Sunday, October 28, 2012

Questions and answers

Early voting in Maryland began today!  I'm probably going to vote tomorrow.  I already blogged about Question 7 (and I'm still undecided - I might undervote on this one), so here are my thoughts on the other Maryland and Montgomery County ballot questions.  Obviously, I endorse Obama for president, and Democrats for all partisan races (with some very narrow exceptions which don't involve voting for or enabling Republicans - e.g., if I were voting in the DC at-large Council race, I'd probably vote for two independents, though I'm not sure which two).

Quick summary:  For 1-6 and A, against B, no endorsement on 7.

Questions 1, 2, and 3 are state constitutional amendments, passed by the General Assembly, which need to be ratified by the voters.

Questions 1 and 2:  These are very similar to Question 3 from 2010.  Every county has an Orphans' Court which deals with estates and guardianships (except Montgomery and Harford Counties, where these matters are handled by the regular Circuit Court).  Unlike other judges in Maryland, Orphans' Court judges are not required to be lawyers.  As I understand it, there is a divide between the more populous and less populous parts of the state:  in the less populous areas, the Orphans' Court doesn't get much business, so it's a part-time gig.  In the more populous areas, it's a full-time job, so it has been suggested that it makes more sense to require legal experience.  So in 2010, we amended the constitution to require that Baltimore City Orphans' Court judges be members of the Maryland bar.  Questions 1 and 2 would make the same amendments regarding Prince George's County and Baltimore County (respectively).

I don't have much of an opinion on the substance (and the general issue isn't relevant to my county).  But each of these amendments, in order to be ratified, has to get a majority of votes statewide and a majority of votes in the relevant county.  So I'll be voting FOR both of them, to give the people of Prince George's and Baltimore Counties the opportunity to make their own decisions.  I don't know what I'd do if I lived in one of those counties.

Question 3:  Currently, an elected official who is convicted of or pleads guilty to any felony, or a misdemeanor related to their official duties, is automatically removed from office.  However, this doesn't happen until the conviction becomes final; in the case of a guilty plea, they're not removed from office until after they're sentenced.  So you have cases like former Prince George's County Councilmember Leslie Johnson, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges (including destroying evidence by flushing checks down the toilet and hiding cash in her bra), but then kept her Council seat (and kept collecting her salary) until the sentencing.  This constitutional amendment would fix that, by removing the official from office immediately after a guilty plea.  This seems like an obvious FOR vote - I can't imagine there will be any significant opposition.

Questions 4, 5, and 6 are laws passed by the General Assembly that were forced to a referendum by voters collecting the required number of petition signatures.  If they pass, the laws will go into effect (or in the case of 5, remain in effect); if not, the laws are void.

Question 4:  This is the Maryland "Dream Act", which will enable undocumented immigrant students who graduated from Maryland high schools to attend Maryland state universities at the in-state tuition rate.  (Because the bill was watered down during the legislative process, they have to go to community college for two years before they can transfer to a four-year college.)  These students were brought to the United States as children, and may not remember any other country.  As President Obama said in June, "They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one:  on paper."  Question 4 gives them the opportunity to get a college education that many of them could not afford otherwise.  As a member of the University of Maryland community, I also support Question 4 because we want to be able to recruit the best students we can get, regardless of immigration status.

Of course, this doesn't solve the much larger issues.  But those will have to be solved at the federal level, since the federal government has jurisdiction over immigration and citizenship.  The federal DREAM Act (which would have provided a path to citizenship) died in the Senate in December 2010 due to a Republican filibuster.  In the meantime, until Congress can get its act together, states such as Maryland are doing what they can.

For more information and other reasons to vote FOR Question 4, see the FAQ from Jews United for Justice's Dream For Equality campaign.

Question 5:  In 2011, the General Assembly passed a congressional redistricting plan, as required to accommodate the population shifts in the 2010 Census.  This plan has been forced to a referendum, but whatever happens with Question 5, this map will be in effect for the 2012 election (i.e. they're not going to call a do-over election with new districts) and any special elections during the 113th Congress.  If Question 5 passes, this map will remain in effect until after the 2020 Census.  If Question 5 doesn't pass, the General Assembly will have to pass a new map for the 2014 election.  Nothing (except political pressure) would prevent them from passing the same map again or one substantially similar, and nothing (except organizer fatigue) would prevent that map from being forced to a referendum again.

Looking at the map, there's no denying the charge that its opponents make against it:  it is blatant partisan gerrymandering, with some of the most ridiculous-looking districts in the country.  Maryland's current House delegation is 6 Democrats and 2 Republicans, and under the new map, Maryland is expected to elect 7 Democrats and 1 Republican.  This is achieved by redrawing the currently Republican 6th District (western Maryland) so that it includes enough of Montgomery County to give it a Democratic majority.

