that the loan amount remains the same, so it does not appear that the Eger’s contribution has been used towards reimbursing that loan.

The reported cash balance for Simonaire’s campaign committee is $36,701.47. Simonaire could conceivably use funds to pay back the loans. But many legislators never reimburse themselves for these loans and carry them forward for many years.

Conclusion

This could all be friendly in the sense that Walt Eger likes Sen. Bryan Simonaire enough to donate to his campaign. Similarly, Sen. Simonaire could want to help out his friend’s business.

The problem is this sort of cozy relationship that works to the commercial benefit of Walt Eger and the political benefit of Sen. Simonaire is exactly what the General Assembly’s ethics rules are designed to prevent.

This likely serious violation of ethics rules will provide a test for not only how the General Assembly handles these problems–including the leadership of both parties–but also how Gov. Larry Hogan addresses problems within the party that he heads.

Gone Twitter: PSC Nominee Higgs Update

Two days ago, 7S published snapshots from the twitter account of Montgomery County GOP Chair and PSC Nominee Michael Higgs. However, his twitter account, @MightyTerp, is no longer available on Twitter (h/t Luke Pinton, @lpinton).

People who missed such tweets as:

HiggsTweet1

and

higgstweet4

will now have to visit the 7S historical archives. Or talk to others who have preserved portions of his public thought. While people Fear the Terp, @MightyTerp appears more fearful. Regardless, this vanishing act provides more evidence that @MightyTerp realizes that these tweets won’t help his nomination.

 

Ending Felon Disfranchisement

Freshman Del. Cory McCray (D-45) and Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-43), the Chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee are sponsoring a bill (HB 980/SB  340) to restore the voting rights of former felons:

The bill would remove the obstacles that are in the way of an estimated 40,000 ex-offenders in Maryland who want to vote.

Current law in Maryland prohibits individuals with a felony conviction from voting until after they have finished parole, probation and paid restitution. Advocates say many of the former felons who are eligible to vote are uncertain of their voting status. They fear of being accused of voter fraud and being arrested again.

[Sen. Joan Carter] Conway described the current law as a form a voter suppression.

“The criteria doesn’t make sense,” Conway said. “The debt has been paid.”

A Good and Right Idea

The General Assembly should pass this legislation for a variety of reasons. First, we should make it easier for people who have the legal right to vote to participate–not placing barriers in their path, including fear of running afoul of the law.

Some may not like that former criminals get to vote. But we are all citizens of this country. Once someone has paid their debt to society, their citizenship rights, including rights, should be restored as part of their return to the community.

Moreover, the criminal justice system does not always treat similar offenses in the same way. As a result, some people who commit become classified as ex-felons while others do not. There is no reason for this disparity in sentencing–a whole different area for debate–to carry over into the restoration of voting rights.

But Don’t Expect Too Much

Studies show that education is the best predictor of the likelihood to vote. Additionally, people who are more likely to vote include older voters, married voters, and people with a long-established residence.

As a group, former felons are far less likely than other Americans to possess these characteristics. Difficulties in obtaining a job exacerbate problems in gaining a stable housing situation. Barring some very serious organization, former felons will remain much less likely to register or to cast a ballot.

So Republicans who fear that this is a plot by Democrats to get more of “their” voters on the rolls should chill. The impact will likely be small. More importantly, even if every single one voted, no political party worthy of the name should be afraid of citizens participating in our democratic process.

Moving Forward on Public Transit

WMATA_Metro

Making This Work Should Be Our #1 Priority

In a series of posts, I’ve outlined how the major light-rail and streetcar projects are in deep trouble and why. Today’s final post completes the more recent portion of the series on what we should do to spend smart to produce workable, effective transit.

Fix Metro

Members of the Maryland General Assembly have rightly come to the conclusion that they have had enough of the failing WMATA status quo and want to grapple in a serious way with the issue. Fixing the Metro system should be our #1 transit priority because it remains the lungs of the region’s public transit network. We need a serious assessment of how to turn the corner on this one because the problems have only been getting worse. MTA also has major problems that need attention and merits more oversight.

Reorganize Existing Bus Lines

I love solutions that don’t cost any money. This isn’t a case of getting something for nothing (that just doesn’t happen) but getting a lot more out of our existing budget. Houston just showed the way by reorganizing its bus routes in a smart way:

The old system, like many bus routes in the United States, expended a lot of resources on very low-ridership routes for the sake of saying there’s “a bus that goes there.” The new plan says that the focus should be to provide reasonably frequent service on routes where reasonably frequent service will attract riders. That does mean that some people are further than ever from a transit stop. But it means that many more Houstonians will find themselves near a useful transit stop.

