Maryland Needs to Do Much Better to Protect the 2020 Elections

Yesterday, the State Board of Elections made a bad decision. They decided to switch to all-mail voting for this year’s elections (fine) but doing so without putting in standard protections (definitely not fine) taken by states like Oregon that conduct all of their elections by mail:

Board members questioned how the state will verify that ballots are being cast by the actual voters they sent them to. Charlson said the state’s current absentee ballot procedure is to check for a signature.

“We’re not actually looking at the signatures, are we?” asked Howells. “In vote-by-mail states, I think they used software to compare the signatures.”

“Our problem is we are not a vote-by-mail state, so we have no real safeguards built into it,” Cogan said.

The board quickly moved on from the topic.

Read my op-ed piece online now or in the print edition of tomorrow’s Baltimore Sun to learn more on why this is a problem and more generally what the State needs to do to make sure the 2020 elections come off well despite challenges posed by coronavirus. Otherwise, close elections like the upcoming Baltimore City mayoral primary could go bad surprisingly fast.

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MoCo’s Most Influential, Part One

By Adam Pagnucco.

Are you tired of reading about the coronavirus?

Are you tired of staying locked up in your house?

Are you tired of having to fight for toilet paper like it’s the Zombie Apocalypse (strangely without zombies)?

Well so am I, so let’s have fun.  This is Part One of a series.  It’s something we have not done since 2009.  It’s a grand survey, the grandest of all on MoCo’s political stage.  And YOU get to see the results!

We call this event MoCo’s Most Influential.

I have been writing about state and county politics off and on for 14 years and during that time I’ve picked up a lot of sources.  They tell me useful things, like where money gets wasted, who blew up his or her own campaign, who really killed that bill and – nowadays – where toilet paper can be found.  So this time I went back to them with a question:

Who are MoCo’s most influential people in state and county politics?

Here are the rules I sent to my sources:

1.  You may nominate up to 10 elected officials in government who you believe most influence state or county politics and represent all or part of Montgomery County.  This includes statewide officials and officials who represent other jurisdictions in addition to MoCo (like members of Congress).

2.  You may also nominate up to 10 non-elected people who you believe most influence state or county politics in Montgomery County.

That’s right, there are two lists: elected and non-elected.  You get up to 10 nominations for each of them.

3.  You don’t have to agree with your nominees, you just have to believe that they are influential.

4.  You may nominate yourself – if you judge it necessary!

5.  You may provide comments justifying your picks but you don’t have to.

6.  No nominations or comments will be attributed.  No one besides you and me will know how you voted or what you said.  I PROMISE.

7.  Responses are due in two weeks.

A total of 85 people made nominations.  They come from all over the county, from Damascus down to Takoma Park.  A few live outside the county but have business and/or political interests here.  Almost half (40) are elected officials, former elected officials or government staffers.  Thirty-two are women.  They are active throughout the county’s many communities – civil rights, civic activism, progressives, environmentalists, education folks, business leaders and more.  Many of them are household names that would be immediately recognized by every Seventh State reader.  Others operate behind the scenes.  I didn’t get responses from everyone I asked, but on a collective basis, I am confident that these people know this county as well or better than any other respondent pool that could be accessed.

Any one of these folks could have developed a compelling list of influential people all on their own, and most of them did.  But what makes this exercise interesting is that it sums up their cumulative judgment.  To have a large group of influential and knowledgeable people pick the folks that they truly believe are the most influential is quite a thing to behold.

So let’s do some beholding!  Part Two – coming to your inbox soon – will get us started.

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Elrich Sends Budget Letter to the Council

By Adam Pagnucco.

Facing severe crises to public health, the county’s economy and its budget, County Executive Marc Elrich sent the letter below to the county council about the budget.  The main takeaways are:

1. The executive has instituted freezes on hiring and procurement for functions not related to COVID-19 response.  Overtime has also been restricted to COVID-19 response departments.

2. The finance department has begun estimating the crisis’s impact on county revenues.

3. The executive has begun talking to the county’s unions about “a range of compensation issues.”  No further details were provided.

4. Office of Management and Budget Director Rich Madaleno has been designated as the liaison to the council on “issues related to fiscal response and recovery.”  When Madaleno was a State Senator, he was a key player in working on the state’s budget problems during the Great Recession.  Few people in Maryland understand the state budget better than Madaleno.

We reprint Elrich’s letter below.  Bethesda Beat has reactions from some members of the county council.