Partisan gerrymandering is legal in most states (including Maryland) and has been upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutional.  The only national requirements are that districts be of equal population, and (per the Voting Rights Act) that they not have racially discriminatory effects.  (The 2011 Maryland map was upheld in federal court on those grounds.)  I would support federal legislation to ban or limit partisan gerrymandering across the country (either by changing the redistricting process or by, e.g., requiring that districts meet some standard of compactness).  But that's not what we're voting on - we're only voting on Maryland.  Given that Republicans are using the redistricting process to great advantage in much larger states such as Texas and Florida, I see no reason why a small blue state like Maryland (one of the few states where Democrats are benefiting from the post-2010 redistricting) should unilaterally disarm.

So I'm voting FOR 5 for partisan reasons:  I want to elect more Democrats to the House.  While procedural issues like how we draw districts are important, they're not more important than the substantive issues that Congress will face over the next 10 years, and it matters whether we have a Democratic House or a Republican House voting on those issues.

If Question 5 fails, I hope the General Assembly goes a step further and draws a map with Democratic majorities in all 8 districts.  This can be done by splitting up the Eastern Shore, and/or combining it with parts of Baltimore (contiguity over water!).

Question 6:  This will bring civil marriage equality to Maryland!  It also contains language guaranteeing that religious organizations don't have to perform marriages they don't want to (which is entirely superfluous, since that is already guaranteed by the First Amendment, but if this superfluous language brings people on board, I can't complain).  If Question 6 passes, Maryland will be the first state where marriage equality wins at the ballot box (along with Maine, where the polls close at the same time; sorry, Washington, but you're a few hours later).  FOR!

In Montgomery County, Question A is a charter amendment, and Question B is a law passed by the County Council that was petitioned to a referendum.

Question A:  The County Charter currently provides for a merit system for civil service employees.  This amendment would "allow the County to operate a program within the merit system to recruit and select qualified individuals with severe physical and mental disabilities on a noncompetitive basis".  The charter amendment contains no details about the program; the details would be left to the County Council.  I'm voting FOR Question A because it provides employment opportunities to (qualified) individuals with disabilities.

Question B:  This law would end "effects bargaining" for police employees, i.e. the right to collective bargaining to negotiate the effects on employees of certain management decisions.  Compared to some of the recent high-profile laws and initiatives limiting collective bargaining around the country, the effects of this would be relatively small, since collective bargaining would remain intact for negotiations about salaries, hours, etc.  However, in the current political climate, with everything that has been happening in Wisconsin, Ohio, etc., any new limits on collective bargaining are dangerous and must be opposed.

It infuriates me to see pro-Question B ads on the sides of buses, paid for by Montgomery County with public funds.   I understand the county's rationale (even if I don't agree with it): the County Council passed a law and is now defending it, in the same way that a federal, state, or local government would defend its laws if they were challenged in court.  But the inexcusable part is that these ads rely on anti-union rhetoric.  If even MONTGOMERY FRICKIN COUNTY is trying to turn its citizens against public employee unions, this is a clear sign that we're in a larger struggle and can't give even an inch.  Vote AGAINST Question B.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Lucky 7, or unlucky 7?

When it comes to the presidential election, I still don't get the whole "undecided voter" thing.  But I'm having an unusual experience of being an undecided voter myself this year for Maryland's Question 7, which expands commercial gambling (or "gaming").

Some background:  In 2008, Maryland voters passed a constitutional amendment that authorized the state to issue licenses for "video lottery terminals" (i.e. slot machines) to raise revenue for education, limited the number of licenses to five, in five enumerated locations (this was before I was living in the state, so I don't know the process by which these five were chosen), and required that any future expansion of commercial gaming be approved by referendum.  So Question 7 is the first such referendum, which the General Assembly passed in a special session in summer 2012 and sent on to the voters.

There are two major components to Question 7:  allowing for a sixth casino license, in southern Prince George's County (at National Harbor or vicinity), and allowing "table games" (blackjack, roulette, etc.).  There are also some minor pieces, e.g., allowing the casinos to stay open 24 hours (rather than the current restrictions of 8 am - 2 am on weekdays and 8 am - 4 am on weekends).

I've been getting lots of propaganda on both sides of the issue, from glossy mailings to Facebook ads to robocalls.  This is because both sides are well-funded:  "Vote For 7" is funded by the people who want to open the sixth casino, and "Vote Against 7" is funded by casino owners in neighboring states who don't want the competition.  Thus, both sides are sketchy, and neither's motives can be trusted.  As far as I can tell, the two sides aren't aligned with political parties; elected officials from both parties are on both sides of the issue.

To help sort out the competing arguments, I'm listing some of the pro/con arguments that I find convincing, and some arguments that I don't find convincing (and why).  But this categorization into "convincing" and "unconvincing" isn't necessarily stable.  Please continue the discussion in the comments (and help fill in missing information) - my vote is up for grabs, and other readers' votes may be too.

