O'Malley for governor

The rematch between Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. presents Maryland voters with a rare and difficult choice between two men with the proven stature and experience to serve as the state's chief executive. The voters of Maryland have shown a willingness to trust both of them with the leadership of the state, and they know from direct experience that neither man is perfect — nor so terrible as his opponent claims. While a strong case can be made for either one, we believe that Mr. O'Malley's talents, vision and track record make him the better choice to tackle the challenges Maryland faces.

There are several issues on which we believe Mr. Ehrlich's positions are superior. He has a stronger and more specific stance on tackling Maryland's looming $30 billion in unfunded pension and retiree health care liabilities. He is in favor of moving toward 401(k)-style plans for future state workers; Mr. O'Malley can do no more than point to a commission studying the matter. Mr. Ehrlich has the right idea on slots. He favors the proposed Arundel Mills casino, which is crucial if the state is to realize significant revenue from gambling anytime soon. Mr. O'Malley is campaigning against it. Mr. Ehrlich is more enthusiastically committed to education reform, and the Republican is more thoughtful when it comes to pardons and commutations — he took that power of his office seriously and put real effort into seeing that justice was done, whereas Mr. O'Malley has eschewed it.

But on the whole, Mr. O'Malley's ideas are better suited to the challenges Maryland faces now, whereas Mr. Ehrlich at times has failed to recognize the ways in which the world has changed since he left office four years ago.

For example, Mr. O'Malley sees economic development and job creation as the product of the state's public education system, colleges and universities, infrastructure, tax incentives and quality of life. He says the state must leverage all of those things to make Maryland internationally competitive in health care and high-tech fields. Mr. Ehrlich, by contrast, is focused on relatively small adjustments to tax rates and the question of whether the state's unemployment insurance system is too generous or whether its environmental regulators are too diligent in enforcing the law. Attention to those issues is important, but it is not nearly sufficient to guarantee the state's prosperity in an increasingly competitive world.

On the environment, Mr. O'Malley sees the opportunities presented by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new role as an enforcer in Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts. Maryland has always led the region in the drive to reduce bay pollution, and it stands to benefit from the EPA's involvement far more than neighboring states, which have traditionally been reluctant to make the changes to agricultural, development and industrial practices needed to restore the estuary. Mr. O'Malley has embraced the federal government's role, but Mr. Ehrlich says he would fight it.

Although the fiscal circumstances the two faced were different — Mr. Ehrlich governed in relatively flush times and Mr. O'Malley in the worst economy of a generation — much has been made about which candidate is the bigger spender. No matter how you look at the numbers, Mr. Ehrlich increased spending by more than Mr. O'Malley did, both in percentage terms and in raw dollars.

The state general fund (not counting transfers to reserve funds) stood at $10.2 billion in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's final year and at $13.6 billion in Mr. Ehrlich's, a difference of $3.4 billion, or an annual growth rate of 7.43 percent. In Mr. O'Malley's final year, the fund stood at $13.2 billion — it actually went down by $404 million, or 0.75 percent a year.

However, since Mr. O'Malley relied on federal stimulus funds to displace some spending that otherwise would have come from the general fund, it's worth looking at the overall budget as well. The total state budget in Mr. Glendening's final year (not counting reserve funds) was $22.3 billion. In Mr. Ehrlich's last year, it was $28.1 billion, an increase of $5.8 billion, or annual growth of 5.95 percent. In Mr. O'Malley's final year, it stood at $32 billion, an increase of $3.9 billion, or 3.3 percent a year.

But the important thing is not just what they've done but how they intend to tackle an extremely challenging fiscal climate during the next four years — starting with a projected $1.1 billion shortfall next year. Mr. O'Malley's plan appears to be to hang on and wait for the economy to recover. He proposed almost no additional spending during the campaign and promises more of the same incremental cuts and employee furloughs he's used to get through the recession so far.

That's not a great answer, but it certainly beats Mr. Ehrlich's plan. He starts by promising to roll back the sales tax to 5 percent (where it stood when he was governor) and adds tax breaks for veterans and the film industry, more spending on local transportation projects and an end to state worker furloughs. That bumps the fiscal hole from $1.1 billion to nearly $1.9 billion. To pay for it, the only specific things he's proposed are cutting the number of state public affairs officers — worthwhile, perhaps, but hardly a big money saver — and eliminating an optional, $150 million portion of the Thornton education formula known as the Geographic Cost of Education Index. Cuts to education might eventually be necessary, but it's troubling that it's the first place Mr. Ehrlich looked.

