Maryland Politics: Clean Chesapeake Coalition at Odds with Corps of Engineers New Report on Conowingo Dam

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 8.39.29 AM

The 200 million tons of sediment trapped behind the Conowingo Dam is not a major threat to the health of the Chesapeake Bay, according to a three-year study by the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment.

“The study concluded that problems at the Conowingo Dam are not as bad as scientists previously thought,” said Alison Prost, Maryland Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “The dam is one of many sources of pollution throughout the Bay’s drainage area. To clean up the Bay, we must clean up our local streams, creeks and rivers that feed it.”

The study conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers and Maryland Department of the Environment found that 87% of sediment flowing to the Bay through Conowingo from 2008 to 2011 came from Pennsylvania and New York — and only 13% came from the sediment that already rests behind the dam.

The LSRWA study is released as the dam’s operator, Exelon Corp., is on the eve of renewing its license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to operate the Dam through 2060. Exelon helped fund the study.

More pollution from the watershed

”The overwhelming majority of pollution entering the Bay from the Susquehanna River comes not from behind the Conowingo Dam but from the 27,000 square-mile watershed upstream,” Prost said. “That is why we call on New York, Pennsylvania and all the states to implement the Chesapeake Bay Blueprint.”

The study aligns with a cleanup plan mandated by EPA in 2010 – after the Bay Foundation sued the agency to enforce the Clean Water Act. The mandate puts the costs on local governments in the watershed states to reduce the Total Maximum Daily Load of sediment and nutrients that flow to the Bay from local sources. The TMDL places more emphasis on reducing nitrogen and phosphorus than sediment.

“Modeling work completed for this assessment estimated that the sediment loads comprised of sand, silt, and clay particles from scouring of Conowingo Reservoir during storm events, are not the major threat to Chesapeake Bay water quality and aquatic life,” the LSRWA report said. “It is the nutrients associated with the sediment that are the most detrimental factor from scoured loads.”

Conowingo released 42,000 tons of nitrogen, along with 19 million tons of sediment, over a week’s time during Tropical Storm Lee in 2011. The annual nitrogen discharge through the Conowingo without storm events is 71,000 tons.

At odds with Clean Chesapeake Coalition

The findings are at considerable odds with the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, an association of 10 Maryland counties that is challenging the efficacy of the TMDL blueprint — because it ignores the 200 million tons of sediment behind the dam as a significant threat to the health of the Bay.

The coalition advocates dredging the dam as the cheapest way to reduce sediments and nutrients that surge through the dam during storm events. They often cite science from a USGS report (see editor’s note below) that said 40% of the sediment discharge into the Bay from 2002 to 2011 resulted from Tropical Storm Lee alone.

The coalition insists that a multi-state commitment to dredge the dam should be the first priority to increase the dam’s storage capacity — before local governments are forced to pass drastic tax hikes to fund local Watershed Implementation Plans under the mandate.

For instance, tiny Kent County, Maryland’s smallest, would have to fund $60 million to meet its obligation under the mandate. The county’s commitment would amount to nearly 11% of its annual $47 million budget through 2025 and would result in “serious” tax increases in a challenged local economy, said Kent County Commissioner Ron Fithian, who chairs the Clean Chesapeake Coalition.

Spy Interview with Clean Chesapeake Coalition’s Chip MacLeod from September 2014

The Maryland Department of Legislative Services has estimated local governments in Maryland will spend $14.4 billion to comply with the EPA mandate by 2025.

A recent report from the Maryland Public Policy Institute said that 2 million tons of sediment could be removed annually at a cost of $48 million — and would reduce nitrogen at a greater pace than the TMDL blueprint will yield through 2025.

But the just released watershed study says that the benefits of dredging would be “minimal and short-lived and the costs are high.”

“Attempting to dredge the 200 million tons of sediment behind the dam and relocate it safely could waste taxpayer money,” Prost said.

Gov.-elect Larry Hogan Jr. had sided with the Clean Chesapeake Coalition. Timothy Wheeler in the Baltimore Sun quoted Hogan as saying that he had not read the report but questioned its findings, calling the Army Corps a biased source and accusing it of neglecting sediment above the dams for decades.

Dispute over harm from sediment

The coalition disagrees with the conclusion that sediment is not detrimental to aquatic life and blames massive discharges of sediment from the Conowingo for decimating the oyster population in the northern third of the Bay, north of the Bay Bridge, where only 183 bushels were harvested in 2012.

But while the study emphasizes local sources as the greatest threat to the Bay, it does consider the dam’s inability to stop hemorrhages during storm events.

The dam has reached an “end state of sediment storage capacity” and is “no longer trapping sediment and the associated nutrients over the long term,” the study said.

“These additional loads, due to the loss of sediment and associated nutrient trapping capacity in the Conowingo Reservoir, are causing adverse impacts to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem,” the study said. “These increased loads need to be prevented or offset to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.”

CBF says Exelon should be held accountable as a source of pollution

“Exelon should be held responsible for its share of the problem,” Prost said. “The buildup behind the Conowingo Dam is one source of pollution, and the dam’s owner should be accountable for reducing that pollution and its impact on the environment.”

The coalition responded late Thursday welcoming the conclusion that the dam had reached its storage capacity – but cautioned against taking dredging off the table by “a tenuous rush to judgment by federal and State agencies and leading environmental organizations.”

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission, Chesapeake Bay Program and the Nature Conservancy also participated in the study.

The coalition also said that the mandate was drafted on incorrect estimates that the dam was trapping 50% of the nutrient-laden sediment that drains into the Susquehanna from New York and Pennsylvania.

“The Bay TMDL will have to be recalibrated to account for this fact,” the coalition said.

Methods and modeling questioned

The coalition also questioned the methods and the modeling used in the study and pointed to three stakeholders that criticized the study for ignoring a USGS prediction that a storm at the magnitude of Hurricane Agnes in 1972 could most likely occur during Exelon’s 46-year re-licensing period.

