Kojo looks back on the local impact of Dick Gregory, the legendary comedian and civil rights activist who adopted Washington as his home town.
Virginia’s firebrand attorney general is primed to announce a run for governor, which may spark intra-party warfare. Walmart’s plans for the District pose a challenge to the city’s allegiance to Safeway. And Maryland’s governor begins pushing an ambitious agenda for next year’s session in Annapolis. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies, and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
- Tom Sherwood Resident Analyst; NBC 4 reporter; and Columnist for the Current Newspapers
- George Barker Member, Virginia State Senate (D- Dist. 39- Fairfax / Prince William)
- Peter Franchot Maryland State Comptroller; Former Maryland State Delegate (D-Dist. 20)
Politics Hour Extra
irginia state senator George Barker (D-District 39) says that the Democrats in the senate will go to court on the issue of power-sharing to clarify the Lieutenant governor’s role in organizing the senate. Barker says this issue is not clear in the constitution:
Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot answers questions about why he has consistently opposed bringing in new casinos, and specifically slot machines, in to the state even when it is politically unpopular:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Politics Hour," starring Tom Sherwood. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for the Current Newspapers. He is on assignment right now. Tom Sherwood joins us by telephone. He is in front of the home of Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. Tom Sherwood, thank you for joining us.
MR. TOM SHERWOODKojo, I'm sorry I'm not there in the studio, but we're having quite a scene after a morning out here in Northeast Washington on 17th Street.
NNAMDIAll of the reports we've been seeing indicated that FBI agents apparently went to the home of Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. this morning. What else can you tell us?
SHERWOODI can tell you that right now, as this has been going on for about four hours --but, right now, there's a huge -- it's about to pull out. In fact, I'm going to have to move out of the street where it is. It's towing away a racing bike. It looks like an orange and black racing motorcycle and a late-model Chevy Tahoe. They've taken both. They took the motorcycle from the garage and the Tahoe from the driveway of Tommy Thomas. He lives in a little cul-de-sac of nine pretty modern homes. But the FBI has been here with the treasury agents since early this morning.
SHERWOODThey've been going through the house and through the cars, taking out the various documents and taking lots of photographs. Now, this is -- we've all been kind of expecting something to happen. This is one of the three investigations -- sorry, somebody just yelled at me 'cause I got in their way. But Tommy Thomas for allegedly misusing $300,000 in city money for his own purposes, and then there's, of course, the investigation into the mayor's campaign. And there's an investigation into the Kwame Brown's 2008 campaign.
SHERWOODSo we've got a lot of U.S. attorney investigation going on, but this is the biggest public event in any of those three investigations, the actual raiding of someone's home by the FBI.
NNAMDIAnd, as you pointed out, it is not totally unexpected, especially after Councilman Harry Thomas Jr. agreed to repay the city more than $300,000. But has the councilmember himself either put in an appearance or spoken to the media today at all?
SHERWOODNo. One person here has said that -- who lives in one of the adjoining houses, said that they actually saw the councilmember inside the home through a window. But I can tell you that Fred Cooke, the councilmember's attorney, has come out and walked around and talked to a few neighbors. But he has, wisely, I would think for Fred Cooke, stayed away from the police yellow tape line where we're about, well, at least about 50 yards away from the one good long path (unintelligible) from the house. The police have us blocked off.
NNAMDIWell, I know that, Tom, Harry Thomas Jr. hasn't said anything. Have you heard anything from the U.S. Attorney's Office?
SHERWOODWell, we've only had a confirmation from the FBI that there is a law enforcement action underway at this address. Now, we -- we can all -- the media out here's encamped. I wish I could show you a picture of all the police cars and the cameras and the photographers and the people (unintelligible). But it's quite the scene here, and so it's pretty obvious. You have the FBI flak jackets on. And I saw treasury badges, and it's quite the federal operation.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, we know that, because something is going on right now, it's attracted a great deal of media attention. But we don't exactly know what this means. You remember we spoke with U.S. attorney Ron Machen some time ago, and he indicated that this is, well, an ongoing process.
MR. RON MACHENI can tell you it's significant. I can tell you that we are aggressively and actively looking at the matters. We read the papers. We know what's going on. But I can also tell you that it's very important that the public and the media understand these are significant matters. And there's a real difference between potentially inappropriate or offensive conduct and criminal conduct. And our job is to make sure that if there's criminal conduct, we get to the bottom of it, and we take appropriate action.
MR. RON MACHENAnd so that takes time. It's a different standard than you have in the civil context. It's the highest standard you have. We have to have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, and it takes time. But all that is to say that we understand that there is a sense of urgency, and we're looking at things as quickly as we can.
NNAMDIOur guest is Ronald Machen. Tom Sherwood, he said it takes time, and they've been out there this morning for four hours already. Any idea of what they -- what else they might be looking for?
SHERWOODI can confirm for you that this is the only place -- often, you know, when there's some kind of raid and conspiracy or something like that, we'll find out that two or three locations are raided at the same time. This is the only one that's happening. And as the U.S. attorney was saying, their goal here is that Tommy Thomas had simply admitted the money was improperly taken because he agreed to pay it back. He paid $50,000 this summer. He has another $50,000 payment due at the end of December.
SHERWOODBut the U.S. attorney was saying, as ugly as this may be, we have to be certain that there were, in fact, federal violations here that may be some IRS violations of not reporting money, of spending money that technically wasn't his. So that's where we are now. And, again, this is the most public confirmation that the investigations are moving apace. Just yesterday, Councilmember Orange -- Vincent Orange was saying that we want the U.S. attorney to really act on this.