Just check out the before and after maps. I’ve often heard advocates of light-rail claim that we need it because there is no bus route that does not connect place A to place B. But this is, after all, an easily solvable problem without building light rail. In Houston, the difference is amazing and it didn’t cost the city any more money. Now that’s smart growth.

Bus-Rapid Transit

Bus-rapid transit (BRT) has real cost-benefit advantages over other more expensive modes. You can build an equivalent mode of transit at a far cheaper price. Montgomery County has already moved forward tentatively in this area. I hope they will continue.

Build Only What We Can Afford to Maintain

The key lesson from Metro is that transit systems take a lot of money to operate and to maintain. Governing recently highlighted an even more disastrous example from the Boston area. Though Boston is a slow-growing area, it embarked on very fast paced transit growth that it could not afford either to build or to maintain. Beyond the system’s collapse this winter:

Today the MBTA owes nearly $9 billion in debt and interest, which translates into more than one-quarter of its operating revenue going to debt service. And since money that should have funded maintenance had to be diverted to the legally mandated expansions, the system faces an estimated $5 billion maintenance backlog.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build anything. It means that we need to spend smart because money is always tight and we need to build future operation and maintenance costs into the plan before we begin construction.

Final Word

The point of this series was not just to discuss how and why we arrived in our current cul-de-sac of overly expensive projects but how we can get out of it through transit that provide more in the way of transit and economic benefits at a much lower cost and will be more sustainable over the long term.

Leventhal Says Leggett “Grandstanding” with Redskins Resolution

Grandstanding–Not by Leggett–Begins at 1:04

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett is considering asking the County Council to pass a resolution urging the Washington Redskins to change their name. The D.C. City Council has already passed a resolution declaring it “racist and derogatory.”

County Council President George Leventhal thinks it’s a bad idea, as he explained in this response to a constituent who wrote him on the issue:

“Your comparison to the civil rights struggle is, I think, inapt,” Leventhal wrote back Nov. 8. “Those who were in a position to change the law and enact civil rights protections had the moral obligation to do so. The Montgomery County Council has no authority over the names of NFL teams. If we were to pass a resolution like the one that passed the D.C. Council earlier this week, its effect would be only hortatory and would be perceived by many as grandstanding.”

Where to begin?

Symbolism Matters

The Council and the County engage in many actions that are symbolic. In this case, the statement would be a powerful one not just because Montgomery is home to many Washington football fans but because Dan Snyder lives and grew up here. It would speak loudly that the elected representatives in his hometown believe that the moral and the right thing to do is to change the name.

Consider just one example of the importance of symbolic actions highlighted in a press release from the County Council: “recognition” of the start of Lunar New Year:

“I am delighted to be joining with my friends and leaders in the Asian American community to recognize Asian Lunar New Year,” said Council President George Leventhal. “Montgomery County’s diversity is its strength, and one of the best parts of my job is being able to share in these celebrations.”

The County Council passed legislation in 2006 making Lunar New Year a day of commemoration to recognize the significant contributions Asian Americans have made in the County. Approximately 14 percent of Montgomery County’s population is Asian American.

Too bad for Native Americans that they compose only 0.7 percent of Montgomery’s population.

Hortatory and Grandstanding

Let’s next get the obvious out of the way: George Leventhal is no stranger to hortatory and grandstanding. Infamously so. More than any other elected official in Montgomery, George is renowned for his bursts of temper, lecturing and posturing in public and private. The clip above from the Washington Post is one example (see George unable to help himself starting at 1:04).

Whether it is what allows him to accomplish his goals or impedes him from being as effective or successful as he might like, many people in the County have seen or experienced it. Indeed, as in the above example, it often elides into bullying from exhortation or grandstanding.

Has George Leventhal Ever Met Ike Leggett?

For those of you less familiar with Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, who recently began his third term, allow me to explain that most of his speeches and actions are political oatmeal: reasonably satisfying and nothing that upsets the stomach.

While he has often been called highly cautious and prudent–and criticized at times for being overly so–I have never heard anyone ever describe the County Executive’s actions as “hortatory” or “grandstanding.” I heard him once get mildly exercised about Maintenance of Effort for a minute at a Committee for Montgomery breakfast but the moment passed.

Let me suggest that this is not accidental.

Notwithstanding the election of President Barack Obama, the election of African Americans from jurisdictions that do not have either a black majority or a combined black and Latino majority remains relatively rare. (If you go on researchgate.net, you can find some of my own publications on the topic.)

Unfortunately, the same actions that might be labelled as passionate or firm leadership by a white politicians have sometimes been stereotyped as angry and hostile when done by a black politician. Disciplined, successful African-American politicians who achieve high levels of non-black support tend to stay away from actions that could be perceived as hectoring or confrontational.

