The tale of two governors

The Baltimore Sun

With his approval ratings down and three legislative sessions now behind him, Gov. Martin O'Malley has recently taken to the radio airwaves to publicize his accomplishments. But his message differs strikingly from the AM stylings of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who leads a weekly rage-filled bashing of his successor.

Sorting through the rhetoric is no easy task, but at least Mr. O'Malley's message reveals some shades of gray. In Mr. Ehrlich's world, it's much simpler: Everything that happened since he left office is bad, no matter the inconvenient facts. So exactly how do the two governors' first two years in office compare?

Let's review the highlights:

* The budget. Mr. O'Malley raised taxes to address a looming budget deficit, and this may be his greatest accomplishment - and source of voter disapproval. Mr. Ehrlich did far less to solve the state's long-term fiscal woes. He raised taxes and fees, purloined large sums from the transportation and land trust accounts, benefited from the all-too-brief housing bubble, and left a mess behind.

* Legislative initiatives. Mr. Ehrlich's flush tax was helpful in cleaning up sewage plants and largely preserved the annual increases in education spending, but Mr. O'Malley's first 16 months have racked up far more: The $2 billion settlement with Constellation Energy Group, mandates for cleaner cars, a new fund to reduce runoff into the Chesapeake Bay and tighter restrictions on shoreline development, a freeze on in-state college tuition (compared with the double-digit increases four years ago) and assistance for the medically uninsured.

* School construction. Small wonder Mr. O'Malley is promoting this during his public relations blitz: a record $741 million for classrooms, compared with Mr. Ehrlich's $242 million. Schools in Towson would likely stay crowded without it.

The O'Malley record is far from perfect (year one started too slow and ended too frantic), but at least he has demonstrated a willingness to tackle difficult problems and make politically risky decisions. Exhibit A: shutting down the outdated, dangerous House of Correction in Jessup.

Mr. O'Malley has clearly accomplished much more than his predecessor did in the same time period (when Mr. Ehrlich allowed himself to get bogged down in the slots morass). Will that be enough to charm voters in 2010? The question will be, compared with what?

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