SHERWOODWell, they really do have to have all their ducks in a row, and so a lot of the paperwork has been done now. And now they're executing.
NNAMDIWell, what also seems to be moving apace, Tom, is Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser's legislation on ethics on which the city council -- on which the council had public hearings this week. And it's my understanding that it's set for a markup Tuesday. Is that legislation on a fast track? And how would it handle the kind of problem that Councilmember Thomas -- Harry Thomas Jr. has?
SHERWOODThere is an announcement -- I believe it's Monday -- (unintelligible) it's either Monday or Tuesday that Muriel Bowser, who had initially 12 pieces of legislation, she's hammered into one. And, you know, Tommy Thomas sits on that committee. So it will be interesting to see if he shows up on that committee meeting to wrap up a final bill that could be voted on by the council a week later.
NNAMDISo there could be a vote a week from Tuesday on ethics legislation before the Washington, D.C. Council. And, Tom Sherwood, our resident analyst, an NBC reporter, columnist for the Current Newspapers, is, at this point, on assignment in front of the home of Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., which the FBI is searching at this point. Tom Sherwood, thank you very much for joining us. I'll try to continue without you.
SHERWOODCan you -- well, I know it would be difficult for you. I do want to just say one thing. Had I've been there today, we would have talked more about maybe the ethics hearing on Wednesday.
SHERWOODI think one of the most important things that, frankly, is underreported, except in my stories, is that the Atty. Gen. Nathan Irvin (sic)...
SHERWOODOr Irvin Nathan said (unintelligible) publicly he chastised in his testimony the elected officials and the leaders and officials for not speaking out more against -- about unethical behavior. It was -- it kind of was all (word?), but they were talking about changing the law. But I thought it was important the attorney general basically criticize his own bosses. You know, Vince Gray hadn't said much either.
SHERWOODWe're still waiting today for Mayor Gray to say something more than let the process play out. Well, this is a very serious part of the process, and I would like, frankly, to hear from the mayor about what he has to say about it today.
NNAMDIWell, we will make sure that the mayor hears your request to be heard from on this issue because, as you know, he listens to this broadcast every Friday. Tom Sherwood, thank you so much for joining us.
SHERWOODAll right. Have a good afternoon. If you get into any kind of real jam, call me back 'cause I'm just standing outside this home. I don't have anything else to do at the moment.
SHERWOODHave a good day.
NNAMDIYou, too. The number, of course, here is 800-433-8850. And we'll introduce our first guest in a second. You're listening to "The Politics Hour." And today, we'll be talking later with the comptroller for the state of Maryland, Peter Franchot. And, right now, our guest is George Barker. He's a member of the Virginia Senate. He's a Democrat who represents the Commonwealth's 39th District, which includes parts of Alexandria, Fairfax and Prince William Counties. Sen. Barker, thank you very much for joining us, first time seeing you since your election victory. Congratulations.
SEN. GEORGE BARKERThank you very much. My pleasure being here.
NNAMDIGlad you could join us. We're looking at a dead-even 20-20 split in the Virginia Senate right now. But if Republicans had their way, you wouldn't be here. We'd be talking about a one-seat majority. They poured a ton of money and resources into defeating you last month. Why do you think you ultimately prevailed?
BARKERI think that, in our campaign, we prevailed because, I think, I've been an effective senator the last four years. I've done a good job representing the public. I've represented all the people of the -- throughout the district. And, in the end, there were enough Republicans voting for me to be able to carry me to victory. We tripled our margin from last time, so it was nice to get a larger win this time. And we're able to maintain not only my seat but all 10 seats in Northern Virginia that we had.
NNAMDIOne of the stories that made news in your election campaign was the fact that your opponent had such a similar name to yours. Did that cause you some worry at all, some concern?
BARKERYes. It clearly caused a lot of concern because his name -- my name is -- last name is Barker. His name is Baker.
NNAMDIBaker, Miller Baker.
BARKERYes. And I've been called Baker my whole life, so...
BARKERYes. And frequently, during the early parts of the campaign, when I would go door to door, frequently at the end of the conversation, people would say great to meet you, Sen. Baker.
BARKERSo we had to take that issue on directly and were very successful doing it. We borrowed a slogan that Mark Warner had used in his campaign against John Warner in 1996 when he ran as sort of Mark not John. We did the Barker not Baker thing this time. We also used my middle name, Lincoln. Hardly anyone knew what my middle name was prior to this campaign. But by the end of the campaign, a lot of people did. And it had that on the ballot to help make sure people knew who they were voting for.
NNAMDIAnd if any one of you would like to speak with George Lincoln Barker, you can call us at 800-433-8850, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, email to email@example.com. Or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, if you have a question or comment. Do you think Republicans and Democrats should reach a power-sharing agreement in the Virginia Senate? How do you think they should handle it? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDISen. Barker, you're credited as the chief sponsor of the redistricting plan that drew new voting lines in the Virginia Senate this year. Some people in your party feared you were going to lose a lot more seats than you did. How much of that would you chalk up to the new voting boundaries?
BARKERWell, I think we actually did a very job with the voting boundaries.
NNAMDIAs it turns out.
BARKERAs it came up with a fair plan, we ended up getting a number of Republican votes to the plan -- for the plan that was approved. We were judged the most fair in terms of partisanship of all the plans presented for the Senate. I think it clearly helped us in Northern Virginia and helped us overall in terms of making sure we had good representation throughout the state.
