Do you support the findings of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education? Are you committed to funding associated reforms, and if so, how?
James: I support the findings of the Commission, also referred to as the Kirwan Commission. While created several years ago to issue a final report in 2017, the task has proved so massive that only a Preliminary Report has been issued so far in January 2018. I have read the report and its backup material, and note that the Commission has not yet costed out its goals. I support the General Assembly’s first step in securing funds with the passage of the Fix the Fund Act, which will be presented to voters as a constitutional amendment this November and would prohibit governors from diverting casino revenues away from education. According to an outside consultant that provided an estimate on what it would cost to fully modernize Maryland’s public K-12 educational needs, including an increase in the per-pupil funding formula created under the Thornton Commission, it would take another $1.9 billion dollars annually. If that estimate is accepted by the Commission and recommended to the state then perhaps new, but certainly additional, revenues will be needed. The burdens on state revenues are compounded by the fact that the federal government appears intent on repealing or severely undercutting the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and slashing funds for protecting the Chesapeake Bay. Other possible revenue options include expanding the sales tax to e-commerce, increasing taxes on tobacco products, and/or closing tax breaks to corporations that are no longer necessary or whose benefits are outweighed by other priorities, such as education.
Is Maryland’s transportation spending appropriately balanced between roads and transit? Does the state have the resources to meet its transportation needs? With the cancellation of the Red Line and the advent of BaltimoreLink, is the Baltimore region adequately served by transit?
James: In the 1970s, Maryland created a national model for transportation funding by creating the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF). The fund as well as state programs to build primarily roads and bridges were very successful, and many states followed our lead. Since that time, however, more and more mass transit needs have been funded by the TTF, although most of the fund’s revenues come from activities directly related to vehicular traffic, such as the gas tax. Other states have moved ahead of Maryland by creating separate trust funds dedicated to mass transit and funded those separate bodies with revenues more directly related to this type of transportation. They have additionally implemented other revenue measures for these funds, such as sales taxes and local optional sales taxes which appear to have public support in those states. States are also meeting increasing demands for transportation with private public partnerships, which may allow for more transit projects in the Baltimore region. We must look at what has succeeded in other states, as our only TTF is increasingly unable to keep up with demands for mass transit in our urban areas. Finally, I believe that the federal government allows its highways funds to be used for state mass transit projects which could serve as a valuable funding source.
Do you support the legalization of recreational marijuana?
James: I think it is premature to take a final position on recreational marijuana. The state has not yet fully implemented its program for the medical use of marijuana but more importantly to me, Maryland should study the states that are ahead of us on both the medical and recreational use of marijuana. In many ways, states can be the incubators for fresh ideas that are later adopted in other states or at a national level. I agree with Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper’s advice that other states should use caution. Governor Hickenlooper has recently remarked that he would consider banning the recreational use of marijuana again if his state’s rise in crime, beginning the same year Colorado legalized recreational marijuana, proves to be connected.
At a time when the federal government’s commitment to Chesapeake Bay restoration is questionable, what new steps should Maryland take to protect this resource?
James: While the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are integral to the health, economy, and lifestyles of Marylanders, it can only be adequately protected with significant resources from the federal government and a full commitment from all four states that put huge demands on the Susquehanna River which are New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. Each of those states are obligated to work together under the Susquehanna River Basin Compact, which must be fully funded by each state. Even Maryland does not fully fund its obligations, and we should lead by example. The Susquehanna River is the largest contributor of freshwater to the Bay and has the largest impact on the Bay’s health. Without the full support of the federal government and the four states, realistically Maryland cannot restore the Bay on its own. We can attempt to slow some of the degradation of the Bay by continuing to improve our wastewater and sewage treatment plants. Modernizing sewage treatment plants has proven to be the most successful method of improving water quality and the Chesapeake Bay, however some major plants are continuing to violate their discharge permits, such as the Patapsco plant. Maryland must insist on strict compliance with its permitting system.
What steps should Maryland take to ensure the broadest possible access to affordable health care?
