What about Bob?

April 18, 2004

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. was all smiles when the General Assembly session ended last week. Could it have gone better for him? His slots bill lost and House Democrats voted for a tax increase. He can now maintain the mythology that slot machines could have spared Maryland the brunt of the coming deficit (you can't prove otherwise) while painting Democrats as tax-happy liberals. Meanwhile, he can brag about his $165.5 million boost to transportation spending and his $2.50-a-month "flush tax" to upgrade sewage treatment plants. He's suddenly pro-environment, a turf normally ceded to Democrats, and grateful road contractors have their campaign donations ready.

The Democrats? Disorganized and contentious. Relations between House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller have never been frostier. Mr. Ehrlich's chief rival in 2006 looks like he's at risk of being undone by the city school system's financial mess.

But Mr. Ehrlich's triumph may prove short-lived. His second encounter with the legislature has revealed many of his failings as a chief executive. His unwillingness to address the state's $830 million deficit in fiscal 2006 may come back to haunt him soon enough. The former congressman appears to have brought the worst of Washington politics to Annapolis -- not just partisanship, but the triumph of posturing over substance. Here are the problems:

He's the one raising taxes. For all the talk of Mr. Busch's tax plan, it's the governor who is actually taking money out of people's pockets. His various fee increases will surely be felt -- homeowners with SUVs will pay an extra $66 a year, not counting the higher state property taxes Mr. Ehrlich began imposing last year.

He's going to cut the budget -- for real. Mr. Ehrlich boasts that he has already cut spending by more than a billion dollars, but mostly he's tapped reserves and passed down costs to local governments. Without new revenue soon, he'll have to cut for real, and that's going to inflict pain and protests. As governor, William Donald Schaefer faced the same choices more than a decade ago and watched his popularity slide.

He's not leading. Mr. Ehrlich's won-loss record in Annapolis is lousy. After his two tax bills, what else can he brag about? And it's not just partisan politics. Lawmakers say he's disengaged and doesn't do much arm-twisting. His legislative team is nearly invisible. Take medical malpractice reform, for example -- he embraced the throngs of irate doctors at a State House rally, and then when the cameras stopped rolling, he pretty much gave up on the issue.

He'll be judged by the companies he keeps. Mr. Ehrlich has shown he's ready to raise taxes on ordinary citizens for good causes, but on corporations? For them he's holding the line -- again.

He's going to raise your local taxes. Next year, Mr. Ehrlich is almost certain to try to cut the $400 million the state pays out each year for teacher pensions. The sound you'll hear next will be the county executives screaming -- and then raising taxes. Remember, that's how Parris N. Glendening first got noticed -- screaming about Mr. Schaefer's cuts to teacher benefits a dozen years ago.

He's going to energize the old Glendening golden triangle. Mr. Ehrlich's future budget cuts are likely to hurt Baltimore City and Prince George's and Montgomery counties the worst, the same areas whose voters put Mr. Ehrlich's predecessor in office twice. Which county will take the next-biggest hit on teacher pensions? That would be Baltimore County, the swing voters of 2002.

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