NNAMDIWell, with a 20-20 split now in the Senate, some Democrats have vowed to sue if Republicans don't offer to share some of the power in that chamber. Where do you see this heading? Do you support the idea of suing to force a power-sharing agreement?
BARKERYes. The Senate Democrats are going to court on this particular issue. We think that, if for no other reason, the issue needs to be clarified as to what power role the lieutenant governor does have in organizing the Senate. It's not completely clear from the Constitution. There's nothing in the section on legislation -- on the legislative powers that addresses that particular issue. There are some clear indications elsewhere in the Constitution that his powers are limited, in terms of breaking ties.
BARKERSo we think this is an issue that needs to be resolved by the court, so that there's clarity not only for this situation but for future situations.
NNAMDIIf you have an opinion on that issue, call us, 800-433-8850. Do you think Republicans and Democrats should reach a power-sharing agreement in the Virginia Senate? Republicans seem to be relying on a legal opinion from the 1990s that found the lieutenant governor eligible to cast the breaking votes on anything before the chamber. But the same person who wrote that opinion concedes that the Virginia Constitution says that some bills require a majority from members elected to the House and Senate. Is that the way you see it?
BARKERWe're not quite sure how the court is going to come down on it, to tell you the truth, but we think it's certainly an arguable point. We clearly think that the public has, in effect, asked for a divided government. They elected 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans. You know, the members that the public has elected are evenly divided. We think there should be power sharing. There's precedent for that. The only other time it was 20/20 was in the late '90s. There was a four-year power-sharing agreement that was worked out between the Republicans and the Democrats at that time.
NNAMDIYeah, but that was only because Delegate Virgil Goode refused to vote with the Democrats unless there was a power-sharing agreement.
BARKERWell, there might have been court challenges that time if that hadn't happened. Certainly, the role that former Congressman Goode, you know, played did influence how that got resolved at the time. But it was actually something that worked out, I think, very well. And it actually led to further cooperation as -- after Republicans took control, following the 1999 election, and then after Democrats came back into control of -- on the 2007 election.
BARKERWe in the Senate have worked very well together across party lines to be able to do a lot of good things for the people of Virginia. And we think we need to right now focus on what we need to do for the people rather than the politics of the situation.
NNAMDISpeaking of the people, what do you think would be the consequence if the power-sharing dispute gets ugly and results in more gridlock? Who do you expect will ultimately pay the political price for that?
BARKERWell, I don't know who will pay the political price. What I do think is that it's not in the public interest that we have gridlock. And that's why we're going to -- we're going into court to be able to seek a legal clarification as to what the responsibilities and the powers of the lieutenant governor are as it relates to this, as well as trying to work with Republicans on reaching a power-sharing agreement.
NNAMDIYou're listening to "The Politics Hour." Tom Sherwood is on assignment. He is our resident analyst. Our guest is George Barker. He's a member of the Virginia Senate, a Democrat. George Barker represents the 39th District. It includes parts of Alexandria, Fairfax and Prince William counties. And speaking of Alexandria, here is Suzanne, who is calling from Alexandria, Va. Suzanne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUZANNEThank you so much. Sen. Barker, I wanted to ask you -- I don't know if it's going to be in the legislative package from the Alexandria Council to you all in Richmond. Would you support changing -- I think you have to change some kind of constitutional amendment, so that we can now have an appointed school district school board rather than an elected one. We are having some problems here with our school system and its leadership.
NNAMDIWeigh in on the local issues, Sen. Barker.
BARKERCertainly glad to do so. Actually, there was a constitutional amendment passed several years ago, the provision passed that does allow for a referendum to be held on elections of local school boards. That's what's been done in Alexandria. That's what's been done in other jurisdictions. I think that, actually, there is the ability to have a referendum to, in effect, go back to the previous process, which was an appointed process, in which was what existed in jurisdictions across the Commonwealth.
BARKERSo I think there's an opportunity for the voters to seek a referendum to be able to undo what was done with the previous referendum.
SUZANNESo would you support that referendum?
BARKERI would certainly support, you know, having a referendum on that...
SUZANNEAnd would you support it so that the Alexandria voters can make the decision on whether we want to continue with an electorate school board or an appointed school board, or maybe even some elected and some appointed? Would you support that? And do you think this would pass in Richmond?
BARKERWell, I would support having a referendum for the voters to be able to have a referendum to be able to make that decision, yes.
NNAMDIAnd whatever decision the voters make, Suzanne would like to know if that would be acceptable in Richmond. Is that your question, Suzanne?
SUZANNEYes, correct. You think you can get this passed amongst the other legislators in the Senate and...
NNAMDIWhat's the process we're talking about here, Sen. Barker?
BARKERI believe the ability already exists for the voters to be able to, in effect, petition to have a referendum to go back to the previous arrangement. That was the process that was used in moving forward with a referendum in the first place that led to the election of school board members. And I think there is the opportunity to, in effect, undo that through another referendum.
NNAMDISuzanne, thank you very much for your call. Without Richmond getting involved at all.
BARKERI don't think it would have to get involved any further, no.
NNAMDISuzanne, thank you very much for your call. When you eventually get past the power-sharing dispute and you start voting on bills next year, what do you see as being the issues that are likely to define the next legislative session?
BARKERClearly, you know, what will define the next legislative session overall, I think, is going to be the budget. This is Gov. McDonnell's only opportunity to craft a full two-year biennial budget and then be serving as governor for the next two years to implement it. So this will be his signature budget in terms of what his priorities are, how he wants to handle things. We have some continuing challenges. We've made major cuts, over $7 billion in cuts, over the last four years, many of which have been painful.
