In the second televised debate of the Maryland gubernatorial campaign, Republican Larry Hogan continued to hammer Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown with his charge that, as part of the O'Malley administration, the Democrat has presided over the ruination of Maryland's economy. Mr. Hogan repeated his contention that tax increases to fuel runaway spending in Annapolis had driven thousands of residents and small businesses out of state, stagnated growth and doubled unemployment. Mr. Brown argued about many of the specific points Mr. Hogan raised, to be sure, but he did not disagree with the basic point that Maryland's economy needs a jump start.
Yet, for all the talk about the economy and fiscal issues, both candidates have managed to avoid giving a true picture of the challenge Maryland faces, and neither has offered voters any way to make an intelligible choice about which one would actually be better at solving it.
In the debate, Mr. Hogan played up his role as founder of the think-tank Change Maryland, which he said had made him the pre-eminent critic of the O'Malley/Brown administration's fiscal and economic policies. He may be right about that. But where it was not so pre-eminent was in the business of proposing specific alternatives to the choices Gov. Martin O'Malley and Mr. Brown made during the last eight years, a time when Maryland (and the rest of the country) was rocked by the worst recession in decades.
Mr. Hogan repeated during the debate that he has never supported a single penny of tuition increases in his life. He said he would not, contrary to Mr. Brown's assertions, cut school construction funding, and he bragged that the Ehrlich administration, in which he served, had "doubled' education spending. (Which is not actually true; spending on K-12 education increased 44 percent during Mr. Ehrlich's term in accordance with a new school funding plan approved in 2002. It's gone up another 35 percent since then.)
Mr. O'Malley, unlike most governors, maintained state support for K-12 education during the recession (for the most part, anyway), and substantially boosted spending on school construction. At a time when most states were increasing tuition, Maryland enacted a years-long freeze and then limited annual increases to a manageable level. Mr. O'Malley accomplished that by constraining spending growth below projections and raising taxes. What would Mr. Hogan have done instead?
Mr. Hogan has derided the new stormwater management fees in several central Maryland jurisdictions, which he calls the "rain tax." But he made clear during today's debate that he doesn't question the importance of the projects the fees fund. In fact, he criticized the O'Malley administration for not spending enough on environmental programs during the last eight years. How would he have made those numbers add up?
Mr. Hogan said today that he believes he can find savings equivalent to 5 percent of the budget and would use that to cut taxes and invest in top priorities. But cut which taxes? And fund what priorities? He didn't say.
Mr. Brown has not been much better. His own plan for saving money in the state budget is far from concrete, and Mr. Hogan made a good point during the debate to note that the lieutenant governor has had eight years to pursue those ideas. Mr. Brown wants to provide universal pre-K, but his play to pay for it relies on casino revenue that has already been pledged to K-12 education. Would he shortchange those older students? Mr. Brown says that he, too, wants to reduce the tax burden on the middle class, but his plan at this point is to appoint a study commission to look at the state's tax structure, and during today's debate, that exercise appeared to have been downgraded to an effort to identify some targeted tax incentives for businesses.
The big truth that neither of them is addressing is that Maryland's economy stagnated last year because of the federal government shutdown and sequestration, which had profound direct and indirect effects here and in Virginia. The reality Maryland has to grapple with is that the build-up in federal spending that followed the Sept. 11 attacks (and from which this state benefited tremendously) is over. We need a governor with a vision for how to leverage Maryland's strengths to build a 21st century private sector economy that produces broad prosperity. Neither a vague call for change nor a rehash of Governor O'Malley's policies is going to cut it.
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