It comes as no surprise that Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. are duking it out in this fall's election over their respective records as Maryland's chief executive. Evaluating who did a better job running the state is important. But so is a sense of where either man would lead us during another four (or, in Mr. Ehrlich's case, potentially eight) years in office. Mr. Ehrlich recently released "Roadmap to 2020," a compendium of ideas he hopes to pursue. It is vague in many of the specifics and frequently fails to address circumstances that have changed since he left office. But it certainly beats Mr. O'Malley, who has released no such position papers and whose website says next to nothing about his agenda.
Here, then, are questions we'd like to hear the candidates answer and will be asking them as part of our process of deciding on an endorsement. We also welcome suggestions from readers for things we should include in the questionnaires we'll be sending to Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Ehrlich. To submit your ideas, go to baltimoresun.com/endorsements.
Spending: The state's fiscal projections suggest that unless something changes, spending will outpace tax collections by some $1.5 billion a year for the next several years. And that may not even be the state's worst fiscal problem; unfunded pension liabilities for current and future state government retirees amount to about $17.5 billion, and their unfunded health and other benefits total $15.3 billion, according to the comptroller's office.
•Do you support changes in pension benefits like those that have been adopted by some local governments in the last few years, such as requiring employees to work more years? Would you consider moving toward a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan, like those that are now common in the private sector? Do you support or oppose the movement in the legislature to transfer responsibility for some or all of the burden of teacher pensions to the local governments that pay their salaries? (Mr. Ehrlich has promised to introduce pension reform but hasn't said what it would entail.)
•Can Maryland continue its policy of furloughing workers rather than laying them off, or is it time to reduce the size of the state government workforce? What agencies do you believe can be cut?
•Are there state programs that don't work and should be eliminated? Are there others that should be expanded? Which ones? (Mr. Ehrlich has said he would "eliminate needless spending" but hasn't offered specifics.)
Taxes: This is one area in which Mr. Ehrlich has said exactly what he wants to do — reduce the sales tax from 6 percent back to the 5 percent it was during his term. But he hasn't said how he'd make up for the lost revenue. Unlike the Republican, Mr. O'Malley has said he can't promise that he won't raise any taxes if he's re-elected, which is an honest concession to the unpredictable financial climate. But neither one of them is talking about whether Maryland has the right tax structure to reflect its current economy and to share the burden fairly among businesses and individuals.
•Does Maryland's sales tax properly reflect economic activity in the state? The levy applies to goods but not services, which make up an increasingly large share of the economy. Would you consider expanding the tax to cover services but reducing the rate?
•Does the corporate tax fairly distribute the burden of taxation among businesses? Do you favor or oppose "combined reporting," a system proponents say helps prevent corporations from hiding profits in other states?
The economy: Mr. O'Malley's economic stewardship during the recession has been a major focus of the race, with Mr. Ehrlich claiming he has failed to prevent job losses and the incumbent saying Maryland has actually fared relatively well compared to other states. But what they, and probably everyone, can agree on is that Maryland needs to generate more jobs.
•What is your vision for Maryland's economy? In what sectors do you believe we can be globally competitive, and what policies will you enact —regulatory changes, tax credits, education or training programs, infrastructure investments, etc. — to encourage their development?
Transportation: As tempting as it might be to pigeonhole the candidates — Mr. Ehrlich as pro-roads and Mr. O'Malley as pro-transit — the real question facing Marylanders is how either would pay for billions of dollars in needed transportation construction and maintenance projects. Mr. O'Malley may favor Baltimore's Red Line as light rail and Mr. Ehrlich as rapid bus service, but the state doesn't have the $500 million (the minimum for buses) to $1.6 billion (the current estimate for light rail).
A generation ago, the gas tax was periodically increased, usually by 5 cents per gallon, to fund the next half-decade of projects to relieve traffic congestion. But the tax has become politically unpopular, and its effectiveness somewhat diminished, in a time of improving vehicle gas mileage anyway. Meanwhile, the state's transportation trust fund has been raided more often than a child's piggy bank to help balance the general fund budget, a strategy both governors employed during economic downturns.
• How should the next generation of transportation projects be financed? Commissions, blue ribbon task forces and anyone else with an opinion can make a recommendation, but the buck eventually stops at the governor's desk. What strategy would you endorse?
Environment: There are any number of serious environmental issues facing the state in the years ahead, from climate change and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to regulating animal waste on farms, but the area of keenest interest to Marylanders remains the fate of the Chesapeake Bay. The state's greatest natural resource remains in peril, and difficult choices lie ahead if improvements to its water quality are to be made.
One change the next governor will face is a much greater federal presence in the bay cleanup. Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. Environment Protection Agency has set firm pollution-reduction goals and warned states that there will be consequences if they are not met. Meanwhile, the state's budget problems have endangered funding for environmental programs ranging from Program Open Space land conservation purchases to hiring at the Maryland Department of Environment.
• What specific changes would you make to ensure Maryland meets federal pollution-reduction goals? What priority would you place on funding programs that protect and enhance the Chesapeake Bay and protect or preserve the environment?
Education: The state's successful application for federal Race to the Top funds commits Maryland to reforms such as basing teacher evaluations on student performance. The next governor will have to carry out those plans. Higher education funding is also likely to be a key issue in the next four years.
•What further legislation, if any, do you believe is necessary to provide Maryland schools with the flexibility they need to be internationally competitive in the 21st century? (Mr. Ehrlich has been more specific on this topic, offering suggestions to expand the number of Maryland charter schools.)
•What is the appropriate level of tuition growth for Maryland public universities? Should Maryland continue its support of private universities, and at what level? What resources and direction will Maryland's community colleges need to train the state's work force?
The candidates may be tempted to conclude that recession-shocked voters in the tea party era don't want to hear about new ideas for government programs. But a recent poll conducted for the nonprofit Advocates for Children and Youth suggests the mood of the electorate is more nuanced.
The survey, conducted by Annapolis-based OpinionWorks, found that voters — in particular, those who are still deciding whether to vote for Mr. O'Malley or Mr. Ehrlich — were receptive to a series of low-cost policy proposals focused on helping at-risk families and children.
For example, the group asked whether the $30 million Maryland has saved this year by keeping more at-risk children in their homes rather than sending them to foster care should be used to reduce the state's deficit or spent on more support services for families. Undecided voters opted for spending the money by a 20-point margin. Voters also strongly supported ideas like intensive treatment and counseling for juvenile offenders, health and family planning services for at-risk women, and tutoring, summer school and other extras for children.
Rather than making this election a choice between a candidate who says the state's ills have been fixed and one who says they could be if we turned back the clock four years, we need our candidates for governor to lay out a vision for the future. They both have six weeks to make it happen.