BARKERPart of what we have to look at is what can we restore over time -- education funding, public safety funding, where we have tried to make smaller cuts, but we've made some cuts -- and how do we move forward from here. And I think that will probably be the most significant, defining issue of this legislative session.
NNAMDIAnd that's likely to be the big picture issue. But always lurking in the background, generally soon to emerge into the foreground is transportation. Former Congressman Tom Davis joined us shortly before the election. He said Republican power in Richmond would mean that Gov. McDonnell would get a transportation plan on his desk. What are your thoughts? Do you think Democrats would be, or should be, willing to work with Republicans on transportation? And where do you think they should be willing to throw up roadblocks if necessary?
BARKERWell, we've been willing to work with, and have worked with, Gov. McDonnell, as well as previous governors, both Democrats and Republicans, to address the transportation issue. We've also tried to initiate things on our own in the Senate, among Senate Democrats in the past, frequently with support of Senate Republicans that have not been successful on the House of Delegates. We're committed to trying to address the transportation issues that we face across the Commonwealth, but particularly those in Northern Virginia, which are the worst situations that we have in Virginia.
BARKERThis past year, we did pass a bill that was a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sen. Wampler, Republican, Sen. Colgan, a Democrat, implementing nearly all of what the governor requested. What we did not do and what we have strong concerns about is, in effect, taking money from schools and public safety and health and human resources and shifting those monies into funding additional transportation projects there. There is strong opposition to that in the Senate. There's been bipartisan resistance on that type of thing.
BARKERI'm not sure there's going to be a major -- whether there'll be any major transportation initiative this year or not. We're not sure yet.
NNAMDISo you're not sure of Tom Davis' confidence. We love to have people who are willing to argue with Congressman Tom Davis. You don't necessarily share his confidence that the Republicans are going to put a transportation plan on the governor's desk?
BARKERIt's not clear that there will be a major transportation bill this year. There was a significant transportation bill that came through last year. The revenues are not there, I think, to be able to move forward in a significant way. And there's certainly been no proposal for generating additional revenues coming from the McDonnell administration that would help us address that.
NNAMDIOn to Nick in Winchester, Va. Nick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NICKThank you, Kojo. Delegate Barker -- sorry, Sen. Barker, full disclosure, my two family vehicles are a Suburban and a Tahoe S.U.V., so they're not gasoline efficient. My question is, would you be willing to raise the gasoline tax from 17 cents, given that it's been in place for a number of years and that, in the meantime, income hasn't increased and that the gasoline companies have no compulsion of raising prices 20 to 50 cents per week? Anyway, I'm at the intersection of two unpaved roads.
NNAMDIHere's Sen. Barker.
BARKERYes. The Senate has actually repeatedly voted in favor of tax increases, gasoline tax increases. That started prior to my being elected in 2007. There were tax increases in '04, in '06, in '07 that were passed in the Senate that did not pass in the House of Delegates. We passed legislation, incorporating as part of that, an increase in the gas tax, a penny a year for five years type of thing, not anything that would be overly burdensome given the volatility of gasoline prices and the amount that they've gone up since 1986, which was the last time the gas tax was raised.
BARKERSo we've been willing to look at those types of options. What we've not found thus far is acceptance of that from either the House of Delegates or from the governor's office. So, I think, unless there is a change in -- of heart in either the other -- in both of the other two parties there, that that will not happen this year.
NNAMDINick, how do your Chevy Suburban and Chevy Tahoe feel about this issue?
NICKOh, they don't object.
NICKThey haven't said anything to me.
NNAMDISo -- and I guess you don't object either.
NICKWell, I -- and I've gotten along with the -- pardon me -- gotten along with the Suburban since 1994.
NNAMDIOh, good. Well, Nick in favor of raising...
NICKWe're old friends.
NNAMDI...in favor of a raise in the gas tax. Nick, thank you very much for your call. 800-433-8850, you can call to offer your opinion on that or any other issue with Sen. George Barker. He's a Democrat, represents the 39th District, taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you think Democrats need to do to reclaim their majority in the Virginia Senate, as well as the Governor's mansion? You can call us at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIWe an email form Karen in Prince William. Well, this was the issue I was just about to get to. "Is the senator worried that social issues will take more of a center stage in Richmond now that there are more Republicans to send bills to the governor? It would seem the governor may be game for showing off his social conservative street cred if presidential candidates are looking for a Republican who can get their base excited. Just saying," says Karen in Prince William. What do you think, Sen. Barker?
BARKERThere is certainly the potential for a number of social issues coming forward this year. We'll see what happens. In the past, many of the major controversial social issues that have passed in the House of Delegates have been defeated in committees in the Senate. If the Republicans end up stacking -- having the lieutenant governor break the tie to organize and end up stacking committees in a different fashion -- despite the fact that the Senate is divided 20-20 -- we could see a number of those bills come to the floor of the Senate and actually reach the governor's desk.
NNAMDIWhat do you expect from the governor himself? He has not exactly hung his hat on social issues so far. But do you think now that, with a Republican majority in the House on going on a possible Republican majority in the Senate, measures like regulating abortion clinics, like hospitals that have made their way to him in the past -- do you think we'll be seeing a lot more of those issues? And do you think that the governor, because he is being seen as a possible vice presidential candidate, will position himself in favor of those issues?
