Ehrlich
Wendy, Ellicott City: The Sun reported that [Gov. Robert L.] Ehrlich [Jr.] had out-fundraised the Democratic rivals. But I was wondering, why wouldn't you add up the totals for the two Democratic candidates? Wouldn't that be a better indication of the fundraising comparison? Isn't the same true for the Senate candidates since there is only one Republican candidate, but there are several Democratic candidates?

Nitkin: Typically, we report on fundraising numbers to show the level of support for individual candidates. We like to examine -- and we think readers need to know -- what types of individuals (lawyers, doctors, developers, etc.) and what industries (banking, insurance) are giving to which candidates. Additionally, fundraising totals for candidates serve as a kind of credibility check on their campaigns. If a candidate is having a hard time raising money, there's a reason why: Potential donors don't believe he or she can win, or his or her campaign organization is not functioning well. Also, because donors don't disclose their party affiliation (Republicans give to Democratic candidates, and vice versa), there's not so much value in adding up donations to all candidates of one party in a race and comparing it to the other party.

Cathy: Do you think that Ehrlich could have gotten more money for the state budget, with less impact on the less fortunate people, by adding 1 cent to the sales tax than by adding new increases in everything else he has, and calling it not raising taxes?

Nitkin: Ehrlich campaigned as an opponent of sales and income tax increases, and has worked hard to maintain the pledge -- meaning that tax increases passed by the Assembly, such as a package that included a 1-cent sales tax increase approved by the House of Delegates in 2004 -- were essentially dead-on-arrival. Ehrlich has raised a variety of other taxes and fees, however, notably higher vehicle registration fees to pay for roads, a $2.50 a month surcharge on sewer bills to pay for treatment plant upgrades and a 57 percent increase in the state portion of the property tax. Democrats have calculated that the governor has increased taxes and fees by a cumulative $3 billion since taking office. While Maryland's 5 percent sales tax is lower than that in some neighboring states, the sales tax is considered regressive -- meaning it hits less wealthy people harder, because they pay a higher percentage of their income to the state.

O'Malley
Matthew, Annapolis: In the Jan. 16 Q&A, you said, regarding [Baltimore] Mayor [Martin] O'Malley and the city's troubled school system, O'Malley and [running mate Del. Anthony G.] Brown have very little control over the school systems in their districts.

While that may be more true for Brown (even though it's his responsibility to bring the system's priorities and issues to the General Assembly for review), with O'Malley, that's not really true. How can you say that when he aggressively fought against a state bailout in 2004, the system is in federal contempt for its failure to provide services to special education students, and he appoints members to the board who in turn get approved to buy city land at reduced prices while protecting the mayor politically? At the same time, O'Malley claims to be the hero of the system (even as all middle schools fail proficiency tests). Isn't your response a bit disingenuous?

Nitkin: Unlike in many other places, school districts in Maryland don't have their own taxing authority. School systems are funded through a combination of state and local tax dollars raised through general taxes (property taxes in the case of counties; mainly sales and income taxes by the state). Some county school boards are appointed; others are elected. School board appointees are named by the governor. In Baltimore, school board members are jointly appointed by the governor and the mayor. The school board then hires a CEO. Additionally, more than $3 of every $4 for city schools comes from the state. In exchange for a huge infusion of state money in the 1990s, the city gave up much control over schools.

It is true that O'Malley eschewed state funds to close a huge budget shortfall in 2004, and instead tapped into a city surplus, as a loan. The mayor's true authority over schools is the political power of persuasion. The mayor's Democratic opponent for governor, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, argues that the mayor has not made schools a priority in the city, and that is why they have not performed as well as many would like. I maintain that it is disingenuous for any political leader to claim too much credit, or receive too much blame, for schools -- because of Maryland's structure. Duncan can't receive all the credit for schools in Montgomery (nor can Ehrlich), and O'Malley can't receive all the blame for schools in Baltimore.

Les, Baltimore: Back in the 2002 governor's race, O' Malley was interested in running for governor but bowed out to let [former Lt. Gov.] Kathleen [Kennedy] Townsend run. He only would have served one term as mayor. If he gets elected governor, can we expect him to run for [U.S.] Senate if [Sen.] Barbara [A.] Mikulski decides not to run? If so, why would he bother to run for governor?

Nitkin: Mikulski will have to decide in 2010 whether she will seek re-election. That would also be the same year O'Malley would seek re-election, if he wins the governor's race this year. If he were governor for four years, O'Malley would have almost universal name recognition, and, barring major scandal, would be a front-runner for an open Senate seat if one were available and he wanted it. It would be a tough decision. But there's no way to say now what O'Malley would decide to do under those conditions.

Stuart, Baltimore: When will The Sun stop referring to O'Malley's running mate as African-American? He is actually half Swiss and half Cuban. There is nothing African-American about that.

Nitkin: Historically, blacks came (or were brought) to the Caribbean for the same reason they were brought to the Southern United States -- many came as slaves to work on agricultural plantations. I asked Brown how he referred to himself, racially. He said African-American. That's good enough for me. I think he gets to decide this, not you or The Sun.

Voting woes
Rick, Columbia: Is vote early, vote often, and vote anywhere the new motto for Maryland? It looks to me as if the Democrats in the House of Delegates are setting us up for election recounts, disputes and challenges, all of which will result in the courts (already out of control) deciding our elections instead of the voters. Voting is the right of every citizen and it is up to lawmakers to protect the integrity of those votes. Without voter confidence, our system of government is in jeopardy. Once again, the Democrats are playing games with the basic building block of our system of government, masking their actions behind a desire to protect certain groups. My question is simple. You are the political expert -- what were they thinking?

Nitkin: You are referring to several bills passed by the General Assembly last year, vetoed by Ehrlich, and reinstated this year. One bill would require certain polling places to be open in each county several days before the primary and general elections. Another makes absentee ballots available on demand (meaning voters no longer need a legally valid explanation such as out-of-country travel or out-of-state university enrollment), and a third eases the requirements for provisional ballots -- which are filled out when a voter arrives at a polling place and finds that his or her name is not on the voting rolls.

Democrats were thinking of doing whatever they could to increase voter turnout in 2006, with an eye toward winning the governor's race. The logic: Democrats still outnumber Republicans 2-1, and any effort to make voting easier -- say, by making sure shift workers have enough time to get to the polls, or senior citizens in nursing homes have an easier time getting ballots -- helps their party. None of these measures on their face erode voter confidence, in my view. We all can agree that we're all better off when more people participate in voting and the democratic process. I sincerely hope there are sufficient safeguards to protect against fraud (that concern led to Ehrlich's vetoes of the bills). I don't see early voting as being a problem. But, having seen an election in Miami-Dade County in Florida overturned in the 1990s in part because of misuse of absentee ballots, I think there is the potential for concern there.

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