“The direct impacts of scour of sediment and nutrients from the Project’s Conowingo Pond during the largest storm events expected during the license period have been ignored,” said a joint statement from Stewards of the Lower Susquehanna, Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper and Waterkeepers Chesapeake to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in September.  “These size storms were not thoroughly evaluated for their potential impact to the ecosystem of the lower Susquehanna River or Chesapeake Bay. Nor were they evaluated with respect to their potential for causing exceedances of water quality standards.”

Those three organizations are directly involved in the stewardship of the lower Susquehanna and intervened in Exelon’s license proceedings in July of 2013 to demand Exelon take action to mitigate damage from the dam.

The coalition also questioned why LSRWA’s model focused narrowly on the sediment flows from 2008 to 2011.

“Models are only as good as the data put into the models,” said the coalition’s lead counsel, Charles “Chip” MacLeod of Funk & Bolton P.A.

MacLeod also expressed concern that Exelon may have influenced the findings by contributing funds to conduct the study.

He quoted a letter from DNR Secretary John Griffin to then Senate Minority Leader E. J. Pipkin in 2013, claiming that Exelon had “made a critical financial contribution to DNR to fill a Corps of Engineers’ funding gap.”

By Dan Menefee

 *Spy Editor Note: It is important to note that the U.S. Geological Survey (USFS) was a partner in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment.

Historic Republican gains in Maryland as Hogan Wins; GOP Picks Up Execs, House and Senate seats

Screen Shot 2014-11-05 at 8.15.29 AM

Larry Hogan Jr. became just the third Republican elected governor in the past 50 years, winning by almost the same 51.5% margin and carrying almost the same number of counties as Gov. Bob Ehrlich, the last Republican chief executive 12 years ago.

Sen. Allan Kittleman became just the second Republican Howard County executive in its history, and Del. Steve Schuh, as expected, kept the Anne Arundel County executive office in GOP hands. On the Lower Shore, Bob Culver defeated Democrat Richard Pollitt, the first Wicomico County executive.

Ex-Secret Service agent Dan Bongino came very close to unseating freshman Democratic Congressman John Delaney in the 6th Congressional District, redrawn to put it into Democratic hands. Delaney, a wealthy former banker, had to put up $800,000 of his own money in the closing weeks to hold onto his seat.

But it was in the Maryland General Assembly that the GOP matched Hogan’s unanticipated victory with unexpected gains — despite partisan gerrymandering by Democrats that sought to cut the GOP’s numbers.

Republicans picked up nine seats in the House of Delegates and two in the state Senate. The GOP will have 52 seats in the 141-seat House, when just months ago their leaders thought they would be lucky to hold onto the 43 seats they currently have, already a historic high number for Republicans in the Maryland House.

Sauerbrey feels vindicated

Hundreds of Republicans gathered for the Hogan victory party at the Annapolis Westin Hotel. Singing and dancing with a live band, hugging and high-fiving, few were as elated as Ellen Sauerbrey, the former House of Delegates minority leader who was almost elected governor in 1994, losing to Parris Glendening by 6,007 votes. Many in the GOP feel she actually won that election if it were not for Democratic vote tampering.

“Twenty years later, vindication,” she said early Wednesday morning. “I think the people have spoken.”

On Election Day, she worked a polling place in Baltimore County where she lives, and people would tell her: “I’ve always voted Democratic, but I’ve had it.”

Dundalk sweep

Clearly, they had had it in Dundalk.

In one of their most remarkable wins, Republicans swept the Senate seat and three House seats in District 6, the Dundalk-Essex area that had always elected Democrats. They also knocked off the longtime chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Norman Conway, on the Lower Shore, and an appropriations subcommittee chair, John Bohanan, in the increasingly Republican St. Mary’s County.

In St. Mary’s, Republican Steve Waugh also ended the 36-year political career of state Sen. Roy Dyson, an education and health committee vice chair who had served 10 years in Congress before he was elected to the state Senate.

The GOP also held onto the Harford-Cecil Senate seat held by Sen. Nancy Jacobs, with Bob Cassilly defeating Mary-Dulany James, another House Appropriations subcommittee chair.

For more detailed coverage of the legislative races, see a separate story.

How Hogan won

Sauerbrey said Hogan won with a strong disciplined message that focused on taxes, spending and jobs. Hogan kept to that message Tuesday night in his victory speech.

“They said it couldn’t be done, but together we did it,” Hogan told the boisterous crowd more used to election night wakes than victory celebrations. “I want to thank [New Jersey] Gov. Christie for bringing in the cavalry.”

Christie, chair of the Republican Governor’s Association, made four visits to the state and funnelled money for ads to boost the underfunded Hogan campaign, which had accepted public funding that limited fundraising.

“Tonight we have sent a loud and clear message to Annapolis,” Hogan said.

Hogan emphasized his willingness to work in a bipartisan way, as he did through his organization Change Maryland, which became the theme and basis of his campaign.

“This race was never about a fight between Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “The voters showed that they were completely fed up with politics as usual.”

“Thanks to you, real change has come to Maryland,” Hogan told the crowd. “Tomorrow, the people of Maryland finally get to take Maryland back.”

He said he will begin “cleaning up the mess in Annapolis and restoring integrity to state government.” He promised to get that government “off our backs and out of our pockets.”

Wednesday he is scheduled to hold a press conference to announce his transition team.

State police protection

After his speech, Hogan spent almost an hour greeting and talking to people left in the Westin ballroom. But one of the sure signs of his new status as governor-elect were the plainclothes state troopers of the executive protection detail who became visible as Hogan took the stage.

Afterward, at least six hovered near Hogan as he worked the crowd, two were with Lt. Gov.-elect Boyd Rutherford, and one scanned the room near Hogan’s wife, Yumi, a Korean American artist. One of the executive protection detail’s black Chevy Tahoe hybrid SUVs waited to transport Hogan outside the Westin, not far from the Hogan-Rutherford bus that he had been traveling in for months.

Many of the newly elected legislators and officeholders traveled to Annapolis to join Hogan in the early morning after their own victory celebrations, relishing the prospect working with a friend in the State House as they took on their new posts.

“It can’t get more exciting than this,” said Del. Susan Krebs, elected to her fourth term from Carroll County.