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Montgomery Leads Maryland in Social Distancing

Unacast has used data from smartphones to grade states and localities on how much social distancing is occurring. Their major measure is change in average mobility based on the distance traveled. So how’s Maryland doing? Overall, we get an “A” on their scoreboard.

Average distance traveled has declined 43% in Maryland. That still leaves us behind the following 14 jurisdictions: DC (60%), Alaska (52%), Nevada (51%), New Jersey (50%), Rhode Island (50%), California (48%), New York (48%), Massachusetts (47%), Connecticut (46%), Minnesota (46%), Vermont (46%), Louisiana (45%), Michigan (45%), and Pennsylvania (45%).

Here are the trends in average mobility as well as the number of reported cases. Remember that the number of reported cases is lower than the number of cases and depends a lot on testing.

There are substantial variations in social distancing by county:

Teal/turquoise indicates more social distancing (“A”) while orange indicates very weak social distancing (“F”). Forest green rates a “B” while army green indicates a “C” rating. No Maryland counties received a “D” rating. Here are the specific numbers for Maryland jurisdictions:

Change in Average Mobility
1. Montgomery (52%)
2. Carroll (47%)
2. Calvert (47%)
4. Anne Arundel (45%)
5. Baltimore County (43%)
5. Howard (43%)
5. Prince George’s (43%)
5. St. Mary’s (43%)
9. Dorchester (42%)
9. Frederick (42%)
11. Baltimore City (41%)
11. Harford (41%)
11. Talbot (41%)
11. Worcester (41%)
15. Charles (40%)
16. Wicomico (38%)
17. Kent (37%)
17. Queen Anne’s (37%)
19. Caroline (33%)
20. Somerset (29%)
21. Allegany (28%)
22. Cecil (25%)
23. Washington (21%)
24. Garrett (4%)

How does Montgomery compare to the rest of the metro area?

1. District of Columbia (60%)
2. Alexandria (55%)
2. Arlington (52%)
2. Fairfax City (52%)
2. Montgomery (52%)
6. Fairfax County (47%)
7. Loudoun (46%)
8. Prince George’s (43%)
9. Frederick (42%)
9. Prince William (42%)
11. Charles (40%)
11. Falls Church (40%)

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Liquor Monopoly Ends Takeout Cocktail Ban

By Adam Pagnucco.

Council Members Andrew Friedson and Evan Glass have announced that the liquor monopoly has ended its ban on takeout cocktails.

Friedson announced the news on Twitter.

Glass announced it on Facebook.

The official announcement from Alcohol Beverage Services appears below.

And here is a link to the application form for licensees.

Thank you to Council Members Friedson and Glass, Comptroller Peter Franchot and everyone else who worked to turn this around!

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Franchot Blasts Liquor Monopoly

By Adam Pagnucco.

After reading our post on the county liquor monopoly’s takeout cocktail ban, Comptroller Peter Franchot has come out swinging against the monopoly.  The Comptroller wrote on his Facebook page:

As your Comptroller and as a Montgomery County resident, this story makes me viscerally frustrated. There is no constructive purpose served by the continued existence of our government-run alcohol monopoly. It is inefficient, costly and unresponsive to the needs of its customers.

Now, at a time when our restaurants, bars and taverns are looking at possible financial ruin as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and are fighting a daily battle simply to survive, we get this tone-deaf ruling from the Department of Liquor Control. By prohibiting the sale of liquor and mixed drinks for carryout and home delivery, the DLC is acting in violation of both Governor Hogan’s Executive Order and a basic standard of common sense.

If there ever was a time for an outdated government agency to flaunt its administrative prerogatives, this certainly isn’t it. Hoping the DLC will reverse this ruling and do everything it possibly can to support our local, community-based businesses. Or, failing that, at least get out of the way while the rest of us help them #KeepTheLightsOn.

Franchot even took out a Facebook ad for this post.  At the moment, his post has 116 reactions, 40 comments and – most critically – 27 shares.  The original blog post has been shared countless more times across Facebook.

With outrage growing against the monopoly, it must lift the ban or face a renewed push to abolish it.

What will it do?

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What’s More Important? The Liquor Monopoly or a Thousand Bartenders?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Battered by shutdowns of dine-in service, restaurants across Maryland and beyond are taking a severe beating.  As a measure of modest compensation, Governor Larry Hogan has allowed restaurants and bars to engage in something unprecedented: takeout and delivery service of alcohol.  That partly applies in MoCo too, but there is a holdup.

