October 15, 2014
STOP STATE FROM RAIDING TRANSPORTATION FUNDS
Maryland governors have found the lure of transportation funds an irresistible way to balance budgets and pay for other pay for other priorities. Over the past three decades, governors have raided the Transportation Trust Fund – TTF – to the tune of $640.1 million to balance the state budget, with an agreement to repay it. According to the Department of Transportation, the reimbursement is expected to total $656.3 million by the end of FY 2016.
Over the years, I, along with many other legislators, have urged a stop to TTF raids for funds to be used for other than transportation needs. During the 2013 legislative session, the General Assembly approved a Constitutional Amendment to prohibit TTF raids, unless the Governor declared a “fiscal emergency” by executive order and 3/5 of the legislative approved it. That Constitutional Amendment appears on the November 4 ballot as Question 1. I urge you to vote yes on Question l. However, while approval of the amendment will prohibit TTF raids, it does provide a way for such raids to occur. And, I want to stress that “fiscal emergency” is not defined in the amendment. That means a “fiscal emergency” is in the eye of the beholder - the Governor. While voter approval of Question 1 will not prohibit TTF raids entirely, it will mandate executive and legislative action and some clarity to the process. In the end, the new constitutional language is better than nothing.
In its addiction to raiding transportation funds for other purposes, the state has grabbed $1.1 billion in Highway User Revenue – HUR – set aside specifically to be used by local governments to repair and maintain local roads. Taking HUR funds was not accompanied by a promise to pay them back.
In order to facilitate the taking of HUR, in 2009, the state altered the formula for local transportation aid. Under the HUR change, the state now keeps 71.5% of the revenue and designates it for the Department of Transportation, 19.3% goes to the general fund and 7.5% goes to Baltimore City. Before the formula change, the counties kept 30% of HUR and the state kept 70%. Under the new formula, the counties are left with a meager 1.7% of HUR. In short, while the state is expected to reap $1.75 billion in HUR, the counties and municipalities will have to maintain local roads with $167.5 million divided among them. Stated another way, Baltimore County has lost 90.9% of its $39.9 million share of HUR.
The O’Malley Administration has reasoned publicly that since HUR is kept in a separate account, funds taken from it do not constitute a debt that should be repaid. I’m still trying to figure out that convoluted reasoning. Meanwhile local roads crumble and pot holes get bigger because the state has robbed the counties of funds to address the problem.
Funds set aside for transportation needs or open space needs or whatever should not represent an irresistible temptation for Maryland governors to dip into for other purposes. That’s just sloppy government budget management. When a law is enacted to set aside funds for a specific purpose that law should be obeyed!
July 28, 2014
MAKING THE STATE’S PRESCRIPTION DRUG MONITORING MORE EFFECTIVE
Electronic prescription drug monitoring programs – PDMP – have proven their effectiveness in combating illegal use of prescription drugs in the 40 states in which they operate. Among many other studies, a Government Accountability Office – GAO – study shows that PDMPs work to significantly deter doctor-shopping scams, overprescribing by physicians and reduce the odds of prescription drug addiction.
Doctor-shopping is a major ruse used to obtain prescription drugs illegally. An individual goes to several doctors to get prescriptions for painkilling and other drugs, then goes to several different pharmacies to get them filled. Doctor-shopping can be successful only when there is no record of drugs prescribed and prescriptions filled. PDMPs create that crucial record.
Under PDMPs doctors and pharmacies report to a central database whenever they prescribe or dispense a controlled dangerous substance. The information is kept secure, but is available to doctors and pharmacists who want to check to see if a patient has a history of doctor-shopping.
In 2006, the General Assembly approved establishment of a PDMP, but the bill was vetoed by Governor Ehrlich, who created an Advisory Council on Prescription Drug Monitoring to study the matter. In 2009, the Council recommended that Maryland establish a PDMP and the Assembly approved legislation to do so. The State’s PDMP began operation in January 2014.
However, the approved legislation merely recommended that doctors consult the data base before prescribing a controlled dangerous medication. If the doctor doesn’t check the data, a patient’s history of prescription drug abuse remains unknown. In 2014, the General Assembly approved HB 1296 to make the PDMP more effective. The new law requires the Secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene to specify a process to review PDMP data for misuse or abuse of prescription drugs and report such misuse or abuse to the prescriber or the dispenser.