By Len Lazarick

Op-Ed: What Happens When an Environmental Group Targets a Family Farm

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 2.03.19 PM

Americans ate an average of 60 pounds of chicken last year, about four times as much chicken as they were eating in the 1950s.

Like most city dwellers and suburbanites, we’re pretty oblivious about how our food gets to the dinner table, except for the trip to the supermarket.

Most of our chicken starts in place like the Hudson family farm in Berlin, Md., just west of Ocean City.

In 2010, the Waterkeeper Alliance sued Al and Kristin Hudson for keeping a pile of chicken manure outside one of its chicken houses. The suit alleged that bacteria and other pollutants were running off the chicken litter into a ditch that ran into the Franklin Branch of the Pocomoke River and ultimately into the Chesapeake Bay.

Getting the Facts Wrong

The only problem with the lawsuit was that wasn’t true. The pile seen from a plane was refined human sewage sludge from Ocean City. That’s what the Maryland Department of the Environment determined when it sent inspectors to examine the pile.

At first, they fined the Hudsons, then the department dropped the fine.

But the Waterkeepers plowed ahead with their lawsuit. The case might have generated little attention outside coverage in the Delmarva Farmer or Salisbury Times if the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Maryland Law School in Baltimore hadn’t been helping sue both the Hudsons and Perdue Farms, for whom they were raising the chickens.

This meant that a state-sponsored law clinic was going to court against not only a small family farmer on the Eastern Shore who had to drive a school bus for extra income, but also against one of the largest and most influential companies central to the Eastern Shore economy. Gov. Martin O’Malley eventually got involved.

Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkey

It was this scenario that made me think of a Chinese saying: Kill the chicken to scare the monkey.

In this case, the chicken was Al Hudson and the monkey was Perdue.

That’s what the new 15-minute documentary “Collateral Damage” is about. It is not balanced news story about the two-year lawsuit; it is about how and why it affected a small family running a 300-acre farm.

The film accuses the environmentalists of targeting the little guy to get at the big guy, Perdue. Al Hudson, who provides much of the commentary in the film, says by involving the clinic of the state law school, “I paid to sue myself.”

The involvement of the law school produced one of the most heated debates in the Maryland Senate over the state budget, when senators wanted to withhold money from the law school until they got a report.

That debate centered on academic freedom, versus the use of the law clinic to bully a struggling farmer and a major industry. Gov. Martin O’Malley, generally a friend of environmentalists, sided with the Hudsons; he appears in the documentary.

You could raise a similar point about academic freedom with Capital News Service. It is run by the University of Maryland journalism school and covers major state issues with young reporters whose copy is used by many news outlets, including MarylandReporter.com.

But a major difference between Capital News Service and the Environmental Law Clinic is that inherent in the teaching of journalism is the commitment to balance, airing both sides of a topic fairly. That is opposite to the one-sided advocacy that happens in our law courts.

Plaintiffs continued to press the suit

The Waterkeepers continued to pursue the lawsuit even when they found out it was not chicken manure in the pile. Senior U.S. District Court Judge William Nickerson in his 50-page opinion is fairly astounded that the waterkeepers kept insisting that the pollution was coming from chicken litter when they knew it wasn’t and that they failed to test for it. In the fairly polite language of judicial opinions, Nickerson also basically finds the plaintiff’s expert was making things up, as was another key witness.

hudson_cows
Cows eat on the Hudson farm. Photo copyright SaveFarmFamilies.org

This is not to say that there wasn’t a manure problem on the Hudson farm. The judge found that it came from the 85 to 90 cows and calves on the farm, producing 3,000 pounds of manure a day, not to mention the 150,000 gallons of urine they produce each year.

But the cows are not what interested the Waterkeepers; their target was the vast industrial agriculture complex overseen by Perdue. The judge ruled against them and they lost the lawsuit.

Save FarmFamilies.org

A coalition of farmers and farm organization as well as Perdue, came together to support the Hudsons and formed the ongoing group SaveFarmFamilies.org. The group used some of the money they got from the plaintiffs to pay to produce the documentary.

Lee Richardson, a Shore farmer who heads the group and appears in the movie, told the audience at the Baltimore premiere Tuesday night that the other farmers wouldn’t have supported the Hudsons if they had been doing something wrong. But they weren’t.

Other farmers, Richardson said, are also anxious to work with environmentalists and clean up their acts to avoid the troubles the Hudsons experienced.

Are there problems with disposal of chicken manure and the other polluting byproducts of our appetite for chicken? The solutions have gotten better, but there is a long way to go.

But those solutions don’t run through a federal court in Baltimore, and a lawsuit based on the federal Clean Water Act is a fairly blunt instrument to cure pollution — unless the goal is really to kill the industry in Maryland.

“It’s still a struggle every day,” Hudson says in the movie. “It’s hard to get up and go.”

The family may have won this battle, but one of the key senators defending the Environmental Law Clinic was Brian Frosh, who will likely be the next attorney general. Maryland’s attorney general has major environmental enforcement powers, and Frosh was one of the greenest legislators in Annapolis.

The Eastern Shore farm community is not about to let down its guard. The Hudsons may not be the last attempt to kill the chicken to scare the monkey.

By Len Lazarick

 

Why Brown Could Lose Race for Maryland Governor by Barry Rascovar

Is Democratic gubernatorial nominee Anthony Brown about to blow a “sure thing” in Maryland?

On the eve of the first governor’s debate, is the lieutenant governor “pulling a Townsend” similar to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s implosion in the 2002 governor’s race that gift-wrapped the election for Republican underdog Bob Ehrlich?

To date, the answer is “yes.”

The Brown campaign is badly off-track.

In a cocoon

Its professional staff has hermetically sealed their candidate in a tight cocoon, isolating him from the media and all voters except the most loyal Democratic groups.

They’ve picked the wrong issues to run on. Abortion rights and gun control laws are settled matters in Maryland. Even Republican gubernatorial nominee Larry Hogan Jr. agrees on that.