BARKERWell, we'll see. I don't know for sure what the governor is going to do on those things. What has been interesting is that, thus far, he has clearly tried to focus much more on things that have broad bipartisan support. And we've worked with him very closely on issues related to education. Last year, he had not only a major transportation bill, a major bill on higher education -- we've -- he certainly pushed in terms of economic development and job creation, those types of things.
BARKERWe've worked closely with him on a lot of those issues. And those have really been the signature issues on which he's built his administration thus far. We'll see if he continues to focus on those big-picture issues that are important to all Virginians who are -- heads in a different direction.
NNAMDIAnd, clearly, that's what you're hoping he will do?
BARKERYes. We do hope that he continues along the path that he's done, which we think has helped Virginia be in a good -- very good position.
NNAMDIHere's Michael in Fort Belvoir, Va. Michael, your turn.
MICHAELYes, sir. I have a question for the senator, and it's about the Virginia State Police MedFlight Medevac system. Essentially, the citizens, or those people that live in the Richmond area, are offered free medical flights from trauma scenes, whereas the rest of the state -- if you live in Northern Virginia or Charlottesville or Virginia Beach or wherever -- those patients are picked up by private sector aircraft and billed significantly by the hospitals or the private sector, so, you know, gross (word?) between those people living in Richmond versus the rest of the state.
MICHAELAnd, you know, the taxpayers across the state are paying for this service. So I was just wondering if the senator had any thoughts on that or any information about trying to make that more equal for all the taxpayers across the state?
NNAMDIYou should know that Sen. Barker has a history of being involved in health care issues. He worked at the health systems agency for Northern Virginia for three decades. And he has a master's in public health from Harvard. Sen. Barker.
BARKERYes. That is an issue that we discussed a year or so ago in the joint commission on health care, one of the legislative bodies on which I sit during part of the year that we're not in session in Richmond. I have roughly monthly meetings. What we've been trying to do thus far is build on a -- build as much of a patchwork system as we could that it has different providers in different places to make sure the patients get the best service and that we do everything we can to preserve life in those critical situations.
BARKERWhat we want to do over time is to move to a more systemized system that is more equitable across the commonwealth, provides everybody access and is equally funded. We've not been in a position to move forward aggressively on that from a funding standpoint.
NNAMDIWhat will it take to do that?
BARKEROne of the things that may take over time is more resources, and we've had limited state resources. As I've said, we've cut over $7 billion out of the budget over the last four years, and we've not been in a position of being able to add much in the way of funding that.
NNAMDII was about to say what do you see as new sources of revenue?
BARKEROne of the things that is starting to happen is the economy is turning around. It is starting to generate increases in revenues. We'd had some significant decreases over the -- for the last two years, almost, now, we've had a steady increase of a roughly 4 percent per year compared with the same month, the previous year in our revenues. And over time, that will help us get back to the position where we're able to fund some of the services that are critical services that we're not funding now and to resource some types that we found have been devastating and damaging to the public.
NNAMDIMichael, thank you for your call. We move on to Don in Woodbridge, Va. Hi, Don.
DONHi, Kojo. How are you doing?
DONHey, Sen. Barker, thank you so much, first of all, for your continued advocacy and, you know, holding the water, if you will, for health care programs in the state of Virginia. If more people like yourself continue to do that, then maybe there's some light at the end of tunnel in the state of Virginia, which has, as we know from the most previous elections, has gotten more and more to the right. So thanks for that.
DONI do want to say that this -- in answering Kojo's question regarding whether our current governor will move more to the right in terms of social programs, if he has any aspirations or any hope at all for higher office, he'll have to remember that record will be pointed out by the people that would dissuade him from doing such in the not so distant future, just as, I believe, Atty. Gen. Cuccinelli's and Lt. Gov. Bolling's records will be made more available to the general public in the state -- in the otherwise moderate state of Virginia, as time goes.
DONAnd, I think, once people begin to -- it begins to resonate with them how extremist Atty. Gen. Cuccinelli is on most all issues, as well as Lt. Gov. Bolling who is trying to present himself as more of a moderate these days, he'll come out. And I think that's how the governorship will turn Democratic in the next election.
NNAMDIGlad you brought that up, Don, because we would like to ask the senator because we're looking at some intra-party warfare with the Virginia GOP. Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli says this week that he's going to run against, who his likely primary opponent would be, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling for the party's gubernatorial nomination. What do you make of this?
BARKERWell, I think it is -- as Senate Democrats, we...
NNAMDIYou've got to stop smiling while you say this.
BARKERWe're going to sit on the sidelines and enjoy the show. You know, clearly, assuming the two of them do end up running against each other for the nomination, the Republican nomination in 2013, it's certainly going to be a major show. It's going to be a major battle. You have two major figures competing there.
NNAMDII can see Sen. Barker's enjoying the show already. Which Democrats would you like to see get into that race?
BARKERWell, clearly, one Democrat who has been angling to be a candidate there has been Terry McAuliffe who ran four years ago and -- or, I guess, two years ago now -- the last election and lost in the primary. There's also been some talk that Sen. Warner might come back and run for governor again. Those are clearly the two leading potential candidates, I think, on the Democratic side.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Judith in Fairfax, who said, "Could you ask the senator where the issue of privatization of the state's ABC store stands? Is this issue dead?"
BARKERThere is certainly indication that it's likely to be dead. It went absolutely nowhere last year. It was proposed by the governor, and, even in the House of Delegate, which is a Republican majority there, they -- not a single Republican was willing to patron the bill. So there was finally a bill put in by a Democrat just to get the issue before the House. That bill was not assigned to a committee initially. Eventually, it was assigned to a committee, but it was never heard.