The U.S. Department of Justice has singled out Maryland as one of the states with a high incidence of prescription drug abuse. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration – DEA – reports that nearly 7 million Americans are abusing prescription drugs; a number greater than those abusing cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, Ecstasy and inhalants combined. The State’s Center for Substance Abuse Research estimates that one-fourth of drug-related hospital emergency room visits are associated with prescription drug abuse. Today, opiate pain killer drugs cause more drug overdose deaths than cocaine and heroin combined. I am confident a thorough review of PDMP data will expose doctor-shopping and overprescribing which conceal prescription drug abuse. Making doctors and pharmacists aware of an individual’s illegal prescription drug history is an effective way to stop it.
July 9, 2014
BGE WANTS ANOTHER RATE INCREASE - THERE’S NO LIMIT TO UTILITY GREED
On July 2, for the fourth consecutive year, BGE asked the Public Service Commission – PSC – to approve a rate distribution increase for citizens who get both gas and electric service. For each of the past three years, BGE has gotten an increase in the rate distribution charge which has added $6.80 a month to the average electric bill and $4.28 to the average gas bill. If the PSC allows this fourth increase additional monthly charges will amount to an average of $6.57 on electric bills and $8.53 on gas bills. As it has usually done, the PSC will probably scale back the requested increase, but in end, as usually happens, BGE will get the increase and we will pay it.
The root cause of skyrocketing gas and electric bills is the 1999 passage of Electric Deregulation.
I was one of 13 state senators who opposed electric deregulation; a concept cooked up and pushed by Enron and a group of lobbyists with promises of lower rates and electric competition which have never materialized. Deregulation created an unregulated monopoly and stripped the PSC of much of its regulatory oversight and market control power. In fact, the consequences of electric deregulation for consumers have dwarfed my worst expectations. Electric deregulation has unleashed corporate utility greed that has translated into annual increases in monthly residential and business gas and electric rates and made a reality of the utilities’ fondest dream to make consumers pay monthly surcharges up front for improvements to equipment and services before they are completed.
In 2013, I opposed passage of legislation to allow a monthly surcharge of up to $2 on residential utility bills to pay up front for replacement of aging gas pipelines. In addition to allowing the gas surcharge, the approved legislation permits the PSC to grant similar surcharges to utilities. In December 2013, the PSC granted BGE a monthly electric surcharge beginning at 8 cents, effective April 20, 2014. Utilities have always been entitled to recover costs for improvements from ratepayers. However, those costs have always been recovered after the work was completed and not before it was even begun.
I, along with AARP, consumer advocacy groups, and the People’s Counsel have strongly opposed both gas and electric monthly customer surcharges, emphasizing that users should not have to prepay extra money for improvements before the work is done. AARP Maryland’s director added that "it is both unnecessary and ill-advised to add surcharges on top of increased rates." I couldn’t agree more.
BGE says it needs the additional revenue to cover the cost of its project to upgrade infrastructure in order to improve service. Wasn’t the monthly surcharge supposed to cover that?
I wish I could give you a more optimistic analysis of the situation; however, I will not sugarcoat a situation in which we are at the mercy of a greedy monopoly and impotent governmental controls. I will continue to seek legislative solutions to this intolerable problem which victimizes all BGE users.
Please do not hesitate to contact me. I encourage and welcome your input on state issues and legislative concerns.
MARCH 27, 2014
TELEMEDICINE – A GIANT LEAP FORWARD IN BRINGING CARE TO THE UNDERSERVED
Telemedicine is the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communication to improve a patient’s health care. Telemedicine uses real-time, two way video and audio conferencing between doctor and patient, doctor and hospital, or between hospitals. Telemedicine enables the quickest possible treatment to be administered, saves lives, and reduces health care costs.
Telemedicine, the indispensible tool in bringing health care to underserved rural and urban communities, took its first legislative steps in Maryland with the passage of SB 298 in 2011. The measure required health care insurers to reimburse doctors for telemedicine in the same way they reimbursed doctors for face to face treatment. At that time, over 30 stated had developed telemedicine programs. Medicare had been reimbursing telemedicine services since 1997 in Health Professional Shortage areas. In 2011, Maryland was one of only 18 states whose Medicaid program did not reimburse for telemedicine services. Though slow to start, Maryland is working on programs now to expand telemedicine. One new program focuses on getting more patients evaluated by cardiovascular or stroke experts when a timely in-person consultation or diagnostic evaluation is not feasible because no specialists are available.