The pocketbook issues will decide this election — or as advisers to Bill Clinton put it in the 1990s, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Big mistake

According to Patrick Gonzales’ latest poll, the most pressing matters for voters — by far — are the economy and taxes. These are precisely the themes heavily promoted by Hogan and ignored by Brown.

That’s a huge mistake, a giant failure to understand what’s troubling Marylanders.

Brown hired national campaign specialists when he should have turned to local pros. While abortion and gun control still might be dominant issues in Kansas or Georgia, they aren’t in Maryland. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.

Meanwhile, Brown’s handlers have isolated him from the public at large.

Hiding Brown

While Hogan is happy to talk with reporters, Brown runs from them. He’s shielded from the media by his aides.

His handlers even hide Brown from the public in the campaign’s media messages.

And, oh, those dreadful commercials. Harsh. Negative. Hostile. Incendiary. The sky is falling if you vote for Hogan!

It’s a gigantic turn-off for Maryland voters. This is an intelligent electorate. These folks aren’t fooled by misguided campaign propaganda.

Hogan’s message

Larry Hogan isn’t “dangerous” and he isn’t “radical.” He comes across as a likeable, engaging and gregarious fellow with a simple message — let’s get a handle on excessive government spending and then let’s see if we can lower taxes.

Compare that with the Brown campaign’s near-hysterical messages on abortion and gun laws.

During the 2002 campaign, then Lt. Gov. Townsend seemed to get into trouble every time she opened her mouth. Apparently, Brown’s handlers are worried he’d do the same thing if given a chance.

So they’ve sealed him off from the outside world — except for appearances before adoring Democratic crowds where he delivers a stock speech or reads from a prepared text.

With Brown, there’s no sense of humanity, no sense he’s a flesh-and-blood candidate with emotions and feelings. He comes across as stiff, robotic, programmed and unable to think on his feet or engage voters in ad-lib conversations.

Mystery man

With Brown, there’s no innate connection with voters, particularly in the all-important Baltimore region.

Despite serving eight years as lieutenant governor, Brown remains a mystery man to Metro Baltimore residents. He’s the invisible candidate — never seen, never heard from and never known.

Combine that with his lack of a specific program voters can grasp for fixing the state’s economy and averting future tax increases and you can see why Hogan is running close to Brown in the Gonzales poll. (Brown’s government efficiency proposal announced Sunday contains more empty promises: pie-in-the-sky projected savings, sweeping assumptions and few realistic numbers.)

If Brown is going to re-gain the initiative, he needs to do more than take wild, roundhouse swings at Hogan that aren’t coming close to hitting their target.

Brown needs to deliver positive reasons why he’s the best candidate for governor. So far, he’s been a silent campaigner in TV ads, letting others do the talking for him.

That’s not good enough this year.

Deeply Democratic

By all measures, Brown ought to win easily in November. Maryland is a deeply Democratic state.

But if he continues to come across as arrogant, aloof and unwilling to speak directly to ordinary voters and to the media, Anthony Brown could, indeed, “pull a Townsend.”

He might end up handing the governor’s mansion to Hogan.

Audit: Mental Health Administration Failed to Check Patient Eligibility; Personal information Not Secure

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 11.23.51 AM

State auditors found that the State Mental Health Administration found that the MHA failed to:

  • Keep documentation showing patients who received over $16 million in mental health services were eligible
  • Assure timely reviews/audits of provider claims and perform regular bank reconciliations
  • Maintain adequate security over computers and sensitive patient data
  • Keep adequate internal control over cash receipts
  • The Mental Health Administration delivers comprehensive care, treatment, and rehabilitation of individuals with mental illnesses, either through a network of hospital facilities operated by MHA or through community service agencies. MHA spent $788 million during fiscal year 2013.

MHA receives funding from multiple federal and state sources and each funding source can have different eligibility rules. Because of this, MHA must keep detailed records about patients so the funding source is correctly matched to each patient service.

Eligibility documentation missing; important statistics not kept

MHA utilizes an Administrative Services Organization (ASO) to review its mental health services. During fiscal 2013, the ASO paid approximately $16.4 million of State funds for “uninsured” patient care, without keeping documentation showing patients were eligible for the mental health services they received.

The documentation is important because it is the basis for determining who ultimately pays for care: the state, federal government or the individual. This finding was repeated from the previous audit.

In addition, the ASO is required to periodically examine selected providers and supporting documents supporting claims to see if the process is adequate. However, the ASO didn’t target its examinations to a particular kind of claims (uninsured coverage.) Therefore, critical statistics to measure performance related to those claims were not kept.

Untimely audits and bank reconciliations

MHA hired an accounting firm to conduct quarterly independent reviews of provider claims and reconcile a bank account owned by the state and then issue reports of its findings. The Office of Legislative Audits found the quarterly reports were chronically late; from one year to 21 months. These reporting delays adversely affected MHA’s monitoring of the ASO’s payment and reconciliation duties.

Inadequate security over sensitive information

The ASO’s computer system contains typical demographic information for MHA’s beneficiaries, including name, social security number, address, and date of birth. The system also keeps sensitive personal health information, including medical diagnosis codes, prescribed medications, and physician assessments of patient risks, impairments, and substance abuse. OLA found:

Several unnecessary and insecure connections were allowed into portions of the ASO’s internal network, thereby placing various network devices at risk.

Ineffective intrusion detection associated with encrypted data transmitted over 61 ASO internal network addresses.

Third-party networks had unnecessary access to almost all destinations on the ASO internal network via all ports.

Personally Identifiable Information (PII) was not protected against unauthorized use and fraud.

Access to PII wasn’t limited based on a need-to-know principle. Thus, users had unnecessary read and modification access to certain critical ASO files containing sensitive PII for Maryland Medicaid enrollees.

Control over cash receipts needs improvement

MHA did not verify that collections received through the mail, which totaled approximately $741,000 during fiscal year 2013, were forwarded to and received by DHMH’s general accounting unit for deposit. Also, collections received at MHA’s Crownsville Hospital Center were not adequately controlled and verified. These collections totaled approximately $251,000 during fiscal year 2013. This finding was repeated from the previous audit.

