Stop Giving Robin Ficker More Ammo

By Adam Pagnucco.

Right about now, the happiest man in Montgomery County lives in Boyds.  He is 74, a huge sports fanatic, a long time attorney, a former state Delegate, a perpetual candidate and a tireless activist.  He loves the County Council because some of its members give him endless material for use in his never-ending demagogic campaign to weaken and ultimately paralyze county government.

Yes folks, we are talking about the notorious political heckler Robin Ficker.  And he must be jumping for joy at the news that some members of the council are considering a possible new soda tax.

Ficker has been running for office and placing charter amendments on the ballot, mostly intended to limit taxes, since the 1970s.  The huge majority of his amendments have failed, often because the political establishment labeled them “Ficker amendments” to exploit the national infamy of his heckling at Washington Bullets games.  One exception was the razor-tight passage of his 2008 charter amendment mandating that all nine Council Members vote in support of exceeding the charter limit on property taxes.  But Ficker has never had more ammo than in the last four years and he has used it to push his anti-government agenda.  Consider what has happened.

The council’s approval of a large salary increase for its members in 2013 and its passage of a 9% property tax hike in 2016 gave Ficker’s term limits charter amendment momentum.  Some Council Members then used their campaign funds to finance a lawsuit to keep term limits off the ballot, which failed.  Council Member Nancy Floreen’s “exasperated” and “defensive” performance in a television debate with Ficker and Council Member George Leventhal’s comparison of term limits supporters with Brexit voters didn’t help.  Ficker predicted term limits would pass by twenty points; instead, they passed by forty.

Robin Ficker thanks MoCo voters for giving him his biggest political win ever.

That’s not all.  Ficker has enrolled in the public financing system established by the council for his latest Executive run.  And he requested the county government’s email lists after another resident obtained them under the Public Information Act.  Any competent campaigner – maybe even Ficker – should be able to use those thousands of emails to raise enough money to qualify for public matching funds.

And now we have news of the soda tax, which prompted gleeful self-promotion by Ficker in Bethesda Magazine’s comment section.  Expect a Facebook ad soon.

Your author does not enjoy writing this column because we find merit in this particular tax.  Sugary drinks and soda are public health menaces, especially to children.  The intended use of the money for early childhood programs is a good idea.  And the current tight budget does not give any quick or easy options for funding undeniable, but expensive, priorities like early childhood education.  But the counter-argument from Ficker, who calls Council Members “tax increase specialists,” is obvious.  “They’re not listening to you,” Ficker will tell the voters.  “You told them no more tax hikes and they’re going to do it anyway.”  Even Leventhal, who has voted for numerous tax hikes and has done as much to promote public health as any Council Member ever, has come out against the new tax.

The danger here is not that Ficker will be elected.  Voters made that mistake once all the way back in 1978 and have never come close to repeating it since.  The real problem is the next charter amendment that Ficker will inevitably introduce after his latest election campaign fails.  Whatever else Ficker is, he is an astute student of Maryland county tax policies.  He is fully aware of the taxation and spending limits in the Prince George’s County charter, such as the requirements that the property tax rate may not exceed 96 cents per $100 of assessed value and that bond issues, new taxes, other tax increases and some fee increases be approved by voters.  He is also aware of provisions in the state constitution and several county charters that forbid legislative bodies from adding spending to executive budgets.  Indeed, some of his past charter amendments have been variants of such policies.

It’s one thing to raise taxes during terrible economic downturns as the county did in 2010.  That simply had to be done.  It’s a very different thing to discuss new discretionary tax hikes in times when voters are not convinced that they are absolutely needed.  If the council would like to have more money available for worthy programs, it should focus on growing the economy, stop adding ongoing miscellaneous spending financed by one-shot revenue sources, redirect cable fund money to purposes that actually benefit the public and restrain some parts of the budget to finance expansions of others.  Doing those things will free up tens of millions of dollars, and maybe more, over time.  But constant talk, and occasional passage, of discretionary tax hikes will only help Ficker place a Prince George’s-style anti-tax doomsday charter amendment on the ballot.  Should such a thing pass, no soda tax will save us.

Hence a warning.  If you give Robin Ficker enough ammo, even he will eventually hit the target.


Luedtke Proposes Alcohol Sales Reform

There are two major components to frustration with Montgomery County’s alcohol laws: (1) the distribution monopoly by the Department of Liquor Control (DLC), and (2) the limitations on where consumers can buy alcohol. Del. Eric Luedtke’s (D-14) bills would address the latter (see press release below).

