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It’s time for real debate about real issues

Campaign 2010 and a real stock-taking are — or should be — upon us.

Having tiptoed around reality for 90 days, the General Assembly left the heavy lifting to the men who are offering themselves as governor for post-recession Maryland.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, the incumbent Democrat, and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Republican he defeated in 2006, are likely to be the ultimate candidates. Both men could have primary challengers, but they will line up against each other immediately.

It’s being called a grudge match. Too bad. Maybe that image stirs wider interest, but it also seems to trivialize it.

This is not to suggest a gloves-off contest. Let them slug it out. But let the budget and jobs and who we’d like to be as a people be at the center of the ring. There’s already been enough bobbing and weaving and rope-a-doping.

Ehrlich came out swinging. We create jobs, he said, referring to Republicans. They kill them, he said, referring to Democrats. Continuing the same theme, he said that Republicans spend within their means while Democrats can’t wait to spill the red ink.

O’Malley countered with assertions that many states are far worse off in terms of budgets and jobs. He was right, of course, but that may not matter if you’re out of work in Maryland. He’s tried to avoid becoming part of the problem by not joining the government worker layoff frenzy seen in other states.

The former governor, stepping around his own levying of fees and taxes, says his opponent raised the state sales tax on the eve of the recession’s low point. The incumbent says the higher levy will pull Maryland out of the recession sooner when recovery gains momentum.

Facing tough decisions

Even sharper discussion would be a welcome break from the recent moratorium on meaningful talk.

Marylanders have been told that difficult decisions about how to finance government can’t be discussed because it’s an election year. Members of the General Assembly — all of whose terms are expiring — gave themselves a pass on the question of new taxes lest they impair their re-election prospects.

That’s really an upside-down view of lawmaking and governing. Election years are precisely the years for discussion of such issues. Voters can then decide with more certainty who they want in charge.

This election could be one of the most important in recent memory if the participants are willing to go beyond sound bites to discuss the new reality.

Economists and other analysts say state governments could become unemployment’s second wave, sending teachers and other workers to the unemployment rolls.

That’s already happened in California and Illinois, where thousands of teachers have been laid off to close revenue gaps that are otherwise unbridgeable.

Needed: a clear view of the future

Republicans in Maryland’s General Assembly suggested laying off 1,000 workers. That sort of tough decision has to be made, they say. They were, at first, unwilling to offer this and other ideas for fear or having Democrats use them as a club during the upcoming campaigns. What they were looking for, apparently, was some sort of unanimity, some bipartisan agreement that this sport of downsizing was imperative. They didn’t get it.

Democrats said no. Gov. O’Malley said no.

It remains to be seen whether Candidate Ehrlich will urge similar layoffs to bring state government down to what he regards as an affordable size. He’s called for big spending reductions — but hasn’t said where he would make them. He wants to repeal O’Malley’s (and the assembly’s) penny increase in the sales tax. He hasn’t said how or if he would replace that lost income.

Ehrlich may well argue that implementation of his slot machine program when he offered it four years ago would have solved some of the budget problems we face. A fair point. But how much smaller would an Ehrlich government be?

It won’t be easy for these men to offer a clear picture of the future under their leadership. Would they choose to pare away supportive services emblematic of a caring, decent society? Would either be willing to increase taxes to preserve a government structure? Would they leave that possibility open?

Will they promise (Read their lips …) never to raise taxes while they’re in office?

Maryland voters want to know.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.