Archive for the ‘local’ Category

Gerrymandering legislative districts

Maryland's 3rd Congressional District, one of the nation's most gerrymandered

Maryland's 3rd Congressional District, one of the most gerrymandered in the United States

Slate magazine has an interesting article about using computer algorithms to draw, or at least analyze, cogressional and legislative districts.  It includes a slide show with 20 of the most gerrymandered districts in the Union, two of which are in Maryland, which has eight districts.

In Maryland, as in most states, the boundaries for Congressional and State Legislative districts are drawn by the state legislature, which makes it very tempting to draw lines favorable to yourself.  This can be especially problematic in a state like Maryland where one party (in this case the Democrats) control a supermajority in the legislature.  (After the 2010 census the Maryland Court of Appeals threw out the map drawn by legislators and substituted their own, it was that badly done.)   Some states have non-partisan boards which have authority to craft district lines, which leads to somewhat better outcomes.  Voters in California very narrowly (49.5% in favor) rejected Proposition 11 this past November which would have set up such a body in that state.

I’m skeptical if computer algorithms are the best way to draw final legislative districts, though they can certainly help generate ideas and be used to analyze plans.  I think the best route to go would be to create an independent commission with Democrats, Republicans, independents, along with Libertarians and Greens where no party has a majority and something more than a simple majority is needed to agree to a final plan.  They could take cognizance of already existing political boundaries, like county and city lines, along with major natural formations that make sense to use, like rivers.  Such an institution wouldn’t be perfect (nothing here can be, I don’t think) but would be much better than the way most states do it now.

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Mayor of Baltimore indicted for corruption

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon has been indicted for corruption. She is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon has been indicted for corruption. She is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The Mayor of Baltimore, Sheila Dixon,  has been indicted on 12 counts of corruption by the Maryland State Attorney’s Office.  This is the result of a three-year long investigation that resulted in one of the 14 city council members being indicted earlier this week. According to the Baltimore Sun:

Dixon was charged with four counts of perjury and two counts of theft over $500, as well as theft under $500, fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary and misconduct in office. The charges stem in part from gifts she received from former boyfriend and developer Ronald H. Lipscomb, who was also charged earlier this week.

A grand jury indicted Dixon on 12 counts, including four counts of perjury and two counts of theft over $500. She was also charged with theft under $500, fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary and misconduct in office.

According to the Baltimore-area news station, WBAL,

one allegation listed in the indictment said that on Dec. 16, 2004, 15 $50 Best Buy gift cards were purchased with cash by the city. Two were used on Dec. 11, 2005, at the Best Buy store downtown by Sheila Dixon to purchase $237 worth of merchandise, including a PlayStation2 and DVDs.

Baltimore City Hall, a very handsome building

Baltimore City Hall, a very handsome building

The investigation had been going on for three years.  Dixon became mayor in January of 2007 when Martin O’Malley left office to become Governor of Maryland.  She was elected mayor in her own right in November 2007.  Formerly she was a member of the Baltimore City Council, the first African-American female to serve as its president, and Baltimore’s first female mayor. She is Baltimore’s third African-American mayor.

Maryland commission recommends abolishing death penalty

The Free State's excellent flag

The Free State's excellent flag

A 23-member commission set up in Maryland to investigate the death penalty in that state has released its final report; they recommend, by a vote of 13-9 with one abstention, abolishing capital punishment in the Seventh State.  The Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment included five legislators along with lawyers, civilians, and clergy; most were appointed by Governor Martin O’Malley, a death penalty opponent.  It was chaired by former U.S. Attorney Benjamin Civiletti who said the commission recommended repeal rather than reform because “There are so many faults, so many flaws within the system that we could not imagine … ways in which to cure it.”

By a vote of 20-3 the commission found that  racial disparities and differences in how the death penalty is sought from one jurisdiction to the next created significant problems.

The present administration of capital punishment shows substantial disparities in its application based on race and jurisdiction. … These disparities are so great among and between comparable cases that the death penalty process is best described as arbitrary and capricious.

For instance, the chances of receiving the death penalty in Baltimore County is about 23 times higher than the chances of receiving the death penalty in Baltimore City (they are geographically and politically distinct entities).

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger was a member of the commission and wrote a 22-page dissent which seven other members signed.  He says that prosecutors must be able to “reflect the will of the people,” and said regional disparities can be explained by “local rule.” “Different sentences in different counties for the same kind of crime are legal and constitutional,” Shellenberger wrote in the dissent. “Disparities in sentencing exist in each county across the entire spectrum of crimes committed in Maryland.”  He argued that the state should retain the death penalty as a tool to wield against “the worst of the worst.”

