Name-calling won't win the budget war

March 02, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

RHETORICAL CANNONS rolled up to the front, and the political commanders fired for effect. All but one of them was aiming at the wrong target.

With less than half the legislative session remaining, too many Annapolis hands think the issue of the day is slots. They're wrong. It's the deficit. It's the future. And it's taxes. Under the best forecasts, slots aren't the answer.

But Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. presses on with his all-slots, all-the-time agenda. No slots, no Thornton, he thundered, breaking his campaign promise to fund the big education aid package, slots or not.

And he accused his chief opponent, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, of playing the "race card." Mr. Busch, he fumed, was guilty of speaking with black ministers who oppose slots. It was a bogus charge - which made you ask, "Who's really playing the race card? Who's making race an issue in this debate?" Not Mike Busch.

Race, of course, is part of almost everything political, but throwing around charges of racial manipulation is risky and wrong in this case. It's also not smart politically. Did he create sympathy for an opponent who has fought the battle with important questions?

The Assembly was stunned by the governor's language. A widespread conclusion: He needs a distraction because he can't defend his centerpiece legislation. At the time of his charge, in fact, there was no legislation. He'd pulled it back for retooling, making Speaker Busch's basic point: The governor and the Assembly should wait a year while this far-reaching bill is perfected or discarded.

To show strength, perhaps, the governor introduced an alien tone. He had promised to change the culture of corruption in Annapolis, but here he was changing the culture of civility, moving the careless language of the powerless to the governor's office. If you're a congressional representative in Washington, which Mr. Ehrlich was for years, a relatively junior Republican member, you can hurl thunderbolts hither and thither. No one hears you for the most part and no one gets hurt. In the governor's office, every word matters.

In addition to being unworthy of the office, name-calling spends political capital. It doesn't fool anyone. If your most important bills come in like half-done homework, opponents will be even more opposed.

If the bill is weak in its present form - and pulling it back makes that clear - why not wait? If this year's budget problem can be solved with $450 million in cuts and tax-loophole closing, why not do that while you look for savings and contemplate Maryland's long-term financial problem?

If you rush forward, aren't you vulnerable to the charge that gamblers are driving the issue? They sent more than $120,000 to Mr. Ehrlich's campaign accounts and more than $500,000 into a national Democratic campaign committee headed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. Mr. Miller turns out to be the legislator most responsible for keeping the governor's bill in the game at all.

And it's the wrong game.

A chart released last week by the Assembly's financial forecasters lays out a frightening future even with slots. The fiscal analysts believe Mr. Ehrlich's estimates of slots revenue are dangerously optimistic.

But even if the governor is right, they say, the state will still have shortfalls running into the hundreds of millions of dollars for years. He has to drop his opposition to new or increased taxes. The House and Senate will examine some taxing options Tuesday and Wednesday.

So far, the governor and the Assembly have avoided reality with impunity. Only the powerful higher education lobby publicly objects to the cuts it is asked to absorb. Others in Maryland will bleed, too, but so far the discussion is so dominated by slots that virtually no one else objects or shows up to protest. Senators and delegates can hide from reality, too: People didn't send me down here to raise taxes, some of them say.

But Maryland voters did think they were electing leaders. There was a time in Annapolis - and Mr. Ehrlich saw it as a young legislator - when leaders looked forward to the tough issues because they wanted to prove their commitment to the well-being of the state. If a tough vote might cost you your seat, so be it. You didn't run to get re-elected. You ran to lead.

The new governor is leading in some vital areas. He has put the prestige of his office behind an effort to end the killing in Baltimore; he's hired a tough lawyer to represent him in the case of a convicted lobbyist seeking re-instatement; and he pushed a compromised political friend off the patronage rolls.

It's just not enough. He has to address the deficit that rolls on with or without slots. Democrats dug the deficit hole. But he's falling into it.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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