By Charlie Hayward

Maryland Schools Losing Ground in Two New Rankings

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 10.54.24 PM

Maryland top officials frequently cite the state having the “best schools in America” five years in a row, based on a report card in Education Week magazine.

But recent ratings from two other sources, the “Kids Count Index” and Wallethub, indicate that the state’s school system still has room for improvement.

“The New Kids Count Index,” a national scorecard published in July by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, ranks Maryland 8th in the nation on education, but 14th on both children’s economic well-being and their health.

Overall in child well-being, Maryland ranked 12th, with Massachusetts ranked 1st in Casey’s “Kid Count Index.” Virginia ranked 9th overall and 10th in education behind Maryland, but slightly ahead of Maryland in economic well-being and health at 11th place.

In this 25th annual Casey index, Maryland improved in all four of the education categories, but declined in three of the four categories of economic well-being.

See the chart below.

Maryland-kids-count-top-and-bottom-834x1024

Wallethub rankings

Wallethub, an online resource known for rating tools conducted two studies suggesting the data be reexamined with different metrics. The website’s study, “2014′s States with the Best and Worst School Systems” ranks the Maryland school system 14th of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

In “Best and Worst States for Underprivileged Children,” Maryland ranks 19th for children that live below the poverty line in Wallethub’s second study.

The first Wallethub study analyzes schools in a “School System Quality Rank” in which data is gathered using various measuring sticks. Virginia ranks 7th in this scale, New Jersey ranks 1st and Massachusetts, 2nd. In the Casey ranking for education, Massachusetts comes 1st and New Jersey, 2nd.

Some areas include “The Percentage of Children Who Repeated One or More Grades” and “Pupil/Teacher Ratio,” Maryland fell two spots with a 16th place ranking. A second division of the study ranks the nation’s schools in an “Education Output & Safety Rank”. This category is used to determine the success of “Producing Students 25 years and Older with a Bachelors Degree or Higher,” “Safe Schools,” and “Low Bullying Incidents,” Maryland also ranked poorly in the 27th position.

Richie Bernardo, the author of the two studies offers a little insight into the methodology used to consider the data, “We use different metrics than some of the other organizations that conduct these types of studies…we take a look at previous studies that have been conducted and see what metrics they’ve weighed, and from there we figure out which ones are important. We don’t just include test scores, dropout scores, graduation rates. That’s not very telling of the quality of the schools…. we included safety metrics … spending metrics.”

Studies like Wallethub’s also reveal that a bigger budget and greater spending isn’t equivalent to better school systems.

“The amount of state funding these schools receive is not a determinate of it’s quality,” Bernardo said. “You’ve got school systems like Alaska who rank #4 in spending, but fall to #38 in overall rank. So it’s less about how much is being spent but how well these dollars are being invested in education.”

Maryland’s consecutive above -average scores often pushes the state ahead of neighboring school districts. These scores offering a preferential perspective of the school system, examining Maryland’s education policies and student performance but excluding factors like student safety and teacher-to-pupil ratio.

While the quality of education in Maryland has been consistent, studies like Wallethub’s are uncovering masked gaps.

“While we praise the school systems that have done well for their students, the overall purpose of our study is not to shame the states that rank below the rest of the country,” Bernardo said. “Rather, we hope to point out their weaknesses, so our lawmakers and school administrators might consider these as areas of improvement.”

By Alexis Webb

Md. Legislators get High Marks from Consumer Group — but not GOP

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 2.48.57 PM

A consumer advocacy group is giving state lawmakers high scores for passing laws in the 2014 General Assembly session that raise the minimum wage and reduce the impact of foreclosures.

The Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, a nonprofit whose mission includes advancing fairness and justice for consumers, also released four-year scores that depicted state lawmakers as generally favorable to consumer issues. Only nine of 47 senators and 46 of 141 delegates got four-year scores lower than 80%.

In 2014, the coalition scored 33 senators and 50 delegates with scores of 90% or better, compared to only two senators and 35 delegates who scored under 65%. The scores were based on seven bills, six of which passed.

Senate President Mike Miller and House President Mike Busch both scored well, with 2014 scores of 100% and four-year scores of 97%. Republicans House Minority Leader Del. Nic Kipke and Senate Minority Leader David Brinkley scored lower, with scores of 62% and 75% 2014 and 83% and 69% for four-year scores, respectively. All of the failing grades were Republicans, except for five Democratic delegates, including House Judiciary Chairman Joe Vallario.

“As so many Marylanders struggle to recover from economic hard times, those lawmakers really stood up for Maryland’s working families, and we’re proud to celebrate their work,” stated coalition Executive Director Marceline White in a press release.

Fifth year rankings highlight minimum wage

This is the fifth year the coalition has completed rankings, and this year it highlighted a bill championed by Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley that raised the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2018 and two bills that will help families who have gone through a foreclosure. Those foreclosure bills cut the amount of time banks can collect mortgage-related debts and that mortgage-related forgiven debts will be exempt from the income tax.

Maryland Business for Responsive Government also included the minimum wage bill as part of its ratings unveiled in May, but the nonprofit advocating for economic development and job creation was on the opposite side of the issue – penalizing lawmakers who had voted for it. Other than that bill, though, the consumer group and business group chose different bills on which to rate lawmakers. The business group ratings were consistently lower, with only one lawmaker scoring 100% and several scoring 0%.

The Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition ratings also included measures to study reducing car insurance costs, ban “ticket bots” that buy up tickets to events before people can, establishing a Consumer Protection Division of the Maryland Attorney General’s Office in Prince George’s County, and a proposed ban on retailers using tracking technology on customer’s phones to track shopping behavior unless notice is posted. That ban was the only legislation scored that did not pass.

‘Consumer Heroes’

Seven “Consumer Heroes” were recognized in the ratings for earning perfect marks between 2011 and 2014. Those included: Sens. Richard Madaleno, Paul Pinsky, and Jim Rosapepe along with Dels. Al Carr, Bill Frick, Barbara Frush, and Carolyn Howard.