As a result, no one has ever confused Ike Leggett with H. Rap Brown. The payoff has been high: Ike Leggett is not just the County’s first African-American County Executive. He is one of Montgomery’s most successful politicians ever. Full stop. But no one views him as “hortatory” or “grandstanding.”

There is a reason that the Post has never run a clip of Ike like the one of George. It doesn’t exist.

 

Del. Kathy Szeliga’s Sound and Fury

Delegate Kathy Szeliga (R-7) laments that the legislators in the General Assembly legislate:

So far, there have been 1159 bills introduced in the House of Delegates and 821 in the Senate.  Some of these are duplicate bills filed in each chamber – called cross filed bills.

Remember, every bill has the potential of becoming a law. Do you think we need an additional 2,000 laws every year?

Consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds, naturally the next thing she writes her constituents is:

I am the primary sponsor of 6 bills.

Later, she writes proudly:

I have cosponsored many other bills.  If you’d like to see the whole list of bills I’ve sponsored and cosponsored CLICK HERE

Wasting Taxes Doing Something about Nothing

Unintended irony appears to be Del. Szeliga’s strong suit because at least one of these bills is a complete make work project for the General Assembly:

HB 454 – will prohibit the State of Maryland from charging drivers a Vehicle Miles Traveled tax.  This is a concept that has been considered in the past.  It’s a terrible idea for lots of reasons.

Cutting through the anti-tax rhetoric, Del. Szeliga wants to ban a tax that we don’t have through a law that could be overturned by the General Assembly as easily as it is passed in the first place.

But having wasted taxpayers funds and the General Assembly’s time, she can engage in the time-honored Republican tradition of going home and talking about how she fought the good fight on taxes, even though she will have done nothing even if her bill passes.

So, as it turns out, Del. Szeliga is right. Legislators are sponsoring unneeded legislation. She just didn’t realize that she met the enemy when she looked in the mirror.

Gun-ho–But Only for Non-Marylanders

Unfortunately, some of her legislation that would actually have an impact is even worse:

HB 735 – will allow people traveling through our state to transport legally owned firearms via vehicle or boat.  The unintended consequences of the restrictive gun bill that passed a couple of years ago is that it prohibits lawful firearm owners from driving or boating through our state with certain firearms that are now illegal to own in Maryland.

In other words, despite her claims to the contrary, the law is working as intended. Bizarrely,  Del. Szeliga’s bill would give non-state residents a free pass to carry weapons that we don’t allow our own residents to possess.

Earmarks are A-OK

Other Szeliga bills look more promising–such as the one to raise penalties for human trafficking. Strikingly though, the Republican opposition to earmarks and to spending flies right out of Del. Szeliga’s window when it involves her own constituents:

HB 1147 – is a matching grant request for $200,000 for Angel Park in Perry Hall.  This new park will be located on Honeygo Blvd and will be similar to Annie’s Playground in Harford County – a playground fully accessible to handicapped children.  Angel Park has already raised about $1 million in private contributions and this will help with the playground equipment purchase.  There are usually $7 million in grants for community projects approved by the House and $7 million by the Senate.  

Don’t get me wrong; this sounds like a great idea. I worked with my colleagues on the Town Council and in the County to improve playgrounds in my own Town. It’s even better that the playground will be fully accessible. I like Del. Szeliga’s earmark so much that surely some must suspect that she is part of the liberal problem rather than the conservative solution.

Indeed, a true spendthrift conservative Republican should perceive this as an earmark by the State in an area of local responsibility that just makes it harder for Gov. Hogan to keep his tax cutting promises. Especially amusing is her not-so-subtle mention of this being part of $7 million in state grants. Read: it’s OK; all the kids are doing it.

 

PSC Nominee Michael Higgs on Twitter

higgs

Michael Higgs with Gov. Larry Hogan

Gov. Larry Hogan has nominated Montgomery County GOP Chair Michael Higgs to the Public Services Commission. His twitter account should provide some nice grist for the Executive Nominations Committee mill.

On Hillary Clinton

HiggsTweet1

On Valerie Jarrett

HiggsTweet2Spelling does not appear to be his strong suit.

But He Really Hates Misogyny

HiggsTweet3

And Worries about Illegals Voting

higgstweet4

I’m beginning to see why my students heavily recommend Snapchat. It isn’t just young people entering the job market who may end up regretting some of those tweets that live on forever.

 

MTA Financial Fail

This one is going to cost us way more than Charlie’s proverbial nickel. The Baltimore Sun reports:

The Maryland Transit Administration failed to verify the accuracy of millions of dollars in contractor-submitted architectural and engineering costs for the Red and Purple light rail lines, according to a state audit released Monday.