BARKERSo there's no indication that there's any life to that, and there's been no further talk from the governor on that recently that he wants to revive that issue.
NNAMDIAnd here is Linda in Fairfax, Va. Linda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LINDAGood afternoon, Kojo and George. I'm a fan of both of yours. Thank you so much for all you for your communities. I have a question for the senator about the uranium mining ban in Virginia. I understand that there is a movement to lift the ban that was instituted in the 1980s, and I understand that it would be statewide. And Fairfax's drinking water that comes from the Occoquan could sustain both mining and radioactive waste from the continuation or the restart of uranium mining. Do you have a position?
NNAMDIYou'd like to know -- what is your position on that, Sen. Barker?
BARKERYes. On that particular issue there was agreement to have a study done by the National Academy of Sciences, a disinterested body that would be able to look at the scientific evidence there. That study is supposed to be out later this year, or actually later this month, so, you know, now being in December, so we expect to get that soon. That will clearly have the major influence, I think, in terms of what action is or is not proposed and what consideration is given to it.
NNAMDIWill it also have an influence on the position that you ultimately take?
BARKERYes. I'm looking to the scientific evidences to, you know, what the -- whether -- to what extent there are significant risks and how those risks could be affected and what the potential problems are to individuals. I'm not going to sign on to anything that's going to lift that ban unless there's very clear and convincing evidence that it's not going to create problems.
NNAMDIAnd, finally, there's this from Kathy in Alexandria. "I live in a neighborhood that just became part of George Barker's district. Mr. Barker came to my door during the campaign. I also participated in the GOTV door-to-door activities in another neighborhood that is also new to Mr. Barker's district. Almost every person I spoke to told me that Mr. Barker had also been to their door. They were all impressed with him and assured me that they would vote for him. Please ask Mr. Barker how many pairs of shoes he went through going to so many doors."
BARKERWell, four years ago, when I first ran, I went through five pairs of shoes. This year, I changed shoes and went to my New Balance, which cut down on the numbers of pairs of shoes I had to go through. So I was only on my second pair by the end, but did hit about 15,000 houses this year. I felt it was my responsibility to get out and talk to people face to face, let them see me, let them ask me questions, let them size me up. And I appreciate and I thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to meet voters that way.
NNAMDIAnd, hopefully, Cathy, that answered your question. George Barker, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck.
BARKERThank you very much. You're quite welcome.
NNAMDISen. George Barker is a Democrat who represents the Commonwealth's 39th district. It includes parts of Alexandria, Fairfax and Prince William County. You're listening to "The Politics Hour," usually starring Tom Sherwood. However, he is on assignment right now in front of the home of Washington Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. because that home was approached, was entered by FBI agents this morning. And they have been there for the past four hours or so. Tom reported on that earlier in the program. If there are any other developments, we are likely to hear from Tom later on during the broadcast.
NNAMDIHowever, joining us now in studio is the comptroller for the state of Maryland. He's a Democrat. Peter Franchot, good to see you again.
MR. PETER FRANCHOTGood to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIGlad you could...
FRANCHOTIt's always good when you pay attention to Virginia and Maryland. We love to have the best interviewer in Washington cast an eye out on our great states.
NNAMDIWell, I'm sorry that Tom Sherwood couldn't be here today, but you'll have to go with the second-best interviewer in Washington.
FRANCHOTOh, tell Sherwood that mayors come and go, but Sherwood is always there. He's the rock on which we all rely.
NNAMDIYeah. He seems to have been there forever. And, unfortunately, it's likely that he's going to be around forever. But if you'd like to join the conversation with Comptroller Peter Franchot, call us at 800-433-8850. You know we're going to talk about slots. How do you feel about the prospects of slots in Prince George's Country? Would you be willing to allow them if they help pay for a new hospital there? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIPeter Franchot, the last time slots were an issue in Annapolis, you made, well, a few enemies in your campaign against allowing slot gambling. Well, now, it looks like the general assembly could be voting next session on whether to hold another statewide referendum on allowing slots Prince George's County. How do you see things playing out this time?
FRANCHOTHow sad it is that Prince George is right in the area where there are most foreclosures and unemployment and economic distress. What is the state debating? How -- can't we put a casino in there and take money from these desperate people? I just find it...
NNAMDIWell, I could see your position hasn't changed.
FRANCHOTNo. It's -- you know, as comptroller, I opposed the referendum, and I lost that. I'm perfectly willing to put it behind me. But let's be honest. The whole program is a debacle in Maryland. The sites are not producing the revenues that were promised. And I think the idea that a hospital, which is so desperately needed in Prince George's County, would be contingent upon ramming slot machines...
NNAMDIWell, let's tell our listeners exactly what we're talking about because Mike Miller who represents the president of the Senate, who represents parts of Prince George's County, says that slots are the only way for the county to finance a long-awaited plan to build a new hospital there. Is the county facing a decision between slots and a hospital?
FRANCHOTWell, unfortunately, that was the comment of the Senate president. I hope that the governor and the speaker will put their foot down and say, look, the two issues are separate. We need to build a hospital. We should do that. The governor has made a commitment. Let's move forward on it. But the idea that it's going to be tied to a -- of all things, a gambling casino is just very unfortunate. They -- the program -- you know, if it doesn't work, Kojo, we probably should learn from that and not repeat our mistakes.