The Telemedicine Task Force, formed in 2010, to address a number of technology and policy issues that create barriers to widespread adoption of telemedicine will make its final report to the Maryland Health Care Commission in December 2014. Among other things, the task force will report on efforts to develop a statewide directory of telemedicine providers that can be accessed via Maryland’s Health Information Exchange, as well as a secure platform for sharing health care data and patient medical records with providers across the state.
In October 2013, BlueCross BlueShield announced an investment of $1.5 million in telemedicine grants to assist healthcare providers in expanding the use of telemedicine in an effort to increase access to quality behavioral health care, including substance abuse disorders. Under a new state mandate, Maryland’s Medicaid will pay for care delivered via telemedicine. Maryland’s new Rural Access Program is meant to widen the breadth of services available in 15 rural areas.
This month, former U.S. Senator Tom Daschle created the Alliance for Connected Care, which is working to make his vision of telemedicine as a nationwide network of electronic health care delivery a reality. Alliance members include former members of Congress, WellPoint Insurers, CVS, Walgreens, and Verizon. The Alliance will push for changing current regulations governing telemedicine; a regulatory and policy environment that will accommodate the new technology.
I am proud to serve on the Telemedicine Steering Committee for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
February 27, 2014
FRACKING – A DANGEROUS GAMBLE WITH MARYLANDERS’ HEALTH
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a drilling process used to extract natural gas from mile-deep shale. The process uses millions of gallons of pressurized water, laced with over 500 chemicals, many of which are toxic or carcinogenic. Several states, including Pennsylvania, have experienced the dangerous consequences linked to fracking, including sickened people and farm animals, flammable tap water, well explosions, polluted streams and escaping methane and other gases. Add to this frightening picture the fact that companies will not reveal the chemicals used in the fracking process, nor do they have any safe way to recycle most of the toxic water used in fracking. According to the Susquehanna River Basin Compact, only 14% of the water used to frack a well in central Pennsylvania is recycled. That’s up from less than 1% two years ago.
Indeed, there are more questions than answers about the safety of fracking. In 2011, Governor O’Malley appointed a 15-member commission to study environmental and public health and safety risks associated with fracking and make recommendations to deal with these risks. The committee’s final report is due August 2014. So far, the committee has recommended that some extremely tough fracking regulations be adopted. Many of the petroleum industry’s representatives have characterized the recommended regulations as impractical enough to discourage drilling in Maryland. I feel strongly that in addition to recommending fracking regulations, the committee should examine the question of whether or not fracking is in the best interest of the state and its residents.
A Duke University study provides evidence of increased levels of methane in groundwater in northeastern Pennsylvania. The methane levels increased with proximity to the gas wells. Certainly, I realize that fracking would bring jobs and tax revenue to Maryland. I am also aware of fracking’s potential to contaminate aquifers and groundwater and sicken people. Once poisoned, aquifers and groundwater can never be restored. And often, the health of someone made ill from the effects of fracking cannot be restored. In the long run, I don’t think fracking is in the best interest of Maryland.
Several years ago, I fought against electric deregulation. I rejected claims that deregulation would bring competition among utilities and that this would lower prices and increase the quality of service. Unfortunately, I was right. Competition never occurred; electric prices rose and the quality of service fell. I also fought against the Governor’s offshore wind boondoggle because the cost of wind power (24 to 27 cents per kilowatt hour) would nearly triple the consumer cost of electricity. The cost of offshore wind power is the reason no Atlantic offshore wind farm is in operation yet. With electric deregulation and offshore wind power my concerns were higher consumer utility costs. With fracking, my concerns are with the safety of our water supply and the life and health of Marylanders.
Please do not hesitate to contact me about this or any other issue of concern to you. I encourage and welcome your input.
February 10, 2014
GENERAL ASSEMBLY IGNORED IN OKAY FOR BG&E ELECTRIC SURCHARGE
In 2012, Governor O’Malley stated his goal to limit long power outages that come with regularity with storms and hurricanes. To achieve his goal, he created and appointed the Grid Resiliency Task Force to study the situation and submit his ideas as Task Force recommendations. Of course, I have no way of knowing for certain if this was the Governor’s plan. However, I do know for certain that all too often, this is the way the Governor’s ideas and programs become law – via recommendations from a Task Force he creates and appoints.
