Hey, just raise the fees and blame Ehrlich

The Baltimore Sun

Martin O'Malley told The Washington Post last month that he'd find a "progressive" way to fill state coffers "rather than relying on jacking up everybody's driver's license fee or registration fee, as we did in the past." When Republicans discovered the other day that O'Malley's Motor Vehicle Administration had proposed doing just that, the governor's spinmeisterin-in-chief had a great comeback: Bob Ehrlich made us do it. But we're not doing it.

In a news release, O'Malley communications director Steve Kearney blamed two bills that Ehrlich signed into law for "requiring fee increases." (He also used the word "mandating" in that context.)

But in the same release,Kearney said: "Constantly raising these hidden fees and taxes is not consistent with Governor O'Malley's beliefs, and they are not going forward."

Not going forward? How are they not going forward if two laws made the MVA do it in the first place? Will the Gov defy the law just to save MVA customers 10 bucks on their license renewals?

Turns out the laws don't mandate higher fees.They require the MVA to recover 95 percent of some operating and capital costs from fees, with the idea of making the agency more self-sufficient. (Previously, the requirement was 85 percent and did not cover capital expenses.) If the agency has a shortfall, it can cut expenses instead of raising fees.

"They're saying, "The devil made me do it,' and I'm saying that's bull," said state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, who -- it must be noted -- voted for one of the two bills but had the chutzpah to issue a news release accusing O'Malley of a "sneak attack" on taxpayers. (Pipkin's office said that the bill he voted for was a big one with a lot of stuff he did support, and that he railed against the second, "clean" one.)

"It's very creative to say it's somebody else's fault," Pipkin said. "If they can withdraw them, then they clearly had the option not to propose them."

The higher fees would have brought in $31 million, Pipkin said.Making cuts of that magnitude will be difficult,and it could get harder down the road given the big capital costs of replacing the MVA?s old mainframe technology, the O'Malley camp says.

Maybe, given the state's financial woes, O'Malley will eventually decide to raise MVA fees. Clearly, that's something he was considering -- leaving aside the possibility that the Gov's MVA chief is some sort of rogue operator who'd throw a political hot potato out there on the agency's Web site and in notices sent to drivers without first running it by the boss.

If it comes to that, I'm guessing Marylanders will have less trouble swallowing the fees than the administration's current spin on the subject.

Those who showed liked Romney best

The results from the presidential straw poll at the Maryland GOP Red, White and Blue Dinnerthe other night show strong early support for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney from the state's party activists. He came away with 47 percent of the vote, beating undeclared candidate Fred Thompson,who had 23 percent, The Sun's Andy Green reports.

Despite the heavy backing of former Governor Ehrlich, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani came in third with 14 percent. None of the other candidates broke single digits.

The state GOP's big fund-raiser was a big reminder that things aren't quite what they once were for Maryland Republicans. Last year, with Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael Steele in big-time races, the party needed the entire Constellation Ballroom at the Hyatt in downtown Baltimore. This week, a partition cut the room in half, and there was still room to spare -- about 300 people in attendance compared with 800 or more last year.

Some of the Republican leaders who turned up said it was sad to see the state of affairs, but others who?ve been around long enough to remember when the party was REALLY irrelevant say the event was still a big improvement over the days when a phone booth would have been a little too roomy for a Maryland GOP convention.

And while we're at it, blame ourselves

What good is all that "stat"-suffixed wizardry if some wise guy with a low-tech checklist is going to nose around city schools to see if the toilets are finally working and the leaking windows repaired?

Governor O'Malley -- mayor when the problems were "fixed" " took great offense the other day when The Sun reported that state Department of Education inspectors found that city school employees had falsely reportedmaking 52 of 82 state-ordered repairs.

While Mayor Sheila Dixon demanded an audit of school construction and renovations, and City Council members called for a meeting with school leaders, O' Malley saved his wrath for his own state agency. He said the department was punishing the city system for its "open and transparent" SchoolStat tracking system -- modeled on his much-vaunted CitiStat.

"When was the last time they went into, say, Howard County or Frederick County for the number of items that were put in the database and followed up to the satisfaction of the people from the state?" O'Malley said at the Board of Public Works. "I don't want to discourage other systems from becoming open and transparent for fear that someone from the state who doesn't lift a finger to do the maintenance will come in and bash them."

Maybe they'll just be discouraged from making fake repair claims.

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