In a nutshell, one bill would allow supermarkets to get around the current limits that make it impossible for them to sell all types of alcohol at multiple locations by allowing them to open stores within their stores operated by the DLC.

I suspect supermarkets will be chary of giving up sales space when they cannot control the sales experience and have to negotiate over which products are sold. My bet is that they would much prefer to be able to sell just beer and wine within their own stores. Hopefully, the bill can be amended towards that end.

However, MCGEO, the DLC union, will likely resist any effort to move away from the absolute DLC control model. Though supermarket employees are unionized, it is a different union, and MCGEO won’t want to lose the opportunity to expand its muscle–and ability to protect the hated distribution monopoly.

The second bill loosens certain restrictions on DLC stores and Sunday alcohol sales. My bet is that non-DLC stores that sell beer and wine will fight allowing DLC stores to sell soft drinks and cold beer and wine. They’ll be outraged that they still have to deal with DLC’s distribution monopoly yet see the DLC encroaching on a valuable share of their business.

Bottom Line: If some major kinks can be worked out, especially the need for a DLC-operated store within a store, consumers will regard this as a major step forward. But the bills do nothing to address the hated distribution monopoly that jacks up prices and drives restaurant business out of the county.

Here is Del. Luedtke’s press release:

Delegate Eric Luedtke Seeks to Make Montgomery Alcohol Laws More Consumer Friendly

Bills include provisions that will eliminate outdated blue laws, expand choices for retail alcohol consumers

Montgomery County, MD, October 30, 2017Delegate Eric Luedtke (D-Burtonsville) announced plans today to introduce two bills aimed at making Montgomery County alcohol laws more consumer friendly. One of the bills, MC 16-18, will allow for separate beer, wine, and liquor dispensaries to be located inside grocery stores. This store-within-a-store model has been used successfully in other states. Under this model, large grocery stores will be eligible to have a separate store located within them selling alcohol, similar to coffee shops or bank branches located in many grocery stores now.

The second bill, MC 4-18, titled “The Montgomery County Alcohol Modernization Act of 2018,” will overhaul a number of outdated laws that limit consumer options and place unnecessary limits on businesses. Among its many provisions, this bill will allow county liquor stores to sell cold beer and wine, soft drinks, and growlers. The bill also eliminates some of the last remaining blue laws in Montgomery County, such as laws that prevent some alcohol licensees from serving alcohol as early on Sundays as they do on other days of the week.

Delegate Luedtke stated about this effort, “Our debates about alcohol laws in Montgomery County have too often ignored consumers. The most common complaint I hear from residents about our alcohol laws is a lack of beer and wine in grocery stores. It’s time we focused more on consumer needs and fixed some of these outdated laws.”

Both pieces of legislation will be filed as local bills, and there will be public hearings held on them before the Montgomery County Delegation in December.


Delegate Eric Luedtke represents District 14 in Montgomery County, which includes Brookeville, Burtonsville, Damascus, Olney and parts of Silver Spring. Delegate Luedtke is chair of the Education Subcommittee on the House Ways and Means Committee.



MDOT Swastika Update

The debate over MDOT’s unfortunate graphic evolved into an article in the Baltimore Sun. Christina Tkacik reports that Transportation Secretary Rahn has pulled the image from a brochure published by the state that appeared on its website. When asked about it, your gentle blogger said:

“Of course it looks like a swastika,” said David Lublin, a professor with American University who posted a photo of the image on his blog, which chronicles Maryland politics.

But Lublin said he wasn’t offended by the image, assuming it was just a “brainfart.” MDOT has “flubbed a lot” over the years, he said.

“There’s enough hate in the world without us searching out for it,” he said.

I believe the last especially strongly. The Sun‘s Erin Cox drew attention to it for the hilarity of this wonderful forehead-hits-keyboard moment and to spur discussion. If anyone seriously thought that this reflected anti-Semitism on the part of the Hogan Administration, this would’ve been front page news–not a tweet.

Taking a moment to state the obvious, the unfortunate swastika graphic is completely different that Donald Trump’s retweeting of neo-Nazi images containing some of the worst anti-Semitic tropes. Moreover, unlike the Orange Occupant of the White House, I’m sure that Gov. Hogan has at least the sense the Lord gave a turnip and just rolled his eyes and moved along.


More on MoCo’s Mighty Seven Zip Codes

Readers raised very good questions on our Facebook page about median as opposed to mean income after reading Adam Pagnucco’s conversation sparking post on Montgomery’s most and least affluent zip codes.