Sure enough, the Task Force recently recommended that the Public Service Commission – PSC – approve a monthly surcharge on residential and commercial electric consumers. I will oppose the electric surcharge as I opposed the natural gas surcharge last year. However, this time I will not be able to vote "nay" because the Legislature has been by-passed on the matter of a monthly electric surcharge. Last year, the Task Force recommended a monthly surcharge on natural gas users. It is interesting to note, the PSC has rejected five times both gas and electric utilities’ requests for monthly surcharges to speed up infrastructure improvements to prevent frequent and long outages during storms. In 2013, the General Assembly by-passed the PSC to approve the natural gas surcharge.
Two of the five PSC commissioners opposed the electric surcharge, declaring the surcharge unfairly shifted risk from shareholders to customers, requiring payment upfront before the improvements could prove beneficial to the users. The BG&E surcharge work is aimed at improving day to day service, rather than service during severe weather. I oppose paying additional money upfront for better service, which we have every right to expect. Along with approving the electric monthly surcharge, the PSC approved the second rate increase in 2013 for BG&E. The rate hike will add $2.13 a month to the average electric bill. Beginning in April, the monthly surcharge will be approximately
32 cents and will increase to 97 cents in 2015; $1.70 in 2016 and $2.00 in both 2017 and 2018.
AARP and the Office of the People’s Council advocate for residential utility customers, and have opposed both the gas and electric surcharges. They are appealing the PSC decision to give PEPCO a rate increase and surcharge and are deciding whether to appeal the BG&E rate increase and surcharge.
Utilities have the right to be reimbursed by the ratepayers for their repair costs and updating work after the work has been completed. This is the way utilities have always been reimbursed. But I oppose the utilities’ right to force ratepayers to pay the cost upfront before the work is even begun. In this one-sided deal, the utilities are guaranteed advance payment for work and the ratepayers are guaranteed nothing!
Please do not hesitate to contact me on this or any other issue of concern to you. I encourage and welcome your input.
January 28, 2014
I have always believed that the cornerstone of effective representative government is the establishment of a strong and frequently used line of communication between elected representatives and the people they represent. It is important for you to know what I am doing and my position on the issues. It is equally important for me to know what you think.
To that end, I will be in frequent communication with you to keep you informed and up to date on General Assembly and state issues that potentially will affect you and yours. You will know where I stand on the issues. Do not hesitate to contact me on any issue of concern to you. Please know that I will listen to you. I encourage and welcome your input.
CHILD ABUSE REPORTERS WHO KNOWINGLY FAIL TO REPORT SUSPECTED ABUSE
Abused children are helpless victims who have only the law to protect them. They depend on someone noticing that they are abused or neglected. All 50 states require that persons who work with children in a professional capacity, such as doctors, teachers, social workers and police report suspected child abuse or neglect to law enforcement. That’s the law. D.C and 47 states impose a mandatory penalty on mandatory reporters who knowingly fail to report abuse. Indeed, failure to obey the law should be penalized. Only Maryland, North Carolina and Wyoming law fail to impose any penalty on reporters who knowingly break it.
On Thursday, I will testify on my bill – SB 210 – to impose a fine up to $5,000 on a mandatory reporter who knowingly and willfully fails to report suspected child abuse. The penalty for a second and subsequent offense is up to 1 year imprisonment or a fine of up to $10,000 or both. A mandatory reporter who violates the law will be guilty of a misdemeanor.
For several years, I have fought to get this measure enacted into law. Several times the measure won Senate approval, only to be killed in the House Judiciary Committee, where most bills dealing with child and domestic abuse die. I am a stubborn woman who will not give up. As 47 states and D.C. attest, it is the right thing to do. A law without a penalty for breaking it cannot be effective.
The Every Child Education Fund estimates that more than 2,000 children die from abuse and neglect each year, with 82% of the victims under age 4. Between 2001 and 2010, 15,510 children have died from abuse and neglect. That’s about 2 ½ times the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
An additional part of SB 210 calls for the establishment of a Task Force to Study Training for Mandatory Reporters on the Risk Factors, Prevention, Identification and Reporting of Child Abuse.
Among others, the Task Force will include legislators, the State Superintendent of Education, the Secretaries of Health & Mental Hygiene, Human Resources and Juvenile Services, experts on crime control and child abuse.
The members of the Task Force will not receive compensation, but will be entitled to reimbursement for expenses under the Standard State Travel Regulations.
Among many things, The Task Force is charged with studying current Maryland law and regulations related to mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse, laws in other states regarding mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse, current practices and resources to train mandatory reporters.
The Task Force will report its findings to the Governor and the General Assembly on or before December 1, 2014.
I have urged the members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee to approve SB 210.