Josh Kurtz: Taking Care of Business (And Taking Care of Teachers)

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By: Josh Kurtz 

“Mike and Mike in the Morning,” the popular sports talk show on ESPN Radio, has been around since 1998. That’s only slightly longer than the “Mike and Mike in Annapolis” show, which debuted in late 2002.

The principals in the Maryland version, like those on the air, frequently disagree. And even when they’re in accord, their starkly different styles and backgrounds are always on vivid display.

Senate President Mike Miller (D) is a master strategist. Even though he presides over a chamber that’s institutionally more free-wheeling, he rules with an iron fist. He’s the ultimate dealmaker, without discernible ideological moorings, though even in this modern era he retains a touch of the old Dixiecrat.

House Speaker Mike Busch (D), with a chamber that’s three times as big, has the harder job in many respects, though outwardly at least, his governing style is a lot more permissive and laid back. He’s a decent guy through and through, and rarely seems quick to anger. He has edged more to the left through the years, along with his caucus, but remains at his core a compassionate moderate.

This year, for maybe the first time, the two Mikes came together on an agenda before the legislative session even started, centered on boosting economic development and Maryland’s business climate.

The push to reduce the state’s estate tax has gotten the most headlines, but the agenda includes less controversial items, like launching a fund to help start-up cybersecurity companies, creating a commission to examine the state’s economic development programs, and requiring improved transparency on state tax forms, to show how tax dollars are being spent.

Other measures to provide tax credits for an array of business-oriented initiatives have passed the Senate and seem likely to make it out of the House in this final week of the session.

When they unveiled their package of bills earlier this year, both Miller and Busch were quick to say how competitive the state already is in today’s global economy, and Busch also praised Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) for making “strategic economic investments during this time to enable us to think more broadly about the future.”

Without a doubt, the Mikes’ pro-business agenda is sincere and, in most cases, defensible. But there’s an undeniable element of election year politics at work here.

Every election cycle, it seems, Democratic legislative leaders in Maryland ask their members to think and behave a little bit like Republicans. Taking care of business is good politics for Democratic moderates representing conservative areas, who have had to choke down tax increases and the march of social progress (gay marriage, DREAM Act, etc.) over the past few years. Every election cycle, Democratic leaders remind the liberal rank-and-file that they wouldn’t enjoy their large majorities in Annapolis without the cushion party moderates provide them. No doubt that’s true.

But there is faulty logic at work here. Democrats in Maryland are always on the defensive about the state of the state’s business and tax climate, as business leaders often fault O’Malley and the legislature for charting too liberal a course.

Lost in that argument is the fact that Maryland remains one of the nation’s most prosperous states by any measure, with an abundance of profitable corporations and federal agencies and installations representing the backbone of the economy. And with the high-achieving schools in Maryland, employers have readier access to a well-educated and well-rounded workforce than their counterparts in most other states do.

Would a state with a hostile business climate roll back an estate tax that will benefit millionaires (for a terrific evisceration of the measure, see Dan Rodricks’ Baltimore Sun column of March 27)? Or push through a tax break for Lockheed Martin? Or adopt a transportation and infrastructure spending plan that most statewide and regional business organizations lobbied for? Or offer ample tax breaks to billionaire casino owners? Or work hard to nurture myriad high-tech businesses?

If this state were truly the liberal laboratory some business leaders and conservatives complain that it is (a notion most Democrats lamely fail to adequately push back on), the legislature would have approved the 40 percent renewable fuel standard that went nowhere during this year’s session. Maryland, like Vermont, would be on its way to adopting single-payer health care instead of propping up a broken health care exchange system designed to keep insurance companies in business. If Maryland were truly a model of reform, the state would have public financing for legislative elections, to limit the influence of big money in our political process.

Maybe if there were a functional Republican Party in Maryland, the Democrats’ jitters about serving business would be a little more understandable. Many businesses entities ultimately get behind the Democrats in the state to one degree or another simply because that’s where the power lies.

So take a victory lap over this legislative session, business community. No doubt you’ll be tuning in to the “Mike and Mike in Annapolis” show for at least a few years more.

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Saturday’s stormy weather was a pain for politicians hoping to go door-to-door, but for one powerful Maryland political entity it was something of a blessing: The Maryland State Education Association held a day of phone-banking throughout the state, promoting Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) and its other preferred candidates.

The teachers’ union is always a powerful player in state and local elections, but this year it has added a little more muscle: MSEA has hired seven regional political organizers to augment the political operations at its Annapolis headquarters.

“We made the determination that our members have greater influence not just at the top of the ballot, but up and down the ballot, in all 383 races taking place across the state,” said Sean Johnson, MSEA’s assistant executive director and chief political strategist. “This is a way to make us even more relevant.”

Through the November election, the statewide union will have one operative in Montgomery County, one in Prince George’s, one covering the three Southern Maryland counties, one covering Anne Arundel County and the Eastern Shore, one for Baltimore and Harford counties, one for Carroll and Howard counties, and one for Frederick County and points west. The union does not have an organizer in Baltimore City because the teachers there are represented by an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, rather than the National Education Association – though MSEA has members who live in the city and are helping candidates there with union support.

The regional organizers are supplementing the political and organizing work of the local MSEA affiliates, helping to get teachers involved in the state and local political process like never before.

“We think it’s a great opportunity for us to engage our members in a different way,” said Barbara Hueter, political director for the Montgomery County Education Association.

Johnson and Hueter said the union is also thinking beyond Election Day. The point of getting teachers engaged is to make sure they develop skills they can use year-round and continue to fight for their priorities outside of election season.

While the union will “clearly measure success by wins and losses of our candidates” in the June primaries and in the fall, the “building opportunities,” Johnson said, are immeasurable.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

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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.