FRANCHOTWe were told that the other -- the old slots program would produce revenue for education and would produce jobs and would not hurt the taxpayers. None of that's happened. And now we're being told, again, that we need slots for health care. Well, I guess, what is it, slots for docs? It's just an old flim-flam, Annapolis style, and I hope the leadership will put their foot down, or their collective feet down, and not put the public through another one of these cynical debates.
NNAMDIWhy it's interesting to see that you are sticking with the position that you have held before is because, in political terms, on the one hand, people will say that that shows Peter Franchot's consistency. It's not a big secret that you have other statewide aspirations. So another group of people will say, look, he could get into a lot of political trouble for this because there are some powerful political forces gathering behind slots. So you are not concerned about the fact that this could be a political liability for you if you were to run for other statewide offices?
FRANCHOTI'd much rather see the state concentrate on a little group that I regulate, the wineries in Maryland. We have 50 vineyards now that produce employment and produce a great product and are good for tourism and agriculture. We have a great biotech sector in our economy that is based in Montgomery and Prince George's and the Baltimore Corridor. And we have lots of initiatives, like financial literacy that I work on with Republicans and Democrats. Let's concentrate on that and skip the concept that we need to bring Las Vegas to Maryland in order to have revenues for our good state.
NNAMDIHow would you create the revenue stream for the $600 million or so that would be needed for the new hospital in Prince George's County?
FRANCHOTWell, that's a great question because the state, right now, lacks the kind of fiscal discipline that would allow the state to move forward. And I -- but I do think that if we applied the kinds of efficiencies and accountability that we should to our public spending, we would very quickly identify money for priorities like the Prince George's health care system. They just announced last week that developmentally disabled clients in Maryland -- the agency that we raised taxes last year for, Kojo...
FRANCHOT...they found $38 million somewhere just lying on the floor in the agency. But it had -- unfortunately, for the developmentally disabled, they had to return it to the general fund.
FRANCHOTWe -- Maryland was identified recently as the second-worst state in the country as far as food stamp abuse. There are lots of efficiencies and abuses that can be stopped, efficiencies imposed that would free up the resources that we need to do to make social progress. My major point out there for everybody in Maryland and, frankly, in the region: We can't have the social progress that we want, good health care, better education, clean Chesapeake Bay -- we can't have that unless we have fiscal discipline and fiscal responsibility.
NNAMDIHere is Michael, put on your headphones, please, in -- Michael is in North Beach, Md. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHAELOh, great. I was just calling. I agree with the senator about slots. But I also have to admit that I live in a wonderful little town in Calvert County. And we just -- the new nature boardwalk, and it's beautiful. And it's over the marshlands. And most of the money was paid for by one of the resorts that makes most of their money from slots. So...
NNAMDIMichael says that he lives in Calvert County in North Beach and all of the new stuff that he likes there was paid for with the revenues from slots. How do you feel about that, Peter Franchot?
FRANCHOTI'm sure that there are some allocations going to communities. But I've got a big sign that I put on my forehead when people ask me about the slots programs, and it says, I told you so. Among other things, the -- I'm fine on that, thank you. But among other things, let's look at what we've got with our slots program. Recently, on the Board of Public Works, I voted against, but the governor and treasurer voted for $800 million in taxpayers' funds to be spent buying slot machines.
FRANCHOTSo whatever small contributions are made to your community, I appreciate it. I'm all in favor of nature walks. But, overall, this has been a really bad deal for the taxpayers and for the state. And I hope that we can move in a better direction that will have a much happier ending because I don't think casinos and slots are going to have a happy conclusion in Maryland. Let's focus on things that we agree on. Once again, financial literacy, biotech...
NNAMDIIndeed, I was -- I'll head in that...
FRANCHOT...great education institutions we have. What are we...
NNAMDII'll head in that direction. Michael, thank you very much for your call. Let's take a look at the books for a minute. The state is looking at another shortfall. Gov. O'Malley is likely to push for increases to the state's gas tax. We're having headphone trouble over here. Gov. O'Malley is likely to push for increases to the state's gas tax. He's also talking about hiking the so-called flush tax on sewer and septic systems, but you have called for freezing taxes and for freezing fees. Why is that?
FRANCHOTBecause I look at -- rather than through a political prism, I look at the data that comes into my office every day, Kojo. And we did this four years ago. We had a record increase in taxes. We raised the sales tax, corporate tax, slots tax, as I called it, and also personal income tax in order to get rid of our structural deficit and create jobs. We still have, four years later, over $1 billion structural deficit. We need 250,000 jobs in Maryland, as I speak. So I suggest that we focus on what works, and I have some suggestions along that line. What clearly does not work is raising taxes in a really tough economy.
NNAMDIYou say the state does not have any fiscal discipline, and discipline usually requires some amount of sacrifice. What sacrifices do you think the general assembly should be willing to make in order to restore discipline? Are there sacred cows you think that they should be willing to cut?
FRANCHOTWell, the example I note -- I just mentioned the record tax increase in the special session. A lot of that money was directed into the transportation trust fund for projects -- in theory, for transportation projects. But when I cite lack of fiscal discipline, what future legislatures did was drain that money, not for pothole patching, but for patching the general fund. And it's that lack of discipline which prevents us from prioritizing our spending.
FRANCHOTYou know, the Republicans often say, let's have fiscal discipline, but their agenda is to reduce government or eliminate government, if they can remember the names of the agencies that they want to get rid of. But that's not -- what I'm talking about is fiscal discipline and fiscal responsibility with a purpose. And the purpose is to allow us to prioritize and free up money for the things that we all care about and cherish, such as the Chesapeake Bay and education and health care.
