The most provocative new line of attack Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown made against businessman Larry Hogan during this week's debate was that the Republican nominee plans to cut $450 million from school construction if he's elected. Is this true? Absolutely not, Mr. Hogan says. But the fact that there is some basis to Mr. Brown's claim points to a flaw with Mr. Hogan's campaign — and the fact that Mr. Brown is exploiting it in the way he is points to the hollowness of this race.
Mr. Brown got the $450 million figure from Mr. Hogan's plan for achieving savings in state government spending. The Republican developed it by going through audits of state agencies and looking for examples of waste, fraud and abuse — or simple bad management — that have gone uncorrected. That's certainly a valid exercise, but the product the Hogan campaign produced turns out to be error-riddled. The Sun's Erin Cox and Michael Dresser reported on three particularly egregious errors. In one instance, a mistakenly placed decimal point turned a report of $11.95 million in questionable spending cited in an audit into $119.5 million in waste in Mr. Hogan's telling. In another, an audit finding that state tax assessors had undervalued some land by $285 million was counted as $285 million in waste; given the state property tax rate, a correct assessment would yield an extra $319,200.
Finally, there's the school construction figure. Mr. Hogan cites an audit showing that the state didn't adequately track 126 projects worth $450 million. The auditors noted that the state corrected the problem, and the money was never considered waste in the first place.
Finding savings by combing through audits is easier said than done. Frequently, as is the case with the school construction finding, they don't identify frivolous spending that can be painlessly cut, but instead important investments that are not being made as effectively or transparently as possible. Furthermore, they often identify problems in the use of capital funds or grant funds, so resolving them wouldn't necessarily help with the state's operating budget woes.
Mr. Brown, incidentally, unveiled his own plan for saving $1.5 billion from the budget over four years. If Mr. Hogan's plan is full of mistakes, Mr. Brown's, despite 64 footnotes, is full of guesstimates and fuzzy thinking. Could the state save money through better procurement practices? Probably. $100 million a year? Impossible to know. Is a lower high school dropout rate associated with less crime — and lower associated costs for police, prosecutors and jails? Sure. Is Mr. Brown's plan to create universal pre-K for 4-year-olds going to lead to fewer dropouts and therefore an annual $64 million in crime savings by 2019? Doubtful, but that's the impression you'd get from Mr. Brown's report. Has Maryland spent large amounts of money enforcing laws against possession of small amounts of marijuana? Absolutely. Will the state save $106 million a year because of its decision to decriminalize that offense? Not unless Mr. Brown plans to fire a bunch of police officers, prosecutors and correctional officers. (And even then, most of the savings would go to local governments, not the state.)
Another thing this flap between Messrs. Brown and Hogan underscores is the extent to which much of the discussion in this race is utterly unilluminating or even misleading for voters. Mr. Hogan has not really identified $1.75 billion in waste, fraud and abuse by Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration, but it sounds good, so he's sticking with it. Mr. Brown has not really caught Mr. Hogan in a promise to cut school construction, but it sounds better than catching him in some sloppiness, so he's repeating it. Mr. Hogan's views on abortion are nuanced — he's personally opposed to it but would not seek to change Maryland law — but it sounds better to say he wants to ban it even in cases of rape or incest, so that's what Mr. Brown is doing, even if he has to rely on 34-year-old newspaper articles to back up the charge. Have Governor O'Malley and Mr. Brown really raised taxes 40 times in a row, as Mr. Hogan says? No. Many of the items on Mr. Hogan's list are fees for things like fishing licenses and vanity license plates, and others are taxes that were repealed or are no longer in effect. How he considers automated enforcement of speed limits to be a "tax" is a mystery, but 40 is his number, and he's shouting it every chance he gets.
We have no objection to the candidates criticizing each other's views and records, and there's plenty of material to work with in both cases. We just wish they'd strive for truth and not truthiness.
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