The county liquor monopoly.

The monopoly has approved takeout and delivery of beer and wine but not of cocktails and other spirits-related products.  Meanwhile, California, New York, Florida, Colorado, Vermont, Iowa and the District of Columbia allow takeout and/or delivery of cocktails, although they often require them to be offered in sealed containers and only with food.  Governor Hogan’s executive order allows takeout and delivery of spirits too but that is subject to additional restrictions imposed by local jurisdictions.  The City of Baltimore has chosen to allow takeout and delivery of cocktails.  MoCo has not.  Its grant of takeout and delivery authority explicitly says, “This permission does not include liquor.”

Nepenthe Brewing Company in Baltimore advertises takeout cocktails.

The liquor monopoly enjoys a retail monopoly on spirits sales and jealously protects it.  For example, after the General Assembly passed a law three years ago allowing the monopoly to contract with private stores to sell spirits, the monopoly simply refused to enter into any such contracts.  Loosening its retail spirits sales monopoly might damage its profits, which are the only reason it continues to exist.  (Profits are no problem at the moment as the monopoly’s business is booming while folks are stocking up.)

The issue matters because it affects the employment of a key category of personnel in the restaurant industry: bartenders.  Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that MoCo and Frederick establishments together employed 1,410 bartenders in 2017, so at least 1,000 of them work in MoCo owing to the comparative size of the counties.  The two counties employed an additional 2,680 people classified as “dining room and cafeteria attendants and bartender helpers.”  When takeout and delivery is restricted to beer and wine, bartenders are not needed because anyone can handle bottles and cans.  But when spirits beverages are allowed, bartenders are necessary.

Clavel Mezcaleria – Taqueria in Baltimore has an online menu of pre-bottled cocktails.

One restaurant owner who contacted me put MoCo’s cocktail ban in economic terms.  “Maryland allows it.  Montgomery County does not.  Baltimore can sell a margarita to go.  We cannot.  That’s my point. The DLC [liquor monopoly] restricts us again.  If they allowed it I could keep some of my staff employed instead of on the unemployment line.”

So what’s more important?  The continued employment of a thousand MoCo bartenders?  Or the liquor monopoly’s long-time retail spirits monopoly?  County officials, you decide.

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In Crisis, We Must Protect Our Nonprofits

COVID-19 threatens to wipe out our state’s safety net

by Lintaro Donovan

Like millions of Americans, I remember my first day of swim lessons at the YMCA. As I left my grandfather’s grip and waded into the freezing-cold water, two hands gripping the tile sides of the pool, I began to cry. I felt like I would never learn to swim. But learn I did, and, although I am close to 18 now, I still consider myself a perpetual Y-Kid.

Like millions of Americans, I remember my first day of swim lessons at the YMCA. As I left my grandfather’s grip and waded into the freezing-cold water, two hands gripping the tile sides of the pool, I began to cry. I felt like I would never learn to swim. But learn I did, and, although I am close to 18 now, I still consider myself a perpetual Y-Kid.

Through the Y’s swim programs, I found confidence in water and discovered a lifelong, lifesaving skill. Through the Y’s Youth & Government program, I serve as Youth Governor of Maryland and find inspiration to enter public service at every program event. Through the Y’s diabetes prevention programming, I know I’ll find hope as the son and grandson of diabetics. But the COVID-19 Crisis threatens to topple the charity cornerstones of my life and our state.

The complete shutdown in economic activity over the next weeks will prevent many organizations, including my own Youth & Government program, from hosting the events they need to maintain revenue streams and program funding. An inevitable economic downturn will force many Americans to cut their charitable giving for the year short: punching charities in the gut when their services are needed most.

However, there is another staggering economic dimension to the challenge facing our charities. Payrolls in the independent sector are larger than those even in the construction, finance, and transportation industries. Nonprofits like the Y employ more than 12 million people who compose the fabric of their communities. Millions of livelihoods are now at risk of dying out.

Sooner than later, in just Montgomery County could lose their jobs. Maryland might find itself bereft of A Wider Circle, which provides homegoods, counseling, and antipoverty education to families in need. It is horrifying to imagine what my community would look like without the youth and family services provided by the Silver Spring Y or the lifesaving generosity of Manna Food Center.

