GOV. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is right: His administration's plan to sell 836 acres of environmentally sensitive state land to a developer at a bargain price - and possibly sell other such state parcels - does raise a significant public policy issue that ought to be explored.
But the public policy issue that must be addressed is not the one that Mr.
Ehrlich identifies. Nice try, governor, but Marylanders are too smart for
In a statement last week, Mr. Ehrlich argued that the questions raised by
these possible land deals involve the efficient operation of government. "I
will restore accountability to state agencies that purchase, manage and sell
property with taxpayer dollars," the governor wrote.
Who disagrees? The state must be run efficiently and with fiscal
discipline. That should include reviewing state land and perhaps even - if the
circumstances are right - selling parcels from time to time.
But for Mr. Ehrlich to define this land-gate in only those terms is a
smokescreen, apparently to deflect the considerable public backlash. So is his
lame effort at historical revision, his carefully couched claim that state
parks and forests "never were" for sale. You see, the 836 acres hadn't yet
been designated a state park or forest. Got that?
If the governor wants to talk public policy, let's focus not on efficient
government, obviously a shared goal, but on open government with real checks
and balances, pretty much ignored in this case.
Let's focus on why Mr. Ehrlich's effort to identify salable state parcels
was hidden from the public. On why his administration felt that it didn't have
to publicly justify selling environmentally sensitive land bought with scarce
preservation funds. On why politically connected developer Willard J.
Hackerman had the inside track on a deal enriching him beyond its value to
taxpayers. And what's with reports that the state's land consultant - former
football star Roger Staubach - was the drawing card at an Ehrlich fund-raiser
for developers? Come meet the guy who's deciding what state land is ripe for
sale - and bring $4,000!
Now Mr. Ehrlich is complaining that Democrats are making political hay by
calling for a state constitutional amendment on the 2006 ballot - when he runs
for re-election - to bar sales of protected state land. We don't know that
such an amendment is absolutely necessary, but it's very clear that Maryland
needs a firm law that brings the whole process of identifying such potential
state land sales, from start to finish, before the entire legislature for
review and approval. State bond bills are subject to such scrutiny; why not
Mr. Ehrlich has not taken responsibility for this sordid affair. Now he's
saying "nothing could be further from the truth" than the notion that his
administration was working toward selling some protected state land. That
disingenuous denial - and the many unanswered questions about what his team
was up to - make the most compelling case for firm legislative control of such
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