Ehrlich, O'Malley: not much of a choice

My brother Hans sent me a Halloween cartoon last week. In it, three costumed children stand at the door of a house, buckets of candy outstretched. The man at the door says, "Look how much candy you have! I am going to take half and give it to the kids too lazy to go trick or treating for themselves!" One of the children replied, "Oh [no], a Democrat."

The cartoon sparked a memory of my father offering to buy Hans' and my candy each Halloween when we were children. My younger brother would take the offer, earn an easy $20, and then my mom would make me share mine with him. I told my dad and Hans that theirs was the Republican method — reap the benefits of the market and socialize its downside.

Those two examples aptly describe the choice Maryland voters face in either re-electing Gov. Martin O'Malley or returning former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to office Nov. 2. Despite the combative sparring over the meaning of "fees" and "taxes" and O'Malley attack ads falsely accusing the former governor of being a "big oil" lobbyist, the two candidates inhabit the same range of the political spectrum — and same socio-economic class.

One candidate wants to create "One Maryland" by expanding government health care and helping small businesses access state services. The other vows to cut regulation and to slightly reduce the state's tax burden, ranked the fourth highest in the U.S. by the Tax Foundation. Both speak frequently and fondly of the service of state employees but not about the fact that taxpayers cannot afford to pay their retirement benefits.

Some significant differences exist. Mr. O'Malley will not promise to veto new taxes. Mr. Ehrlich said he would reduce the sales tax and promised no new taxes in the next four years. They hold dissimilar views on some social issues, including immigration. The current governor calls undocumented workers "new Americans" while his Republican rival labels them "illegal immigrants."

But they both believe in the power of government to transform society for the better. Mr. Ehrlich promises to reduce the sales tax, but he does not talk about repealing the slate of new taxes passed in 2007, slashing benefits for state workers or dismantling state or federal agencies like many Republican candidates across the country this year.

Mr. Ehrlich explained his position in a talk he gave to Professor Richard Vatz's students at Towson University last week: "I'm a Republican in Maryland, so I deal in the sphere of the pragmatic."

This is a heavily Democratic state. But one wonders if the left wins because the alternative seems more like a derivative of its opponent than an alternative to it. At Towson, Mr. Ehrlich urged students not to mimic the beliefs of their parents or peers and to know "why they think it and be able to defend it."

It follows that if he believes in a free market, less government intrusion and balancing the budget, he should say so unapologetically, like the man whose win helped inspire him to run again, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

In a budget address this spring, Mr. Christie said heavy borrowing had left New Jersey "with a choking debt service that this failed policy has wrought." He called for "shared sacrifice and fairness" and vowed to stand up to state unions, whose contracts "set up two classes of citizens in New Jersey: Those who enjoy rich public benefits and those who pay for them."

Mr. Ehrlich could say the same thing to Maryland residents, who face at a minimum $33 billion in unfunded mandates for pensions and health care for state employees. Instead he belatedly said new state employees must expect smaller benefits. To Mr. Ehrlich's credit, Mr. O'Malley won't speak about the issue until a commission on the topic releases a report.

But Mr. Ehrlich's response is like telling a family whose house burned that they should install smoke detectors in their next home. Whether he fears the consequences of telling the truth in this Democratic stronghold or he doesn't believe in the limited government vision animating Mr. Christie and many tea party Republican candidates this year doesn't matter with a week to go before the election. But it will for future Republican candidates, their party and a functioning democracy in this state.

Maryland can either slouch toward insolvency under the majority party or hold itself accountable to economic reality under new leadership. But voters won't choose alternatives if the candidates don't believe in the cure or don't have the courage to advocate it.

Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her e-mail is martamossburg@gmail.com.

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