For O'Malley, politics trump policy

There are many resemblances between former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Gov. Martin O'Malley, but this election is not a choice between tweedledum and tweedledee. Mr. Ehrlich has compromised himself in conventional ways, most notably by signing an unaffordable Democrat-sponsored election-year increase in teachers' pensions on which he should have bestowed a foredoomed veto. Mr. O'Malley, however, has carried opportunism to the point of monstrosity.

He has strengthened public employee and construction unions in every possible way. Agency shop provisions make even unwilling workers contribute to union political strength. A "fairness in negotiations" act gives a new union-dominated board, rather than the State Board of Education, the last word in labor disputes, weakening the will and ability of local school boards to seek needed reforms. "Living wage" statutes raise no one's wages but limit the ability to "contract out" inefficiently performed janitorial and food service functions in state institutions. Extension of the "prevailing wage" law has driven up school construction costs, while more than a billion dollars have been spent on bricks and mortar by a state government unwilling to find $30 million a year for needed salary supplements to attract science and math teachers.

Stimulus funds have been squandered on Thornton mandates, including its optional subsidies to wealthier subdivisions; most of these funds furnish existing teachers with seniority increases unavailable to other public and private workers in a recession and to subsidize inflationary Cadillac health insurance programs for teachers of a sort unknown in the private sector.

A certification regime requiring "education methods" courses has been maintained that excludes 90 percent of college graduates and almost all qualified scientists from the teaching force. College tuition has been restrained, for the rich as well as the poor, even as the state maintains dropout academies with no meaningful admissions standards. As Britain and Australia have recently recognized, "country clubs for all" is not a sustainable higher education policy, causing benefits to fall on the unprepared or un-needy even as the best institutions are weakened.

The illusion is fostered that Maryland is No. 1 in education, even though, as the one of the richest states, it is 21st in eighth grade reading achievement, 14th in eighth grade math achievement, 40th in composite SAT scores and 45th in the trend of its SAT scores from 1988 to 2008, such scores having fallen.

Retiree health benefits costing more than $300 million per year have been maintained in anticipation of the election, even though they are largely duplicated by the new Medicare Part D program. An unsustainable pension system has continued to accrue huge deficits, and new bookkeeping gimmicks, including recognition of losses in 2009 over 10 years rather than five, are proposed to disguise them.

Road construction in growing subdivisions has been brought to a complete halt, and local governments have been deprived of road maintenance funds. Designs for new light rail lines have been embraced, notwithstanding the certainty of massive operating deficits. Limitations on state debt have been evaded by recourse to revenue bonds pledging future state appropriations to construct headquarters buildings and laboratories, core functions of government

Although most students of underdeveloped nations agree that swift remedies for secured creditors are essential to mortgage credit and economic development, laws now prolong the foreclosure process to nearly a year, and the Court of Appeals is being improperly pressured to impose an extra-legal moratorium.

A licensee under the O'Malley administration's slots program now find the governor campaigning for legally disqualified non-bidders to gain political favor in Anne Arundel County.

Added fees under Mr. Ehrlich were dedicated to upgrading sewers and to new roads, including the Inter-County Connector. Those under Mr. O'Malley have been spent on maintaining the status quo in education, thus staving off needed reforms. The governor randomly scattered $20 million in an election-year jobs program that had little effect.

Worst of all is the O'Malley record on justice, crime and drugs, the first charge on the conscience of any governor. Unlike those under Mr. Ehrlich, judicial appointments have been totally partisan. Churchill told the Italian people in 1944 that one question to be answered in determining if a state is free is, "are courts of justice free of all association with particular political parties?"

The governor has preserved the drug war status quo by vetoing Del. Curt Anderson's bill to curb automatic prison sentences in favor of treatment programs. What was important to the governor was positioning himself as tough on crime; Mr. Ehrlich had supported measures similar to the one he vetoed. The governor, unlike Mr. Ehrlich, has forsworn use of the pardoning power even in clearly deserving cases, as documented by Dan Rodricks in The Baltimore Sun.

Our public pension policies resemble those of Greece; our employment policies, extravagant benefits for clients of favored unions and various doles for those outside the charmed circle, those of West Virginia; and the disrespect for law in judicial appointments and slots and foreclosure policy has a Central American tinge. Problems in pensions, retiree health benefits, school and college systems, science education, state borrowing, structural deficits and the drug war have all been kicked past the election

Bill Clinton, whose administration was not extravagant, had a campaign song beginning, "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow." O'Malley's March plays a different tune: "Tomorrow Never Comes."

George Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer, served as executive assistant to Gov. Harry Hughes. His e-mail is george.liebmann2@verizon.net.

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