Madaleno, D-Montgomery, and Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, both fought on the Senate floor for the minimum wage bill to be expanded, Madaleno by increasing the wage earlier and Pinsky by suggesting an increase for the wage for tipped workers. Neither was successful.

Though the coalition scorecard was overwhelmingly glowing in its review of the legislature, White said there was more work to be done to increase protections from unfair debt collection and ensure paid sick leave for all workers.

By Meg Tully

Attorneys General Ask Feds for Help in Blocking Illegal Telemarketing

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 11.15.33 PM

Tired of all those robocalls that show up as “Unavailable” on your caller-ID, tout “your last chance to reduce your credit rates” or maybe offer free cruise trips with who knows what as part of the deal?

The federal do-not-call list was supposed to stop these calls, but they persist and have even been hitting once off-limits cell phone numbers.

On Tuesday, Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler and 33 other state attorneys general from around the nation wrote to the Federal Communications Commission asking it to clarify the federal law that the phone companies say prohibit them from using technology to block illegal telemarketing.

The letter from the 34 AGs said that last year at a U.S. Senate hearing “representatives from US Telecom Association and CTIA-The Wireless Association testified that legal barriers prevented carriers from implementing advanced call-blocking technology to reduce the number of unwanted telemarketing calls.”

In the letter, the attorneys general ask how, when and under what circumstances could the phone companies legitimately use available technology to block calls.

“State law enforcement officials are doing everything possible to track down and prosecute those that engage in illegal telemarketing,” the letter said. “However, law enforcement cannot fight this battle alone. Call-blocking technology like NoMoRobo, Call Control, and Telemarketing Guard appears to be the first major advancement towards a solution.”

Seeking clarity

Gansler said: “We are seeking clarity on behalf of all Marylanders who simply want these irritating and unsolicited calls to stop. We must break through the confusion and harness the technology that exists to protect consumers.”

The attorney general’s office handles consumer complaints in Maryland. Alan Brody, a spokesman for the office, said it averages about 30 calls a month on telemarketing issues, and six emails.

Brody said turning these calls into complaints to be investigated is difficult because the telemarketers often use “shadow numbers” and their companies are difficult to identify. When consumers start asking questions about the source of the call, the telemarketers are trained to hang up.

Brody said the technology is so sophisticated that it is difficult to track down anyone to make a conviction.

In one case, a scam artist was using the main number of the attorney general’s office as the shadow number.

By Len Lazarick
Maryland Reporter

GOP Poll Show Tight Race For Governor

Brown-Hogan-Charletwon-forum-620x350

Polpic

The Maryland Republican Party released a poll Friday on the race for governor showing Democrat Anthony Brown at 45% and Republican Larry Hogan at 42%.

There’s been a lot of chatter recently about internal polls showing the race tightening to single digits. But this is the first publicly released poll that includes breakdowns and methodology. Admittedly it is a partisan poll done by Republican pollster Wes Anderson, a national pollster who happens to live in Anne Arundel County.

Anderson called the results “shocking and not really something we expected to see.” Political science professor Todd Eberly analyzes the results below the charts.

He attributes it to a “minor anti-tax revolt,” and not necessarily the Hogan campaign, because the candidate is doing better against Brown than Hogan’s favorability numbers. “There is no evidence the state is becoming strongly conservative,” Anderson said. “The state is experiencing a bit of sticker shock.”

Righttrack

Here are the full results of this survey as released by the party, and here is Anderson’s memo interpreting the results.

Anderson concludes: “If the election were held today there is little doubt that the margins would be close. Given the anti-tax attitudes among a sizable majority of undecided voters, it would likely be too close to call. If he can successfully communicate his anti-tax message to Maryland’s voters [Hogan] will be in good position to pull off the upset.”

The poll taken last week does differ significantly from independent polls taken several months ago showing Brown with a strong lead, before the primary and recent economic reports.

MarylandReporter.com will publish any other polls that are released — independent, partisan or from the campaigns — if they include the questions, methodology, and geographic and demographic breakdowns.

 

MarylandReporter.com by Len Lazarick

 

Gun Wars: Wicomico Co. Sheriff Among Many Who Won’t Enforce Some Gun Bans

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 1.23.25 PM

Sheriff Mike Lewis considers himself the last man standing for the people of Wicomico County.

“State police and highway patrol get their orders from the governor,” the Maryland sheriff said. “I get my orders from the citizens in this county.”

With more states passing stronger gun control laws, rural sheriffs across the country are taking the meaning of their age-old role as defenders of the Constitution to a new level by protesting such restrictions, News21 found.

Some are refusing to enforce the laws altogether.

Sheriffs in states like New York, Colorado and Maryland argue that some gun control laws defy the Second Amendment and threaten rural culture, for which gun ownership is often an integral component.

They’re joined by groups like Oath Keepers and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, both of which encourage law enforcement officers to take a stand against gun control laws.

The role of a sheriff

Lewis and some other sheriffs across the nation, most of them elected by residents of their counties, say their role puts them in the foremost position to stand up to gun laws they consider unconstitutional.

“The role of a sheriff is to be the interposer between the law and the citizen,” said Maryland Delegate Don Dwyer, an Anne Arundel County Republican. “He should stand between the government and citizen in every issue pertaining to the law.”

While the position of sheriff is not found in the U.S. Constitution, it is listed in state constitutions: Part VII of Maryland’s, for instance, Article XIV of Colorado’s, Article XV of Delaware’s, and ARTICLE XIII of New York’s. Nearly all of America’s 3,080 sheriffs are elected to their positions, whereas state and city police are appointed.

When Lewis was president of the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association, he testified with other sheriffs against the state’s Firearms Safety Act (FSA) before it was enacted in 2013. One of the strictest gun laws in the nation, the act requires gun applicants to supply fingerprints and complete training to obtain a handgun license online. It bans 45 types of firearms, limits magazines to 10 rounds and outlaws gun ownership for people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility.

After Lewis opposed the legislation, he said he was inundated with emails, handwritten letters, phone calls and visits from people thanking him for standing up for gun rights. He keeps a stuffed binder in his office with the laminated notes.