The unverified labor bills from four contractor groups hired to work on the two pending transit lines, scheduled for Baltimore and the Washington suburbs, respectively, account for or relate to $232.8 million in overall costs under the multibillion-dollar projects, the audit found.

And we ought to be concerned that the accuracy of expenditures were not verified because:

The joint ventures were originally awarded contracts not to exceed $280 million, but the value of those contracts was increased in July 2013 to $547.1 million, the audit found.

The lack of checks on expenditures has led to waste such as:

• $10 million in overpayments to Mobility Paratransit Program vendors for fuel.

• Nearly $500,000 in payments of excise tax on fuel that the agency is exempt from paying.

This no worries attitude is especially shocking because one of the major firms involved in the project–Parsons Brinckerhoff–also played a key role in designing the fiasco known as the Silver Spring Transit Center.

Failing Disabled Marylanders

The audit further legitimated claims by disability rights advocates that MTA is failing them::

The audit also found the agency failed to properly oversee eligibility for its mobility program, something advocates for people with disabilities also alleged in a lawsuit recently filed against the agency.

MTA does not contest the audit’s results.

Accountability

Who in MTA is responsible? Will anyone be held accountable for this two-fold scandal–not just waste of public funds but failure even to keep track of how they are being spent?

Legislators Working to Make Metro Better

firemen in metroJust More Media Hysteria, So Chillax

Denial from Greater Greater Washington

Greater Greater Washington’s response to the series of problems with both the Metro and the DC streetcar was to blame “media hysteria” and remind us that transit is still safer than driving. So pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Better Response from the General Assembly

Fortunately, like the public they represent, legislators in the General Assembly think the continuing rot in Metro not only needs to be stopped but reversed. I don’t think this weekend’s repeated problems will persuade them otherwise.

Freshmen Del. Marc Korman (D-16) and Del. Erek Barron (D-24) have real interest in transit issues and have organized an informal Metro working group as part of an effort to figure out how to fix WMATA and exert more effective pressure to do so.

Special kudos to Del. Tawanna Gaines (D-22) who heads the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Environment and Transportation for supporting the effort. It’s terrific to see leaders like Del. Gaines working to support reform efforts.

The people involved realize that these are long-term problems with no quick fix. Hopefully, they can (1) improve oversight of Metro, (2) get Metro to address some specific problems, and (3) start to address some of the central questions around WMATA’s management and funding.

Fortunately, the interest in these questions extends even beyond the Metro area. Great to hear that Del. Brooke Lierman (D-46) and Del. Bob Flanagan (R-9B) joined many legislators from Montgomery and Prince George’s to attend the group meetings. Del. Flanagan was a former Secretary of Transportation in the Ehrlich administration.

While I look forward to seeing the group’s action plan as they learn more about WMATA, it is a good start that those involved know there are serious problems and want to figure out how to fix them in a more systematic, effective way.

Catching Fire–Just Not in the Good Way

streetcaronfire

DC Streetcar on Fire, Source: @willsommer (aka Loose Lips)

This was not a good weekend for public transit in Washington be it streetcar, light-rail, or Metro.

Metro is Smokin’

Here is a summary of this weekend’s record, though I’m not sure I caught all of the incidents:

  • Woodley Park evacuated after faulty brakes filled station with smoke;
  • Foggy Bottom smoke blamed on “maintenance issue” resulted in deployment of firefighters;
  • Smoke in L’Enfant Plaza after a Green Line train experienced a “mechanical issue.”

Fortunately, no one was hurt in these incidents. As usual, @unsuckdcmetro has absolutely the last word with his tweet: “Metro should vape instead.”

But the Streetcar is on Fire. Literally.

On Saturday, the DC streetcar and a car parked a foot from the curb had a close encounter. Think car mirror meets streetcar exterior and neither is better for the experience. Apparently, this was not its only collision that day.

But that turned out to be small beans compared to the fire on the DC streetcar.  Still in its prolonged working out the kinks phase, the streetcar experienced an “unexplained” flash fire on top of the car.

Again, no one was injured.

Purple Line Repudiated by Guy who Named It

In a letter to the Gazette, the guy who named the Purple Line says the project is a mistake:

There are many problems with the Purple Line that give Mr. Hogan pause. It should have been part of Metro. A trip from one end to the other takes too long. It cost too much and its benefits are too small.

The most important cost, though, isn’t in dollars it would take from better transit projects, but the destruction of a priceless pedestrian/bicycle connection between Bethesda, Rock Creek Park and Silver Spring. Maryland and Montgomery transit officials have been obsessed with claiming the Georgetown Branch for their own, regardless of the lack of benefit and destruction it would cause.