FRANCHOTSo I don't know what the session will bring. I hear a lot of talk about the gas tax increase. I find that to be very troubling because I think it will dampen the economic recovery. And I'm urging the governor and the leadership to take a two-year timeout on these kinds of tax increases if only, Kojo, to give business some certainty as far as the tax environment, I think, to the extent Maryland is constantly talking about new tax increases.
NNAMDIIs the extent to which businesses may be reluctant to relocate there or to locate there?
FRANCHOTAnd it just -- as you know, that unpredictability is, particularly in a recession like we're going through, is very difficult for business.
NNAMDIWell, speaking of education, here is Rio (sp?) in Prince George's County. You don't have to put on your headphones this time. Rio, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
RIOOh, good afternoon, Mr. Comptroller. Good afternoon, Kojo. I enjoy this so much, and I have to speak quickly because it is a school day, and this is my lunch break. Mr. Comptroller, what I would like to know is -- I'm a coach and a teacher in this county, in Prince George's County -- how across the state is there going to be improvements in education and just general funding?
RIOAs you referenced the slots, they were not a significant increase to any funding, as I remember. And I was there when it was presented to us as an opportunity to -- for us to vote for it and such. What do you suggest? Is there a plan, sir?
FRANCHOTFirst of all, we have to really examine the spending we're applying to education right now. Up in Baltimore County, there's a big controversy right now 'cause there are tens of millions of dollars of textbooks sitting unused in a warehouse that were erroneously bought. Tens of millions of dollars of software and education and curriculum items were bought that are never used.
FRANCHOTSo we have to -- when I say analyze what we're spending, what I'm really talking about is, right now, our spending is like a chute. And we're pouring water down it, but there's a hole at the bottom of it. So we need to -- you know, need to repair the hole. Specifically on education, we could almost immediately start saving hundreds of millions of dollars in school construction money if we simply took better care of the schools that we have.
FRANCHOTBut there are lots of ideas out there where we can improve education. In these well-maintained schools, Kojo, kids do better academically. But I think the concept is, let's focus not so much on increasing funding all the time. Let's focus on getting a better result with existing dollars.
NNAMDIRio, thank you very much for your call. Speaking of fiscal discipline, the last time we spoke with you in February, you were trying to push through a bill to require all students in Maryland to take a financial literacy class in high school. But that bill ultimately did not pass. Before I ask my question, Carrie in Silver Spring, Md. has a question along the same line. Carrie, you're on the air. You ask the question.
CARRIEHello, Mr. Comptroller. I keep hearing you speak about the importance of financial literacy, and I really think that it's a great idea. However, my question is, do you really think it is the way, and it will lead us out of the recession, and how?
FRANCHOTWell, that's a good question. I do not think that it's a panacea for the recession, but I do think it's a pivotally important subject matter that we need to teach our kids. And I've suggested that a six-week standalone course in senior year should be mandatory for every high school in Maryland.
NNAMDIYou've already started promoting a new financial literacy bill for the next session.
FRANCHOTCorrect. We fell a little short. The Senate passed it last time, and the House didn't. But that's just the way the process works down there. This is a hugely popular item. Four counties have already gone ahead and started it on their own, and...
NNAMDIYou started a petition to get 10,000 people to support the bill.
FRANCHOTYes. I have a copy. I want you to sign it, Kojo. We need you. But this is...
NNAMDIHas it been working, the petition?
FRANCHOTYes. We've got about 6,000 signatures. We're trying to get 10,000, and we're simply trying to communicate to the legislature that this is an important subject. Kids need this information in order to protect themselves and also to be able to build their own prosperity and wealth. It's been blocked because, as often happens here, bureaucrats who are involved in this at the state level, wasn't their idea, so they've come up with some other proposals, which are fine.
FRANCHOTBut we need to get this through because senior year is when kids really need this information before they head off to college and get credit card propositions and other things that come before them. It's a great initiative. Republicans, Democrats, independents like it. And anyone that wants to support it should go to marylandtaxes.com and sign the petition online. Please do.
NNAMDICarrie, thank you very much for your call. It is my understanding that you also favor collecting some kind of Internet tax revenue. Can you explain?
FRANCHOTYes. Right now the state loses about $200 million a year in sales tax revenue from our citizens buying items over the Internet from companies that don't collect the sales tax. This is a federal issue. I've told the state that they can't really legislate productively in this area because the federal Congress and the Supreme Court have kept the jurisdiction. I'm hopeful that, within the next two years, there will be federal legislation that will allow or force Amazon and other big Internet companies to collect the 6 percent sales tax.
NNAMDIBut there's nothing you can do at the state level about that.
FRANCHOTVery little because, as soon as you instigate action on this, the big companies litigate it, and you get tied up in court. It's an important issue to level the playing field with existing Maryland businesses, that all of them have to collect the sales tax and remit it to us. These big companies from out of state are not such good corporate citizens, so they don't do that. But, ultimately, they will, and it's a matter of tax fairness.
FRANCHOTI'm going around the state right now urging people to get off the Internet and go down to their local independent Maryland businesses. These are the places that hire most Marylanders. They have great service and great products. It's social. You're not there at 11 o'clock at night in front of your computer buying something, and it really helps these business people in a recession.
NNAMDIPeter Franchot is the comptroller for the state of Maryland. He's a Democrat. Thank you for joining us.
FRANCHOTKojo, thank you, and great seeing you. What's going on in cricket, anything?
NNAMDII'll let you know after the show. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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