James: Maryland was one of the states that fully embraced the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and expanded Medicaid to the furthest extent possible under the new law. Our uninsured rate fell from 10.1% to 6.7% after full implementation of the ACA. If the ACA is repealed or crippled beyond repair, one possible measure to keep the Act working in Maryland is to create a state-level individual mandate which is critical to keeping premiums affordable. Massachusetts did this ahead of the nation, and it is one of the reasons its access to affordable health care has been so high. However, the idea of a state-level mandate has been controversial, so Maryland will have to garner broad public support.
What role should the state play in helping Baltimore address violent crime?
James: We must focus on drug traffickers and those that repeatedly commit violent crimes, as opposed to those that are charged with non-violent drug charges which is more likely a symptom of the need for addiction treatment. The portions of the Comprehensive Crime Act of 2018 eliminating parole for repeat violent offenders and creating stronger sentences for people who commit crimes with a firearm maintain focus on the goal of getting and keeping the worst of criminals off the streets. Because most living in Baltimore want an end to violent crime, the city must do far more in protecting those who want to be witnesses in criminal prosecutions. I have learned how essential it is for authorities to gain expanded wiretap authority due to how sophisticated drug gangs can be at evading surveillance. These measures are needed in the short-term, along with improving the percentage of successful prosecutions, especially when considering crimes with firearms. Foundationally, Baltimore must also come up with long term solutions to the root causes of violence in the city for decades predating 2015. Entrenched poverty, lack of meaningful educational options, loss of job opportunities that can support a family, and a shortage of affordable housing all are underlying reason for violence in the city. Given Baltimore’s limited resources, the state must make resources available while the city must present concrete plans it will be accountable for that will combat the reasons for its high crime rate.
How would you characterize Maryland’s business climate? What can the state do to foster the creation of more family-supporting jobs?
James: The University of Baltimore recently updated its survey first conducted in 2011 asking the same question. In 2011, they found only 22% of business people thought Maryland was business-friendly; this year that number increased to 47%. U.S. News & World Reports still ranks Maryland 8th in the nation in areas such as education, healthcare, infrastructure, and the economy; however, entities like Forbes and the Tax Foundation rank Maryland very low in its business climate rankings, especially concerning state taxes. I believe this is largely driven by our high income taxes (state and local). Because Maryland is not likely to lower its income or corporate tax rates to attract new businesses or cause existing businesses to expand, we must look to enhancing our workforce. For more traditional companies, Maryland is not looked at as favorably, but for more 21st-century jobs from sectors such as information technology, the bio-sciences, and aerospace and defense, the state gets high marks. There is now a gap between jobs that sustain a family and skilled workers that can do these jobs. We need job training/retraining for those that have high school diplomas or college degrees that are not targeted to employers needs, who are most often caught in this gap between education and skills. For future generations, the type of long term approach proposed by the Kirwan Commission is the best way to avoid such gaps in the future.
Do you support the creation of a non-partisan, independent body to draw legislative and congressional district maps after each census?
James: At this time, 37 states vest the state legislatures with creating both the congressional and state legislative districts while 13 other states have delegated their authority, particularly over congressional maps, to either a political or independent commission. What is interesting about Maryland is that while it has adopted some of the traditional standards for creating state level districts (compact, contiguous, and preserving of political subdivisions) it has no requirements or standards for congressional districts. While I am open to the idea of creating a non-partisan commission to draft congressional maps, if that becomes necessary, I would initially support Maryland either adopting a best practice approach or actual legislation requiring the legislature to adopt some or all the traditional standards, and if need be, some or all of the emerging standards (such as a prohibition on the use of partisan data and the need for party competitiveness) when drawing congressional districts.
Does the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights adequately balance protections for police and the public? Should it be changed, and if so, how?