“I knew this was a local issue, but I also knew it had serious ramifications on the U.S. Constitution, specifically for our Second Amendment right,” said Lewis, one of 24 sheriffs in the state. “It ignited fire among sheriffs throughout the state. Those in the rural areas all felt the way I did.

Some New York sheriffs won’t enforce bans

In New York, the state sheriff’s association has publicly decried portions of the SAFE Act, legislation that broadened the definition of a banned assault weapon, outlawed magazines holding more than 10 rounds and created harsher punishments for anyone who kills a first-responder in the line of duty. The act was intended to establish background checks for ammunition sales, although that provision hasn’t taken effect.

A handful of New York’s 62 sheriffs have vowed not to enforce the high-capacity magazine and assault-weapon bans. One of the most vocal is Sheriff Tony Desmond of Schoharie County, population 32,000. He believes his refusal to enforce the SAFE Act won him re-election in 2013.

“If you have an (assault) weapon, which under the SAFE Act is considered illegal, I don’t look at it as being illegal just because someone said it was,” he said.

Desmond’s deputies haven’t made a single arrest related to the SAFE Act. Neither has the office of Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum of Ulster County. Van Blarcum said it’s not his job to interpret the Constitution, so he’ll enforce the law. But he said police should use discretion when enforcing the SAFE Act and determining whether to make arrests, as they do when administering tickets.

In Otsego County, New York, population 62,000, Sheriff Richard Devlin takes a similar approach. He enforces the SAFE Act but doesn’t make it a priority.

“I feel as an elected official and a chief law enforcement officer of the county it would be irresponsible for me to say, ‘I’m not going to enforce a law I personally disagree with,’” he said. “If someone uses a firearm in commission of a crime, I’m going to charge you with everything I have, including the SAFE Act. I won’t do anything as far as confiscating weapons. We’re not checking out registrations. People that are lawfully using a firearm for target shooting, we’re not bothering those people.”

Colorado made national headlines when 55 of the state’s 62 sheriffs attempted to sign on as plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of several 2013 gun control bills in the state. The most-controversial measures banned magazines of more than 15 rounds and established background checks for private gun sales.

A federal judge said the sheriffs couldn’t sue as elected officials, so Weld County Sheriff John Cooke and eight other sheriffs sued as private citizens. Cooke was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, which a federal district judge threw out in June. He and the other plaintiffs are preparing an appeal.

“It’s not (the judge’s) job to tell me what I can and can’t enforce,” Cooke said. “I’m still the one that has to say where do I put my priorities and resources? And it’s not going to be there.”

Cooke has won fans with his opposition. He, like Wicomico County Sheriff Lewis, keeps a novel-thick stack of praise and thank-you notes in his office. He’ll run for a Colorado Senate seat in November and is endorsed by the state’s major gun lobby, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners.

Wicomico Sheriff Lewis vs. Sen. Brian Frosh

Lewis, who is running for re-election this year, said sheriffs have a responsibility to push against what he sees as the federal government’s continual encroachment on citizens’ lives and rights.

“Where do we draw a line?” he asked. “I made a vow and a commitment that as long as I’m the sheriff of this county I will not allow the federal government to come in here and strip my law-abiding citizens of the right to bear arms. If they attempt to do that it will be an all-out civil war. Because I will stand toe-to-toe with my people.”

But Montgomery County Sen. Brian Frosh, Democratic floor leader of Maryland’s FSA and a strong gun-control advocate, said Lewis’ understanding of a sheriff’s role is flawed.

“If you are a sheriff in Maryland you must take an oath to uphold the law and the Constitution,” said Frosh, now the Democratic nominee for Maryland attorney general. “You can’t be selective. It’s not up to a sheriff to decide what’s constitutional and what isn’t. That’s what our courts are for.”

Bronx County, New York, Sen. Jeffrey Klein, who co-sponsored the SAFE Act, agreed that sheriffs who refuse to enforce laws they disagree with are acting out of turn. Constitutional sheriffs are not lawyers or judges, Frosh said, which means they are following their convictions instead of the Constitution.

“We had lots of people come in (to testify against the bill) and without any basis say, ‘This violates the Second Amendment,’” Frosh said. “They can cite the Second Amendment, but they couldn’t explain why this violates it. And the simple fact is it does not. There is a provision of our Constitution that gives people rights with respect to firearms, but it’s not as expansive as many of these people think.”

But sheriffs have the power to nullify, or ignore, a law if it is unconstitutional, Maryland Delegate Dwyer said. He said James Madison referred to nullification as the rightful remedy for the Constitution.

“The sheriffs coming to testify on the bill understood the issue enough and were brave enough to come to Annapolis and make the bold stand that on their watch, in their county, they would not enforce these laws even if they passed,” said Dwyer, who lost a reelection bid after his conviction and jail time for drunken driving and drunken boating. “That is the true role and responsibility of what the sheriff is.”

Rural versus urban divide

Some rural sheriffs argue that gun control laws are more than just unconstitutional— they’re unnecessary and irrelevant. In towns and villages where passers-by stop to greet deputies and call local law enforcement to ask for help complying with gun laws, they say, firearms are less associated with crime than they are with a hunting and shooting culture that dates back to when the communities were founded.

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 1.22.51 PMEdward Amelio, a deputy in Lewis County, New York, shares that sentiment. There’s no normal day for Amelio, who has patrolled the 27,000-person county for eight years. But he usually responds to domestic disputes, burglaries and car accidents. That’s why he considers the SAFE Act unnecessary.

“We issue orders of protection and some contain a clause the judge puts in there saying a person’s guns are to be confiscated,” Amelio said. “That’s mostly when we deal with guns.”

Zachary Reinhart, a deputy sheriff in Schoharie County, New York, said he responds to a wide variety of calls, too.

“Our calls range from accidental 911 dials to domestic disputes to bar fights,” he said. “You can’t really typify a day at the Schoharie County Sheriff’s Office. It’s all pretty helter-skelter.”

Violent crime also isn’t common in Wicomico County, Maryland, where Lewis is sheriff. He receives daily shooting reports from the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, which are not available for public disclosure.