These arguments focus on whether or not to add a sixth casino in Prince George's County.  I don't see any reason to allow slot machines but no table games (and table games lead to marginally more jobs, since they require human dealers), so if table games were the only thing on the ballot, I would definitely vote for it.

Convincing Arguments For 7:
  • Jobs will be created.  At a very minimum, the jobs in constructing the new casino are jobs that wouldn't have otherwise existed.  It's possible that some of the jobs at the casino after it's finished would just be jobs taken away from other casinos (as customers shift to the new one), but I would expect the net to still be positive, since the number of casinos in Maryland hasn't reached its free-market equilibrium (it's been capped by law at 5).  And all of this hiring would be coming from the private sector, without having to use public funds (except to pay for the regulatory mechanism).  Even if the casinos are useless, this seems similar to Keynes's coalmine story, since corporations are sitting on piles of cash right now, and this regulatory change could get them to spend some of it and start hiring.
  • More money for education.  A percentage of the proceeds go into the Education Trust Fund.

Unconvincing Arguments For 7:
  • It keeps jobs and money in Maryland, rather than letting them go to other states.  Regulatory races to the bottom (where states compete to attract corporations by lowering taxes and weakening regulations) are a bad idea.  In the end, everyone loses (except the corporations).  This is only a good idea if it increases the total number of jobs and the total state revenue, not if it merely snatches jobs and tax revenue away from other states (which can then weaken their own regulations and snatch them back).

Convincing Arguments Against 7:
  • Gambling can be addictive, and closer proximity to a casino will be harmful to people with gambling problems.  This is an empirical question, and I'd be interested to know if there is data about how distance to a casino influences recidivism for problem gamblers (e.g. if someone who lives in Prince George's County would go to a casino near home but wouldn't travel to Baltimore).
  • Casinos are detrimental to local communities.  This is also empirical, so I'd be interested in data on the local impacts of new casinos.  If you can point me to information, it would be much appreciated.
(Note that because the anti-7 campaign is funded by other casino owners, these aren't the arguments they're making - they don't want the public to sour on casinos in general.  But if I vote against 7, these will be the reasons why.)

Unconvincing Arguments Against 7:
  • This isn't the most effective way to create jobs; we should do X instead.  Even if that's true (and I don't doubt that there are better things we could be doing), defeating 7 won't guarantee that X will happen, and passing 7 won't prevent doing X at the next opportunity.  Since 7 doesn't involve spending state money, there's not an issue of allocating limited resources.  (I would agree with this argument if state funds were involved.)
  • Money is fungible, so this won't necessarily lead to more money for education - they can just use what they would have spent on education for something else.  That doesn't bother me.  More money for education is good, but if the money is used instead to balance the budget and prevent other valuable state programs from being cut, that's good too.
  • It's a tax on the poor.  It's not like sales tax, where people have to pay an extra amount in taxes on top of the price of whatever they're buying.  Here, the level of taxation is invisible to the consumer -- people bet whatever they bet, and have whatever probability of winning, regardless of whether the casinos are taxed.  For example, in roulette, the house advantage for most bets is 5.3% (=2/38), and taxing the proceeds doesn't mean that casinos will add a 000 to the wheel to increase their cut.  So the taxes are coming out of the casinos' profits, not as an additional amount out of customers' wallets.  That's at least true for table games; I don't know about slot machines - whether the probabilities and payouts are adjusted as a result of taxes, or more generally how those probabilities and payouts are determined (and I suspect that most slots players are not operating with perfect information).
  • It's a tax cut for casinos.  In the law that was passed during the special session, it appears that most of the substantive provisions are split into Section 1 (which went into effect on October 1 and doesn't require a referendum) and Section 2 (which goes into effect iff Question 7 passes), and that the provisions dealing with taxes on the existing casinos are in Section 1. Therefore, if I'm reading it correctly, the tax breaks were a reason for the General Assembly not to pass the gaming law in the first place, but aren't a reason to vote against Question 7. Am I reading it correctly?
 Also, even if Question 7 gets a majority of votes statewide (and therefore table games and other provisions go into effect), the sixth gaming license will only be issued if Question 7 also gets a majority of votes in Prince George's County.  Since I don't live in Prince George's County, part of me wants to vote for 7, just to let the locals decide, particularly because the anti-7 arguments that I find most convincing are the ones about local impact.  (This is my approach to other similarly structured ballot questions regarding counties I don't live in, thanks to an anonymous commenter here.)   Does anyone know whether it is expected to have greater or lesser support in the county, relative to the state?

So that's where I'm at right now:  possible positive economic and fiscal impact vs. possible negative human and local impact.  I'm looking for guidance about the relative impacts and probabilities of each of these factors, and I'm going to avoid using a gambling metaphor in this sentence.