James: The Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights was first passed into law in the 1970s, and from what I have read was in direct response to some extremely unfair treatment of officers in the City in that time period. The bill was rushed through with some language that has created issues over the years. Several years ago a workgroup was put together and resulted in the passage of revisions to the LEOBR which included shortening the time for an officer to retain a lawyer before being questioned, extending the time in which a citizen can bring a claim of police brutality, and adding a non-voting citizen to serve on an internal hearing board to review police brutality claims. I support these improvements and believe they provide a better balance. However, many of the recommendations of the workgroup were not part of the revisions and are probably needed, including giving the police chief the direct authority to discipline officers. I would also support adding an administrative law judge to the hearing board, requiring standards for for the board which would help it make objective and consistent decisions that could be reviewed by an outside body, and having such an outside group review the most serious cases involving police shootings, deaths, and injuries while in police custody.
What strategy would you adopt to address the opioid addiction and overdose crisis?
James: Maryland has never had resources to successfully treat those suffering from drug addiction. The State lacks enough treatment beds, outpatient services, and wraparound services to help people get back on their feet. Maryland also lacks an adequate number of well-trained mental health providers. Many treatment clinics are run by underskilled workers touting how many people they treat instead of how many people they cure. Consequently, there are many in urgent need of care who are put on waiting lists (meaning many go untreated), and many who receive inadequate care causing a revolving door of people going in and out of treatment, but never recovering. The most promising effort I have heard recently is a federal bill by Senator Warren and Congressman Cummings called the Comprehensive Addiction Resources Emergency (CARE) Act, which aims to treat the opioid crisis like the public health emergency it is. CARE will provide $100 billion in federal funds over 10 years, including $4 billion per year to states. At the heart of this legislation is that drug addiction treatment should have complete parity with physical health treatment. Those with physical ailments are not required to continue to suffer on waiting lists to be treated, nor are they told they will only receive 30 days of treatment regardless of whether that limited time will lead to recovery. Drug addiction treatment, and for that matter mental health treatment, should have equal status in terms of health insurance coverage.
What if anything should the state do to address income inequality?
James: It has been unsettling in the US that we are now seeing extremes concerning income equality, and such extremes are becoming the norm. Because incomes for the middle class and working class have remained stagnant since the 1980s and the cost of living has continued to increase, people are now losing buying power and economic security. People are not coming up even, but are actually going backwards in term of wages, salaries, and standard of living. In the meantime the rich are not just getting richer, they are getting significantly richer. The reason for this is discussed in the book Maker and Takers by Rana Foroohar. Foroohar explains how the financialization of America (the trend of finances infiltrating all business) has widened the gap between rich and poor. The richest are not in traditional businesses that make things, but in the business of making money. The financial sector creates very few jobs, and more traditional businesses spend profits in stock buybacks rather than expanding their business and hiring more people. There is also the unstoppable move to automation, requiring that workers continuously obtain new skills to stay ahead. These are global trends and issues, and they are complicated. Certainly, the Kirwan Commission is a starting point as it embraces the need to understand what is necessary for future generations to compete. Maryland should create another similar commission to examine how our workforce can keep pace with these global pressures as a means of mitigating income inequality.
Do the state’s Public Information Act and open meetings laws adequately ensure Marylanders’ ability to exercise oversight of the government?
James: In 2015, the General Assembly amended the Public Information Act (PIA) by adding a compliance board to resolve complaints about fees as well as an ombudsman to try and mediate any dispute relating to the request for public records. It additionally implemented a requirement for agencies to notify the entity requesting information if preparation will take longer than 10 days, and if so by how long, as well as the reason for the delay. These are certainly steps in the right direction. I think how the PIA is operating after the 2015 changes should be reviewed after enough time has passed to obtain feedback to see if additional changes should be entertained. I could see giving the compliance board jurisdiction over all complaints, as well as an appeal process to an administrative law judge, as administrative cases are resolved much faster than circuit court cases which still remains the only way to appeal an agency’s decisions. With regard to open meetings laws, there have been numerous complaints surrounding inconsistencies about when a meeting will be open or closed to the public. Creating clearer standards across all agencies and the legislative and executive branches, with a presumption toward open meetings unless specified exceptions are present, should be implemented.