As the above table shows, they were right to suspect that wealthy households skew average income higher than the median, especially in the seven high-income zip codes where the median is 71% of the mean as opposed to 79% in low-income zip codes. The difference in median income levels between the high and low income zip codes is also one-third smaller than for the mean.

Middle-class has always been very elastically defined in America. Keeping that in mind, it nevertheless remains accurate to say that the data project a picture of a largely middle-class jurisdiction. The data lower for income zip codes–called lower and not low for good reason here–paint a portrait of areas that are mainly lower-middle to middle class.

The high-income zip codes are predominantly upper-middle class with good chunks of more middle class and more affluent people–and some very affluent people who drive up the mean income. The median income statistics show the danger in relying solely on mean income as an indicator of how people live. While unquestionably home to an unusual number of very well-off to extremely wealthy people, upper-middle class better describes the income of most households in this expensive area.

The poverty statistics provide a good indicator of people who struggle greatly. One should assume their share is higher since many people who live above the poverty level also have real difficulties making basic ends meet. These show that a significant minority in the lower-income zip codes are poor, despite their clear middle-class character. Poverty is as minimal as just about anywhere in America in the higher-income zip codes.

In short, while there are real and large differences between these groups of zip codes, which after all were selected by Adam precisely to highlight these real differences, Montgomery County is dominated by varying types of middle-class people even in these areas. Adam mentioned rightly that people are aware of the differences. I’d add that they are also aware of the basic similarities. This matters a lot because middle-class values and problems provide a common reference point, even though the higher-income zip codes obviously have more resources to meet challenges and people are aware of these differences.

As a result, our politics tends to be oriented around a common set of goals and problems related to the quality of education, safe neighborhoods, transportation and so forth that resonate to broad majorities just about everywhere in Montgomery. Without negating resource differences or suggesting neglect of the real problems faced by poor Montgomery-ites, this is a good thing because it makes bridging geographic-income divides much easier.

Doubters might consider the greater gaps in outlook faced by jurisdictions like the District of Colombia, Prince George’s and Baltimore City—let alone the extremes of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—that possess greater concentrations of neighborhoods of concentrated poverty as well as wealthy neighborhoods.


Because, In this Administration, We Just Can’t Get Enough Swastikas

As Erin Cox from the Sun points out, this is perhaps a badly timed graphic goof coming out of an administration that just worked to woo pro-Israel voters. Gov Hogan is in charge of MDOT, and it’s off his post-Charlottesville message and change of heart on the Taney statue designed to communicate “I’m not Trump.”

Just please don’t claim it’s a sheriff’s star or an exit on the Beltway.


Andy Harris Votes to Increase Deficit $1.5 Trillion

Republican Rep. Andy Harris (MD 1) voted to allow tax cuts of $1.5 trillion dollars without requiring any offsetting spending, increasing the deficit and debt dramatically.

The proposal is particularly anti-Maryland as it would “doom the current deduction for state and local taxes,” which benefits Marylanders disproportionately, as it does residents in New York and New Jersey. Other tax deductions up for elimination that might spread the pain more evenly, such as the home mortgage interest deduction, or closing corporate loopholes, have been ruled out by tweet or as sacred cows. Nevertheless, unlike the bulk of Republicans from those states, Harris still voted yes.

Harris has undergone a Damascene conversion on the deficit and national debt since the Obama years:

His budget never solves the deficit problem, much less begins to pay down the exploding national debt we will leave to our grandchildren. . . . Once again, the House will have to take leadership on reining in the debt and deficit by proposing a budget that makes the tough choices that are necessary to head off a Greek-style federal bankruptcy.

Harris logic says that ballooning the debt by much less than the Republican budget is madness that will cause rack and ruin associated through “a Greek-style federal bankruptcy” when it’s proposed by Obama but not when Trump-Ryan want it.

Even leaving aside the unfunded giveaway to the wealthy that is done in a way that limits benefits to Marylanders, especially more middle-income residents who still deduct, the complete shift on the debt and importance of balancing the books shows the situational ethics and moral bankruptcy of Andy Harris–and the many other Republicans who said more or less the same thing.


MoCo’s Mighty Seven Zip Codes

By Adam Pagnucco.

For a long time, Montgomery County has been thought of as a wealthy jurisdiction.  It has long appeared in lists of the nation’s richest counties (although it is about to drop out of the top twenty).  Politicians elsewhere in Maryland view it as a gold mine, with Senate President Mike Miller famously saying, “It’s like Never Neverland for other legislators of the state.”  The county is regularly shorted by state wealth formulas which disproportionately distribute state aid, especially for public schools, to other parts of Maryland.

