Governor's state address rings empty

Michael Olesker

RUNNING time for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s State of the State speech yesterday was 30 minutes. Walking-out time was about 15. The 30 minutes included introductions of friends, scattered polite applause, attempts at humor. Example of humor: The weekly Board of Public Works meetings, deprived of the legendary Glendening-Schaefer scraps, are "no longer the No. 1-rated TV show," the governor declared. More wit has gone into Chamber of Commerce speeches, and more effort, too.

The governor was big on platitudes, short on detail. He talked of Maryland's financial crisis only in generalities. He mentioned the controversial slot machines briefly, and not by name. He never used the word "tax," for it is considered a curse, except when uttered as a euphemism.

In his final moments, the governor called for a new bipartisan spirit of cooperation. But, based on what? When it was over, Baltimore Del. George Della walked out and declared the speech "very polite" and rolled his eyes. Southern Maryland Sen. Roy Dyson declared it "30 minutes long and an inch deep. Where was the substance?" Pat Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, said, "Did anybody notice he didn't mention Thornton even once?" Thornton, that's the public school salvation that candidate Ehrlich campaigned on and promised to fund -- with or without slots money.

Bobby, Bobby, Bobby.

This governor doesn't seem to get it. He keeps offering his prime-time speeches with all the inspiration of an inner-office memo. He faces a crushing deficit, a controversial gambling plan getting kicked right and left, and an opposition party not precisely charmed by him or his politics.

Yet, given his moment in the sun -- when he's addressing not just legislators but the entire state -- Ehrlich sloughs the moment off. It is his bully-pulpit chance to articulate a vision, to tell us where we are and where he would like to lead us, to take note of people's pain and tell us how he would heal it. Instead, his manner is one step above the locker-room kid snapping a towel and imagining this is considered leadership material.

"I was waiting for him to say something about juvenile justice," said Baltimore County Del. Robert Zirkin. "He talked so much about it during his campaign" -- when he blamed Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for the mess -- "but I didn't hear anything."

"It was a political speech," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan. "Problem is, this isn't an election year."

"I kept waiting for him to talk about our fiscal problems," said Mayor Martin O'Malley. "But it was like Groundhog Day. We're back where we were last year, facing a big financial shortfall and cutting services to meet it. Or being forced to raise local taxes. It's politically slick but fiscally irresponsible."

Understood, these are Democrats talking. Republican Del. Anthony O'Donnell, the House minority whip, stood in the State House crowd yesterday, listening to O'Malley's post-speech assessment, and pronounced the mayor's words "downright shameful. He should be ashamed of himself. Here we had the governor asking for bipartisan cooperation, and this is the response."

Precisely.

Because there must be something beyond generalized, feel-good calls for cooperation. Because, despite his calculated good-old-boy affability, this governor does not seize the big moment (or the small ones) to offer us reasons for cooperation beyond a bookkeeper's arithmetic.

And he insists on pretending that he is not raising taxes when he is. In this governor's language, a tax is not a tax, it is a "fee." It is not a state tax, it is a tax shifted to localities, and let those local officials take the heat. A tax is not a tax, it is merely a tuition increase for state colleges. All of which are the same thing, and allow Ehrlich to tell his core supporters, in some perverse, misguided, patronizing way, "You see? I'm standing firm on taxes."

"I think he thinks people don't see through it," said Baltimore County Del. John Arnick. "Call it funds, call it fees, it's the same thing. But the polls say people aren't making that distinction."

"Forget the polls," said Baltimore Del. Brian K. McHale. "My constituents are smart enough to figure it out. They know when a fee is a tax. And they know when they're being shortchanged on roads, on construction, on street repairs that local government can't afford."

"It's the big lie," said Baltimore Del. Curtis Anderson. "It's a philosophy that depends on people not paying attention. The problem is, sometimes it works. You repeat it like a mantra, that you're not raising taxes, and some people start to believe it."

Which leaves us with yesterday's State of the State speech, and this governor calling for his "new era of bipartisan cooperation." It sounds nice. But, based on what? On empty euphemisms? On promising to fully fund the public schools, and then failing to mention the word Thornton in the most important speech of the year? On facing a statewide financial crisis, and passing it on to local governments, and hoping nobody's paying attention?

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