Battling for the hearts and minds of Maryland

April 13, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

VETO FEVER peaked last week when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. began a tour of the state proudly displaying a heavily bandaged budget.

Some $700 million had been pared away and Mr. Ehrlich was promising at least $135 million more.

This, he declared, is what Maryland wants.

This means a reduced commitment to public education, a smaller Medicaid program for poor children and the elderly, a higher-education bill on short rations, less money for child care, no raises for teachers.

And the Democrats' response? Mr. Ehrlich has capitulated unconditionally to the hard right. His veto of the tax bill would save corporations while taxing homeowners - and breaking a promise to fully fund a $1.3 billion aid-to-education initiative.

Referring to a General Assembly-passed bill that would partially demolish tax shelters in Delaware, Del. Maggie L. McIntosh of Baltimore said, "We have a governor who would rather protect Victoria's Secret than provide an adequate education for children in need."

Extending that theme, a Democratic adviser to Mayor Martin O'Malley said, "He'd rather tax you than tax his campaign contributors."

Until late last week, Mr. Ehrlich backed an increase in the state property tax. Well, he might have backed it: He proposed it. Now, though, as he prepares to meet the people, it's veto bait.

But who among the Democrats will hit the road with Mr. Ehrlich to make the case for government?

Don't look for any big names just yet.

U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, up for re-election in 2004, worries that Mr. Ehrlich is the leading edge of a new Republicanism in progressive Maryland.

So maybe it'll be Mayor O'Malley or Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. Both may wish to be the Democrat who takes back the mansion, a venue reserved in the stars for Democrats.

More likely, based on recent events, it'll be House Speaker Michael E. Busch of Anne Arundel County. Mr. Busch slew two dragons this year during the Assembly session: CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, which was denied for-profit status by the Busch-led Assembly; and Mr. Ehrlich's slot machine gambling bill.

What would Mr. Busch be saying in this environment, where taxes have become the anthrax of politics?

Mr. Ehrlich knew.

He knew the speaker would point out that the anti-tax Mr. Ehrlich warmly embraced several taxes during the course of the just-completed legislative session. They weren't major taxes, such as income or sales - the ones Mr. Ehrlich had promised to avoid - but they were taxes.

Until Wednesday, the governor was promising to veto only the taxes on corporations, the loophole-closer and the others. Until then, he had said nothing about the property tax.

What an opening for the Democrats.

Apparently realizing his vulnerability, Mr. Ehrlich suddenly promised to oppose the property tax increase, too. That could knock another $165 million hole in the budget, require more cuts - or perhaps the Board of Public Works will stop him. Then he can say he fought like a tiger, but hey ...

On all these taxes, the Ehrlich team says it only agreed to any taxes to get slots - and then Mr. Busch pulled the rug out. Don't believe it.

If slots had been agreed to under any deal, newspapers would have written, "Speaker Yields to Slots; Ehrlich Wins." No one wrote it, friends, because it didn't happen.

So the death of slots was a good thing for Mr. Ehrlich. He wouldn't have to explain why he had supported any taxes.

It's all worrisome. Slots - which are coming, unfortunately - won't close the deficit gap. They won't pay for aid to public education or higher education or Medicaid. The moderate Mr. Ehrlich knew that earlier in the session, but he unlearned it in a pique of re-education by the right.

Democrats have plenty to learn, too.

They know there is resonance for Mr. Ehrlich's message of "no." They know government could be more efficient. They know the governor is right when he says they engaged in a bit of spend and tax - principally with aid-to-education measures, which lawmakers passed knowing they were unaffordable.

Mr. Ehrlich lost the slots battle, as he should have. But that loss has perversely given him victory among those who want to shift their civic responsibility to gamblers.

If the Democrats don't find an answer, the whole state will be shifting - away from them.

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

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