The candidates' stances on the issues aren't the whole story. If the last four (or eight) years are any guide, the problems that will consume most of the next governor's time are ones that we don't yet anticipate, and for that reason, it's important to consider the level of professionalism and leadership they bring to the job.

On the whole, Mr. O'Malley assembled a stronger cabinet than Mr. Ehrlich did. Mr. O'Malley leaned heavily on experienced managers from previous administrations in Annapolis or Washington, whereas Mr. Ehrlich, as the first Republican governor in a generation, didn't have that option and instead relied too much on hiring old friends from the legislature. In particular, Mr. O'Malley brought real upgrades to the departments of Transportation; Health; Public Safety and Correctional Services; Natural Resources; the Environment; and Human Resources. Having those experienced managers in place was especially crucial as Mr. O'Malley was forced to make significant budget cuts.

On leadership style and abilities, both candidates have pluses and minuses. Mr. Ehrlich is a gregarious man with an easy charm and a real ability to connect with voters. He is direct and straightforward but can also be dismissive. Mr. O'Malley, despite rising to political stardom as a brash, young, Celtic rock-playing mayor, has mellowed into a politician who can come across as wooden. But he also displays a clear command of the details of governance and an ability to communicate about complex issues. While both men are strongly competitive, Mr. Ehrlich took positions and did not stray from them, even when that was to his disadvantage, whereas Mr. O'Malley showed a greater willingness to accept compromises — some of them bad — to get what he wanted.

That distinction is a key element in the most obvious difference between their administrations: their ability to work with the legislature. The General Assembly is dominated by Democrats who wanted Mr. Ehrlich to fail and Mr. O'Malley to succeed, but that's not the whole story. Their respective leadership styles also played a role, as exemplified by how they each handled a special legislative session.

In 2005, medical malpractice insurance rates were rising sharply, and Mr. Ehrlich called a special session of the legislature, despite disagreement with Democrats about what to do. When it became clear that the Democrats intended to remove the exemption HMOs had from the state's insurance premium tax, he withdrew his support from the process and walked away from the negotiations. The legislature passed a bill anyway, Mr. Ehrlich vetoed it, and the legislature overrode him. The result of Mr. Ehrlich's refusal to compromise was not that he stopped a tax increase but that the state enacted weaker caps on medical malpractice judgment than it could have if he had stayed at the bargaining table.

In 2007, Mr. O'Malley faced billions of dollars in projected budget shortfalls, and he called a special session to enact a complicated plan that included the legalization of slot machine gambling and increases in the sales tax, corporate income tax and cigarette tax but also a reduction in the state property tax and changes to the personal income tax that mitigated or eliminated the effects for low- and moderate-income taxpayers. During a month of negotiations, Mr. O'Malley accepted compromises that weakened the final product, including passing slots as a constitutional amendment rather than simple legislation and approving an ill-fated "tech tax" on computer services (which was repealed soon thereafter).

But he also achieved the creation of a new fund to help Chesapeake Bay cleanup, new funding for transportation and an expansion of health care benefits to low-income adults. Because of the collapse of the global economy, predictions that Mr. O'Malley's actions would solve Maryland's long-term budget problems didn't come true, but it is certain that we would be in worse shape without them.

Mr. Ehrlich's strongest argument for his campaign is that the state needs checks and balances and that having a Republican governor would countermand the heavily Democratic legislature led by House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. Ideally, that would mean that having ideological counterweights in constant tug-of-war would produce more balanced legislation and policies. But in practice, what it meant was a constant butting of heads that resulted in stagnation. The legislature was as much at fault for the poor relations as Mr. Ehrlich, but if he wanted to get his old job back, he needed to tell voters how he was going to make things different this time. The best he could muster was to joke that his plan was to "beat Busch and medicate Miller." That's not good enough.

Maryland faces an uncertain future, full of perils and promise. During Mr. O'Malley's tenure, we have been forced to accept painful sacrifices, from higher taxes to reductions in vital services. Our present feels less secure and our future more uncertain. But Mr. O'Malley is right when he says that through the difficult choices we've made, Maryland has managed to make progress during the toughest of times. If we are to emerge from this recession and prosper in the world that is to follow, we need a leader who is able to articulate a vision for tomorrow and bring it to fruition. In this governor's race, Mr. O'Malley is the better choice.

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