“You always see ‘nothing to report’ in the eastern region, in the southern region, in the northern region, in the western region,” Lewis said. “But the Baltimore central region? Homicide after homicide after homicide.”

Even though there are few gun crimes in rural areas, Sheriff Michael Carpinelli in Lewis County argues that people need guns for self-defense.

“People rely on the police in an urban environment to come and protect you all the time,” he said. “People who live in a rural area also rely upon the police, but they realize that they live further out from those resources and that they may have to take action themselves.”

Duke law professor Joseph Blocher said gun culture has varied in urban and rural areas for centuries.

“It has long been the case that gun use and ownership and gun culture are concentrated in rural areas. whereas support for gun control and efforts to curb gun violence are concentrated in urban areas,” he said. “In the last couple decades we’ve moved away from that towards a more-centralized gun control.”

Lewis bemoaned lawmakers who craft gun-control legislation but are ignorant about guns. “They have no idea between a long gun and a handgun,” he said. “Many of them admittedly have never fired a weapon in their lives.”

But Klein, the Bronx County senator, said he does understand the gun and hunting culture in upstate New York.

“Growing up, my father was in the military,” Klein said. “When I was younger, I had a .22-caliber gun. In the past, I’ve gone pheasant hunting, quail hunting. It’s great,” he said. “I mean, there’s nothing that we do in Albany, especially with the SAFE Act, that in any way takes away someone’s right to own a gun for hunting purposes.”

Oath Keepers and Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association

If former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack had it his way, there wouldn’t be a single gun control law in the U.S.

“I studied what the Founding Fathers meant about the Second Amendment, the right to keep and bear arms, and the conclusion is inescapable,” said Mack, the founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA). “There’s no way around it. Gun control in America is against the law.”

He knows his no-compromise stance has cost him and the CSPOA the support of some sheriffs and law enforcement organizations around the country. And it’s resulted in civil rights agencies labeling CSPOA an anti-government “patriot group.”

But Mack, the former sheriff in eastern Arizona’s rural Graham County, is not letting up. His conviction is central to the ideology of CSPOA, which he founded in 2011 to “unite all public servants and sheriffs, to keep their word to uphold, defend, protect, preserve and obey” the Constitution, according to his introduction letter on the association’s website.

CSPOA also has ties to Oath Keepers, an organization founded in 2009 with a similar goal to unite veterans, law enforcement officers and first-responders who pledge to keep their oath to “defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Mack serves on the Oath Keepers Board of Directors.

Oath Keepers is larger and farther-reaching than CSPOA, with active chapters in 48 states and the District of Columbia, and an estimated national membership of 40,000. Its website features a declaration of “orders we will not obey,” including those to disarm Americans, impose martial law on a state and blockade cities.

CSPOA grabbed media attention in February with a growing list of sheriffs — 484 as of late July — professing opposition to federal gun control. Detailed with links beside each name, the sheriffs’ stances run the gamut from refusals to impose a litany of federal and state gun-control laws, to vague vows to protect their constituents’ Second Amendment rights, to law critiques that stop short of promising noncompliance.

Only 16 of those 484 are listed as CSPOA members.

Too radical for some sheriffs, officers

Some sheriffs perceive Oath Keepers and CSPOA as too radical to associate with. Desmond, of Schoharie County, New York, is known around his state for openly not enforcing provisions of the SAFE Act that he considers unconstitutional. Still, he’s not a member of either organization.

“I understand where they are, I guess, but I just have to worry right here myself,” Desmond said. “I don’t want to get involved with somebody that may be a bit more proactive when it comes to the SAFE Act. I want to have the image that I protect gun owners, but I’m not fanatical about it.”

Mack is familiar with that sentiment. He suspects it’s hindered the growth of CSPOA.

“This is such a new idea for so many sheriffs that it’s hard for them to swallow it,” Mack said. “They’ve fallen into the brainwashing and the mainstream ideas that you just have to go after the drug dealers and the DUIs and serve court papers — and that the federal government is the supreme law of the land.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights nonprofit that classifies and combats hate and extremist groups, included both CSPOA and Oath Keepers on its list of 1,096 anti-government “patriot” groups active in 2013. Both groups have faced criticism for their alleged connections to people accused of crimes that range from possessing a live napalm bomb to shooting and killing two Las Vegas police officers and a bystander in June.

Media representatives from the Southern Poverty Law Center did not return phone calls and emails requesting comment.

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 1.21.57 PMFranklin Shook, an Oath Keepers board member who goes by the pseudonym “Elias Alias,” said the organization doesn’t promote violence, but rather a message of peaceful noncompliance.

“What Oath Keepers is saying is … when you get an order to go to somebody’s house and collect one of these guns, just stand down,” Shook said. “Say peacefully, ‘I refuse to carry out an unlawful order,’ and we, the organization, will do everything in our power to keep public pressure on your side to keep you from getting in trouble for standing down. That makes Oath Keepers extremely dangerous to the system.”

The future of gun control laws

Self-proclaimed constitutional sheriffs hope that courts will oust gun control measures in their states — but they recognize that may not happen. Lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of gun control legislation in Maryland, New York and Colorado have been, for the most part, unsuccessful.

In New York, five SAFE Act-related lawsuits have yielded few results: One lawsuit resulted in an expansion of the magazine limit from seven rounds to 10, but the rest of the measures were thrown out and are awaiting appeal; a similar lawsuit was stayed; a third was thrown out and denied appeal; and two additional lawsuits have been combined but are stagnating in court.

Plaintiffs in the Colorado sheriff lawsuit are preparing to appeal the decision of a federal district judge who in June upheld the constitutionality of the 2013 gun control laws.

In Maryland, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Blake last week upheld Maryland’s new bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.

By Marlena Chertock, Emilie Eaton, Jacy Marmaduke and Sydney Stavinoha, Marlena Chertock, the lead writer on this story, is a journalism graduate of the University of Maryland.  Emilie Eaton is a News21 Hearst Fellow. Jacy Marmaduke is a News21 Peter Kiewet Fellow. Sydney Stavinoha is an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation News21 Fellow.