Josh Kurtz: Change Maryland?

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There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of revamping state government, as Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced last week that he plans to do.

And if you’re going to have someone look under the hood of the state bureaucracy, Bobby Neall is a pretty good guy to be tinkering with the engine.

So why does something feel terribly wrong about this exercise?

Hogan named the well-liked and widely-respected Neall, the Republican-turned-Democrat-turned Republican who has been a peripatetic figure in state politics for almost four decades, chief of the new and grandly named Office of Transformation and Renewal.

“State government, as it stands today, is unwieldy and needs to be fixed,” Hogan said. “Bobby Neall has the experience, patience, and vision to revitalize our government to ensure that every single agency in the state is running at peak efficiency and that Marylanders are the beneficiaries of high-quality services.”

Neall, for his part, promised to deliver “better quality services at lower prices.”

If you’re a Democrat or a supporter of organized labor, this ought to be raising alarm bells.

No doubt there are some aspects of state government that should be overhauled. The state, for example, uses three different personnel systems that vary from agency to agency. And a study by the Department of Legislative Services this year found that some state agencies are too top-heavy.

Even some liberals have suggested that the portfolios of the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Environment overlap. And does the Department of Aging need to be a cabinet-level agency?

Hogan is undoubtedly sincere about wanting to make government more efficient and customer-friendly, and that’s a laudable goal. But he probably has another motivation: It’s going to make public employee unions, who almost always support Democrats, very uncomfortable. That seems to be an imperative of many Hogan policy initiatives: If he can poke a finger in the eye of Democrats and their allies, it’s a bonus.

Hogan is calling state government bloated, but that’s simply not true, at least as far as the workforce is concerned. In fact, the size of the state workforce at cabinet-level agencies has declined by about 20 percent in the past 15 years – shrinkage that has taken place under two Democratic and two Republican governors.

According to the Department of Legislative Services, executive branch agencies were projected to have just shy of 50,000 workers in fiscal year 2017, which begins on July 1. In fiscal 2009, there were 53,000 executive branch employees. In fiscal 2002, cabinet-level positions were just over 60,000.

Whatever growth there has been in state government employment during that time has been in the higher education sector – from about 21,000 employees in fiscal 2002 to more than 25,000 employees today. But that has coincided with a vast improvement of many University System of Maryland institutions.

Neall prided himself on consolidating agencies and privatizing key government services while he was Anne Arundel county executive from 1990 to 1994. He also cut more than 10 percent of the county workforce.

That has got to hearten Republicans and conservatives who applaud Hogan’s fiscal rectitude. But if they stopped and thought about it, would Neall, the insider’s insider, really be the guy they want to change Maryland?

Neall has been a fixture in the state political firmament since he was elected to the House of Delegates in 1974, at the age of 26. He lost a congressional race to Democrat Tom McMillen by just 400 votes in 1986 (ironically, Hogan appointed Neall last year to replace McMillen on the state Board of Regents).

After his term as county executive and a return to the private sector, Neall was appointed to replace the late state Sen. Jack Cade (R) at the end of 1996. He ran unopposed for a full term in 1998, elected as a Republican, but switched parties a year later after the Senate GOP caucus moved significantly to the right. He was defeated for another term in 2002 by then-Del. Janet Greenip (R) – which, with all due respect to Greenip and the voters who chose her, was a little like replacing Alexander Hamilton with a potato chip.

Since 2004, Neall has been president of Priority Partners, a managed care company for Medicaid recipients affiliated with Johns Hopkins. He has worked for Hopkins in other capacities through the years.

And he has never really divorced himself from state government. Name any dozen important state boards and commissions that have existed over the past 20 years, including transition teams for new governors, and Neall has served on them.

Hogan calls him a close friend. Neall was a confidante of Senate President Mike Miller (D) when he served in that chamber. He is also close to Senate Finance Chairman Mac Middleton (D). House Speaker Mike Busch (D) last week praised the selection of his fellow Anne Arundel County resident to redesign state government.

Then there is Neall’s day job, which he will presumably give up when he launches the Office of Transformation and Renewal in July. Doesn’t Priority Partners have an interest in the potential revamping of state government? Doesn’t Johns Hopkins?

And what about the more than two dozen lobbying clients of Neall’s wife, Marta Harting, who works for the powerhouse law firm Venable, LLP? She earned just a few bucks less than $600,000 from Nov. 1, 2014 to Oct. 31, 2015 representing big energy companies and utilities, health care companies and associations, financial and insurance interests, consumer products companies and a casino. Won’t they also be very interested in the way state government is reorganized?

One well-compensated lobbyist is currently married to a Senate committee chairman. Another is married to Miller’s chief of staff. That’s just the way things work in Annapolis.

Looked at in a certain way, Bobby Neall may be the ideal person to draw up a new blueprint for state government.

But given his long history as a member of the state political establishment, his vast and interwoven network of relationships, his various professional associations and potential conflicts of interest, please, please do not call him an agent of change.


Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily on Capitol Hill. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.