But most of Montgomery County is not particularly rich.  Its wealth is concentrated in seven zip codes which skew its mean household income upward and make the county as a whole appear richer than it really is.

All residents of MoCo understand that there are huge differences between areas in the county even though many outsiders do not.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county’s mean household income was $133,543 over the 2011-2015 period, just barely squeaking past Howard County ($132,751) for tops in the state.  But that conceals big variations.  MoCo has nine zip codes in which mean household incomes were under $100,000.  The combined mean household income of these areas ($92,668) is roughly equal to the mean household income of Prince George’s County ($90,268).

MoCo has seven zip codes in which mean household incomes were over $200,000 in the 2011-2015 period.  These zip codes, mostly located northwest of D.C., account for 14% of the county’s households and 25% of its household income.  If these zip codes were regarded as a separate jurisdiction, their combined mean household income would be $238,917.  The combined mean household income of the rest of Montgomery County is $116,618 – about half the income of the Mighty Seven.

How do the mean incomes of the Mighty Seven and the rest of the county compare to the rest of the region?  We show the mean household incomes of those two parts of the county along with the other large jurisdictions in the region below.  The Mighty Seven as a group are easily at the top although we suspect that extracts of the wealthiest parts of Loudoun, Fairfax, Howard and D.C. would also be in that range.  As for the rest of the county, its income is average compared to the rest of the region.

That’s right, folks – with the exception of its wealthiest zip codes, MoCo is a middle-income jurisdiction by the (admittedly high) standards of the Washington region.

This reality has interesting implications for policy makers and candidates.  The issue of equity between different parts of Montgomery County is getting traction as a political issue in the upcoming election.  But in terms of who pays the county government’s bills, there is no question that county revenues are hugely dependent on a limited number of wealthy neighborhoods, especially in the absence of robust economic growth.  If those residents decide that they can get a better deal by living somewhere else, that would be a huge threat to the county’s tax base.

As for the state level, there’s a tendency to look at differing incomes and wealth BETWEEN counties but not INSIDE counties.  That’s how state wealth formulas work – they compare counties to each other but not local areas to each other.  How many state policy makers have understood prior to reading this blog post that there is a large part of Montgomery County that is economically comparable to Prince George’s?  It’s time for a serious examination of how to direct state aid to local areas in need regardless of which county borders they happen to occupy.


Why Does the Capital Publish this Guy?

Normally, I view the Annapolis Capital as a good paper with often a fine bead on state politics due to its location. But after reading Brian Griffiths’ column, you have to wonder about their judgement.

Griffiths, the editor-in-chief of the Republican blog Red Maryland, writes regular columns published in the Capital. In his latest oeuvre, he argues that Gov. Larry Hogan is unbeatable. OK, so far. That’s a matter of opinion–I happen to disagree–but a perfectly legitimate position.

The way Griffiths goes about making his case through a series of ad hominum attacks and utter falsehoods is not.

Regarding Ben Jealous, Griffiths writes the following:

Former NAACP President Ben Jealous, darling of Bernie Sanders supporters, who has yet to propose a policy that would not be fully endorsed by the Communist Party.

It’s like Griffiths feels bad that that he missed out on the Red Scare of the 1950s or has watched Red Dawn far, far too many times. Reviving McCarthyism, however, is not a serious attack but a smear. Surprise, surprise but Jealous is not a Commie pinko who hates America and does not advocate for Leninism or gulags.

Instead of making a serious attack based on Jealous’s advocacy for policies he views as failed, reheated old-style liberalism, Griffiths goes for the reheated, old-style smear. No editor at the Capital saw this and said this is unserious and over the top?

Griffiths goes on to do the same to Rich Madaleno:

Ultra-left-wing state Sen. Rich Madaleno, infamous for being a flip-flopping fabulist — but most famous for personally insulting first lady Yumi Hogan.

The idea that Madaleno insulted Yumi Hogan is practically the definition of fake news. Madaleno wrote the Governor a letter asking him to ban travel to Indiana because of its endorsement of rank discrimination in its so-called Religious Freedom law. In the letter, Madaleno had the audacity to compare the Hogan’s family to his own by pointing out that the law would allow discrimination against Hogan’s family because of the First Lady’s divorce and against his own because he is married to man.