The commission reported that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent, saying they found “no persuasive evidence that the death penalty deters homicides in Maryland.” They also found that the additional costs that the death penalty incurs do not bring corresponding benefits.  They estimate that $186 million could have been saved between 1978–1999 if the state had sought life imprisonment without the possibility of parole in lieu of the death penalty.  Of course, they also cited the chance that an innocent person could be executed, despite advances in forensic science, including DNA evidence (which is only available in a minority of death eligible cases).  For a summary of their findings, click here.

Fifteen other states, plush the District of Columbia, have no death penalty; and in many other states it is rarely used.   Efforts to abolish capital punishment failed in the Maryland General Assembly the past two sessions, last year on a tied vote in a Senate committee.  It is expected that the commission report will increase the chances of abolition passing during the 2009 session and will certainly make the debate one of chief interest.

Maryland has carried out five executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1978, two of them since 2000.  Currently five people are on the state’s death row.  Unlike most other states with the death penalty, Maryland does not offer the condemned a “last meal”; he or she is simply served whatever is on the prison menu that day.  For more info, see Wikipedia’s article on capital punishment in Maryland, which has data going back to 1638.

Frank Kratovil is going to Washington

This man is going to Congress

This man is going to Congress

The AP has just reported that Democrat Frank Kratovil has narrowly won the race to represent Maryland’s first congressional district.  No call was possible on election night, after which Kratovil lead 160,915 to 160,000 over Republican Andy Harris.  After the absentee ballots, which normally favor Republicans, were counted Kratovil actually increased his lead to about 2000 votes.  There are approximately 4800 provisional ballots to be tabulated and a few more absentee ballots that were postmarked on or before election day may still trickle in, but they are not expected to alter the outcome.

Frank Kratovil, the elected State’s Attorney for Queen Anne’s County, won every county on the Eastern Shore.  Harris, a physician who represents the Baltimore suburbs in the State Senate, won narrowly in Anne Arundel County and racked up big margins in Baltimore County and Harford County.  The first district is, by far, the largest in the state in terms of area; it covers about 29% of the state, which has eight total districts.  Though the non-Shore portions of the district are small in area, they hold about 45% of its population.  Democrats have a very slight advantage in party registration, but the district is a conservative one, represented by a Republican for 18 years.

Maryland's first congressional district (click to enlarge)

Maryland's 1st congressional district (click to enlarge)

Along with the state’s 6th Congressional District, the 1st District was gerrymandered by the legislature to give Democrats a stranglehold on the other 75% of the state’s congressional seats.  Now that a Democrat has the seat, I would predict that the General Assembly will move more registered Democrats into the district when they redraw the boundaries after the 2010 census, though the 2010 election will be held under the current lines.  (Back in 2000 the Democrats who dominate the state legislature moved many Republican-leaning areas from the 2nd District, then held by Republican Bob Ehrlich, into the 1st District.)  Note that this blog is opposed to gerrymandering or drawing district lines for political purposes and believes that districts should be drawn in a non-partisan way by an impartial body composed for that purpose.

Kratovil is a moderate Democrat who has promised to join the Blue Dog coalition of fiscally conservative Democrats.  He will replace outgoing Representative Wayne Gilchrest, a moderate Republican defeated by Harris in a three way primary.  Hopefully he sticks to his guns and helps get the federal budget situation under control; the narrowness of his victory and a desire to serve more than just two years may help keep him from veering left once he takes office.  Godspeed, Frank.

Why I’m voting NO on Maryland’s slots referendum

Maryland's flag is one of the best in the Union

Maryland's flag is one of the best in the Union

With Maryland certain to cast its 10 electoral votes for Barack Obama in tomorrow’s presidential election, the most controversial state-wide ballot question is the Constitutional amendment that would legalize slot machines at five locations in the state.  The purpose of the measure is to raise tax revenue for education, but, after a lot of thought, I am going to vote no on the amendment and urge my fellow Marylanders to do likewise.

The problems with gambling are well known: gambling addiction, increased alcoholism and bankruptcy, and the potential for increased crime and family problems.  Treatment and response to these issues could cost $228 million to $628 million annually, absorbing some of the revenue the state would gain through legalizing slots.  Liberals and those interested in social issues should note that these challenges all fall most heavily on the poor, both because they can least afford to gamble and because these taxes are very regressive, they take a much larger percentage of a poor gambler’s income than of a rich one’s—and this is after the General Assembly just increased the regressive sales tax by 20%.  There are good reasons why our state Comptroller, Peter Franchot, opposes the measure.