I implore Congress. Just as our elected officials have stood up for their constituents and defended the common good on countless other occasions, they must fight the good fight now. Nationwide nonprofits have recently released a request for the legislature to allocate $60 billion in relief for organizations on the frontlines of the Battle Against Coronavirus. Congress must ensure that any stimulus package relieving corporations decimated by the current crisis also relieves the nonprofits whose work is so vitally important.

Congress must remember nonprofits when it comes time to vote.

Lintaro Donovan is a student at Montgomery Blair High School.

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Navarro Claims Council Majority for Spending Restraint

By Adam Pagnucco.

Last night, Council Member Nancy Navarro, who chairs the council’s Government Operations Committee, wrote on my Facebook page that she intends to introduce a council resolution on Tuesday calling for major spending restraint in the county’s budget.  Specifically, the resolution calls for a same services budget for each department and agency; holding Montgomery College and MCPS to maintenance of effort (which is the state’s mandated minimum for local appropriations to those agencies); and providing flexibility to assist residents and businesses as well as to revisit spending after the coronavirus crisis ends.  Navarro claims that Council Members Andrew Friedson, Gabe Albornoz, Craig Rice and Hans Riemer are co-sponsoring her resolution.

It’s worth noting that Navarro is the only current council member who was on the council during the budget crisis of 2010.

The resolution does not yet appear on the council’s agenda for Tuesday, but the current text as shared by Navarro appears below.

SUBJECT:​ Options for the Approval of and Appropriation for the FY 2021 Operating Budget Background

1. ​As required by Section 303 of the County Charter, the County Executive sent to the County Council the FY 2021 Operating Budget on March 16, 2020.

2. ​As required by Section 304 of the County Charter, the Council must hold public hearings on the proposed operating budget.

3. ​A new coronavirus disease, called Covid-19, has spread extremely quickly, making its way to over 100 countries, including the United States.

4.​ On March 11, the World Health Organization officially declared the Covid-19 viral disease a pandemic.

5.​ The number of new cases in the United States is growing quickly and has spread to each of the 50 States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the US Virgin Islands.

6.​ To slow the spread of this communicable disease, Governor Hogan issued several emergency orders closing all non-essential businesses, restricting public transit, closing schools, prohibiting public gatherings of 10 persons or more, and postponing the Presidential Primary Election in Maryland.

7. ​Although County government operations are continuing during this pandemic, County employees are using situational teleworking wherever possible to perform their duties. Due to the need to limit person to person contact, many County residents have lost paychecks and many County businesses have lost revenue.

8. ​The Executive was required by the Charter to develop his recommended FY2021 Operating Budget before the most recent events clarified the full extent of the pandemic.

9. ​Considering this unprecedented global pandemic and national state of emergency, the Council must move expeditiously to provide continuity of operations in approving an operating budget for FY2021 that provides additional flexibility to help County residents and businesses recover.

Action​

The County Council for Montgomery County, Maryland approves the following resolution:

1. ​The Council directs staff to develop viable options to streamline our budget process, so that for FY 2021, the Council may adopt an aggregate operating budget for our departments and agencies that reflects a continuation of the services provided at the same level as FY2020.

2. ​These viable options must include funding the Operating Budgets of the County Board of Education and Montgomery College at the required Maintenance of Effort level and should avoid funding any new programs unrelated to relief for County residents and businesses from the Covid-19 viral disease pandemic.

3.​ These viable options should include flexibility for possible future appropriations:

a. ​to assist County residents and businesses to recover from the Covid-19 viral disease pandemic; and

b. ​to provide additional resources for other County programs and employee wage and benefit enhancements, if available, after the crisis is over.

This is a correct copy of Council action.

_________________________________

Selena Singleton

Clerk of the Council

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Hucker, Elrich Stop Takeout Tickets

By Adam Pagnucco.

Within minutes of seeing our post on parking tickets being issued for restaurant takeout pickups, Council Member Tom Hucker asked county officials to stop the practice. When Hucker announced this on Facebook, County Executive Marc Elrich replied, “I just told DOT to stop enforcement until they have put in place pick-up zones around all the restaurants. We don’t want cars parking and not moving, at least as long as some things are open, but you can’t be ticketing people trying to pick up food after having encouraged restaurants to maintain as much service as they can through carry-out and delivery.”

All of this happened in less than an hour.

Elrich and Hucker deserve praise for acting with such speed.

Hucker’s Facebook post, along with Elrich’s comment, is reprinted below.

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