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A campaign in need of a reality check

Political leaders, ideally, would find a way to show voters the realities of governing in a complex world. A certain amount of truth telling would be part of the equation.

But if teaching and truth telling were the standards, this year’s campaign for governor of Maryland is a failure.

The early weeks would dishearten anyone looking for an honest discussion of Maryland’s future.

What some are calling a match-up between two incumbents — two men who should understand the aforementioned complexities — has given us little guidance,

It’s been little more than small-ball — a petty dig here and an equally petty riposte there.

We’ve had semantics: What’s a surplus? Who’s a lobbyist? Has a radio talk show host/candidate gotten what amounts to a campaign contribution?

What Maryland needs is a sober examination of what government would look like under the administration of these two contenders. Some of this discussion may emerge as the campaign continues with each candidate drawing out the other on his plans.

At the same time, there would be no better time than right now to have the conversation.

Much ado about nothing

If you’re looking at the budget catastrophe in almost every other state, you’d think both candidates would be talking about how they plan to avoid something similar in Maryland. So far, not so much.

Former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says he left the state four years ago with a billion-dollar cushion. This of course was before the economy and tax receipts fell off the table.

Gov. Martin O’Malley calls the Ehrlich claim fuzzy math. You may have a few dollars in the bank, but if you have as many dollars due and owing do you really have a surplus?

O’Malley saves his real energy to tar Ehrlich as a lobbyist for big oil — and, therefore, worthy of blame for the Gulf of Mexico gusher. It’s a whopper, a stretch at best.

Then there’s the radio talk show on WBAL. Ehrlich says he will leave the microphone after the candidate filing deadline early next month.

Next question: Have you really left if your wife and current co-host/cheerleader remains?

Unremitting seas of debt

Meanwhile, budgets are imploding across the country. States and municipalities founder in unremitting seas of debt. Many are laying off thousands of workers — teachers, police and firefighters included. Libraries are closing. Officials are talking openly about filing for bankruptcy.

Maryland has managed to avoid much of this calamity. The small number of layoffs and furloughs in state government can hardly be mentioned in conversations about California, Illinois and New York, where thousands of workers are losing their jobs.

Former governor Ehrlich’s most dramatic promise so far is to roll back the O’Malley/General Assembly sales tax increase of 20 percent — an increase of a penny on the dollar. The tax went from 5 to 6 percent.

That’s red meat for the taxpayer, but it floats out there as a burst of campaign rhetoric without much further explanation. What would he do to replace the lost revenue? Lay off hundreds or thousands?

Tea party-endorsed candidates in states like New Jersey and in heretofore liberal California have said they would take the cleaver to the state budget. Does Ehrlich plan something like that in Maryland?

The current year’s state budget is smaller than the one passed in 2006. Layoffs have been avoided, but spending has been reduced. Some have chosen to see the absence of massive layoffs as a payoff to the unions. Why not look at them, though, as preserving a work force that educates Marylanders for the future?

O’Malley certainly has been trumpeting the state’s ranking as one of the best — if not the best — school systems in the nation. Would Marylanders support laying off school teachers in large numbers? If that’s the Ehrlich plan, we need to hear it. Throughout the nation, roads, bridges, sewers and waterworks need repair or replacement. It’s not the best time for strapped governments to take on big public works projects. But the needs are there.

The Annapolis waterworks is held together — it is said — with duct tape. It could stop working any time.

One alderman says, “Why all of a sudden a rush?”

Because, a candidate might say, it’s not a rush. It’s 74 years old. You want to fix or replace it before the water stops flowing.

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

One comment

  1. Cecilia Januszkiewicz

    “the current year’s budget is smaller than the one passed in 2006.” And yet, the facts as reported by the Department of Legislative Services are as follows:

    The Maryland State budget enacted in 2006 (FY 2007)totaled $29 billion (see Major Issues Report 2003-2006, p.A-15). The $29 billion included a $770 million appropriation for reserve funds.

    The Maryland State budget enacted in 2010(FY 2011)totals $32 billion (see 2010 90 Day Report, p. A-40). The $32 billion includes just $15 million for reserve funds.