These are bad for Maryland

Don't believe the hype; these are bad for Maryland

Just as importantly, the many promises of the pro-slots side are unlikely to be fulfilled.  The revenue estimates were made before the current economic downturn and are therefore too high.  Additionally, some of those estimates assume that 100% of the money that Marylanders currently spend on slots in neighboring states will be spent in-state if the measure passes, clearly an unreasonable assumption.  The money won’t be staying here in the Seventh State; the biggest beneficiaries of slots will be wealthy, out of state license holders and horse breeders, not our school children and local business owners.  Many stores and restaurants near the gambling locations will suffer, as just about every dollar stuck in a slot machine is a dollar that would have been spent elsewhere.  And the five locations that slots would be limited to under the current measure are not particularly good spots for such devices; it’s quite possible that this amendment is only allowing slots their foot in the door before a future measure will be needed to fix this one and make slots even more profitable.

Fiscal conservatives may want to note that this measure doesn’t just raise an existing tax, or create a new tax; it creates an entirely new industry—that brings with it all sorts of economic and social problems—just so the state can tax it.  And, since money is the most fungible of all resources, in the future this will probably result in a net increase in state spending, since general revenue dollars that otherwise would have been needed for schools will then be free to be spent elsewhere.  Conservatives like me should also be concerned about subsidizing the horse racing industry.  If I were going to give welfare to an industry, it certainly wouldn’t be one that is non-vital and essentially a form of entertainment.

The Washington Post joins me in urging Marylanders to oppose slots.  You can read their editorial here, and they provide additional information about the issue here. See also what the non-aligned Ballotpedia has to report about the measure.

The revenue raised will likely be much lower than advertised, and less than half the profits would go to education in any event.  Besides, it’s immoral to balance the state budget on the backs of the poor with a regressive tax like this.  The biggest gainers if we amend our Constitution for this will be already rich out of state casino owners who won’t have to worry about the problems we’re creating for ourselves here.  Maryland did well to get rid of slots in 1968; let’s not bring them back in 2008. Vote NO on Question 2.

Gilchrest endorses Obama

Outgoing Republican Congressman Wayne Gilchrest (MD-1), who has endorsed Barack Obama

Outgoing Republican Congressman Wayne Gilchrest (MD-1), who has endorsed Barack Obama

One of Maryland’s two Republican Congressmen, Wayne Gilchrest, has endorsed Barack Obama for President. He says “My perspective is that the ticket is Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden that they have the breadth of experience, I think they are prudent, they are knowledgeable. . . . We just can’t use four more years of the same kind of policy that’s somewhat hazardous, which leads to recklessness.”

Gilchrest represents Maryland’s 1st Congressional District and has served in the House of Representatives since 1991. A moderate, generally pro-choice Republican, he lost his 2008 primary battle to conservative State Senator Andy Harris. As I blogged about earlier, Gilchrest has endorsed Harris’s general election opponent, Democratic State’s Attorney Frank Kratovil. A former U.S. Marine, Gilchrest was one of only a few Republicans who voted for a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq last year, a move which many think led to his primary defeat.

Obama gained another GOP endorsement from former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan. Both California (55 electoral votes) and Maryland (10 electoral votes) are considered safe states for Obama.  Gilchrest and Joseph Lieberman are the only sitting members of Congress to have endorsed the other party’s nominee. Though, technically an independent, Lieberman caucuses with the Democrats. Some predict that the Connecticut Senator is likely to lose his committee chairmanship over his endorsement of McCain and speech at the Republican National Convention.

Gilchrest endorses Kratovil for Congress

In Maryland’s GOP-leaning 1st Congressional district, outgoing incumbent Wayne Gilchrest, a Republican, has endorsed the Democrat, Frank Kratovil, in the general election. Gilchrest, first elected in 1990, lost the Republican nomination in a three-way race to State Senator Andy Harris. Gilchrest, for whom I served as an intern for nine months, appears in a new TV ad supporting Kratovil:

Kratovil is the Queen Anne’s County State’s Attorney; Harris represents district 7 in the Maryland Senate and is an anesthesiologist by profession. Learn more about the candidates:

Frank Kratovil: Campaign site, Wikipedia page
Andy Harris: Campaign site, Wikipedia page

Unfortunately, neither candidate has completed Project Vote Smart’s Political Courage Test, which reports candidates positions on various important issues. The race is generally predicted to favor Harris, who has raised about 2.5 times as much as his opponent, though I’ve seen no polling data more recent than February.

Maryland is richest state in the Union

According to a recently released U.S. Census Bureau report, Maryland is the wealthiest state in the Union with a median household income of $65,144; the Free State is followed by New Jersey ($64,470) and Connecticut ($63,422). Here are some other median household income figures from the 2006 American Community Survey:

National: $48,451
Maryland: $65,144

Top counties in the state:

1. Howard: $94,260
2. Montgomery: $87,624
3. Calvert: $84,891
4. Charles: $80,179
5. Anne Arundel: $79,160

But not everything is great in the 7th State.  The survey showed there were an average of 755,000  in Maryland without health insurance between 2004 and 2006 and almost 8 percent of the state’s residents lived below the poverty level in 2006.