Griffiths can only think this an insult if he thinks either divorce is shameful and unmentionable in polite society or that Madaleno had no right to compare his own marriage to that of the Governor’s. In other words, Griffiths and others who mindlessly mouth this ridiculous, false attack are really just smearing Madaleno for being an uppity gay guy who thinks that he’s normal.

And I haven’t even gotten to “ultra” and “flip-flopping fabulist.” Again, why does the Capital turn itself into a smear machine?

Good debate and strong views are healthy in opinion columns. But what value is the Capital adding through publication of regurgitated smears? Are there no Republicans available who can make a positive argument for Republican policies and critique those of Democrats without basing it in lies and smears?

If you want a serious analysis of the unworkability and upper-class bias of Jealous’ free college proposal, go check out Barry Rascover because you won’t find it–or anything else that passes for thoughtful analysis–in Griffith’s column in the Capital.

If Griffiths wants to keep publishing this dreck on his blog, he should feel free. I suppose the Capital can too but they can do better and should be held to account for publishing lies and smears.


District 18 Senate Battle by the Numbers

By Adam Pagnucco.

Last week, David Lublin broke the news that former District 18 candidate Dana Beyer is planning to run for Senate against Delegate Jeff Waldstreicher.  Both Beyer and Waldstreicher have run three times in the district.  Let’s see how their past performances stack up.

Electoral Results  

Beyer and Waldstreicher first ran for office in 2006 when both ran for the House.  Waldstreicher, aided greatly by the Apple Ballot, won a close contest with attorney Dan Farrington to claim the open seat vacated by Rich Madaleno.  Beyer ran a credible campaign but finished fifth of eight candidates.  Waldstreicher would never be seriously threatened in his two reelection contests while Beyer lost another House race in 2010 and a Senate challenge to Madaleno in 2014.  One fact apparent in the electoral data is that Waldstreicher’s performance has improved over the years while Beyer has consistently received between 5,000 and 5,500 votes.


In 2006, both Waldstreicher and Beyer were primarily self-financed candidates.  Since then, Waldstreicher has successfully raised outside money while Beyer has continued to mostly self-fund.  Beyer’s loans to her 2014 campaign against Madaleno constituted one of the largest self-financing performances in the history of MoCo General Assembly elections.  Drawing on her own money, she is easily capable of matching Waldstreicher dollar for dollar.

Major Endorsements

Waldstreicher has been endorsed by virtually every major progressive group over the course of his career as well as by the Washington Post in 2014 and the Gazette in 2010 and 2014.  Beyer was endorsed by the Post, the Gazette and Equality Maryland in 2010 and by MCGEO in 2010 and 2014.

Beyer vs Madaleno for Senate

In 2014, Beyer ran against incumbent Rich Madaleno for Senate.  It was a steep uphill climb.  Madaleno is beloved by nearly all District 18 activists and is arguably the most prominent Senator in the district’s history other than the immortal Chris Van Hollen.  Despite all of that, Beyer lost by a 58-42% margin, coming closer to winning than many people believed she would.  She outraised the incumbent by more than 2-1 (if you count her epic self-financing), won the precincts in Rockville and Wheaton and was competitive in Silver Spring and Garrett Park.  Her loss was due to Madaleno running up margins of close to 30 points along Connecticut Avenue.  Still, this was a loss and not a disaster.

So what does all of this mean?  Your author agrees with David Lublin and sees Jeff Waldstreicher as the favorite in this race.  He owns most of the advantages that come with incumbency: fundraising capability in Annapolis (especially with those who have business before his powerful House Economic Matters committee), relationships in the district built through constituent service and relationships with many influential progressive groups who have endorsed him in the past.  He is also a hardworking, adept campaigner who has survived three straight competitive elections.

But Dana Beyer will present a real challenge.  She could wind up spending more than Waldstreicher due to her self-funding capacity.  She has shown some strength in the less wealthy parts of District 18.  And she is more than willing to get tough to win, burying Madaleno in waves of negative mail in 2014.  She is definitely going to bring it against Waldstreicher.

This is gonna be one hell of a race!


63 Legislators Ask Hogan Not to Implement Trump Coal Pollution Standards

Trump’s effort to weaken clear water protections from coal are coming home to Maryland. At issue are three coal-fired power plants that would dump toxic waste into the Chesapeake Bay. Under President Obama’s proposed rules, the plants would have had to make improvements to better protect the environment to renew their permits. Trump has ended those protections. Will Hogan go with Trump or the Bay on this one?

Maryland Coal Letter by David Lublin on Scribd