The Annapolis train wreck as seen from Towson

May 09, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

LIKE GOV. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., he's tax-averse. Mr. Ehrlich won't raise the sales or income tax. His county hasn't raised the property or income tax in 10 years.

Like the Republican governor, he supports legalization of slot machines. He might accept slots parlors in his county as long as the fairgrounds in Timonium isn't one of the locations.

He's a Democrat, but like the governor, he's had his difficulties with Democratic legislators: members of the County Council. Unlike Mr. Ehrlich, he seems to have found a way to work with his one-time detractors.

So, you might think Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and Mr. Ehrlich could be allies. You'd be wrong. Though he seems as mild-mannered as a politician could be, Mr. Smith makes no effort to soften his criticism of the Ehrlich administration.

He dares to be an Ehrlich critic in Mr. Ehrlich's home county because the governor's policies are about to cause him severe financial and political problems. Without slots or major new tax revenue, county governments in Maryland and the city of Baltimore will be forced to raise taxes or take an ax to things such as teacher pensions. He put the pension cost at $90 million a year.

Mr. Smith says state officials are warning the counties to prepare for another bruising round of budget cuts. Baltimore County has absorbed cuts of $25 million over the last two years.

"If the threats are carried out by the state administration next year, they are going to be flying in the face of the very culture that has existed for a long time in the governor's own backyard," Mr. Smith says.

Big cuts will force painful decisions in many counties, he says.

Could he ever leave the teachers twisting in the wind? "That's a good question. I haven't researched that question. But it's the state's responsibility."

He looks at the paralysis of state government with undisguised exasperation.

"I don't know what the governor's thinking, but he's got to face the music. We've got a train that's running on time in Baltimore County. I suggest they have a train wreck in Annapolis and they've got to straighten it out," Mr. Smith said. "I don't want a train wreck in Baltimore County."

He says the governor's options are, or should be, limited.

"He's going to have to do one of two things. He's going to have to fly in the face of jurisdictions like his own and damage local government by transferring state responsibilities to local government, or he's got to find revenue sources. They have raided every single account. ... There isn't any money. They've raided everything."

Slots, he says, aren't the answer for the next budget; even if they're approved, sufficient slots revenue won't flow for months.

Mr. Smith does give Mr. Ehrlich some credit. "He's done a great job of framing the issue: slots or taxes, slots or taxes. Lots of people say, `I'm not playing slots. I'd love them to raise the money from someone else's pocketbook. Then they won't tax me.' But that's too easy."

He finds the Annapolis political environment disheartening.

"He gets the Democrats to support his fee increases that aren't called taxes. But the Republicans in the Assembly won't vote for them. I've got a bunch of Republican delegates who vote against anything that has a revenue aspect to it."

He gives the governor credit for the so-called flush tax needed to improve wastewater treatment facilities emptying into the Chesapeake Bay and for prison reform ideas, but holds him responsible for a less-than-fully-engaged approach to government problem solving.

"Everything's ad hoc. There's no consistency. There's no overriding rationale," Mr. Smith said.

Does any of this mean he's thinking about how he might do the job better if he were in the governor's mansion?

"I'm not a hit-and-run guy," he says. He wants to preside over a business and education renaissance in his county.

Does he think Mr. Ehrlich will win a second term?

"If the election were this fall, he might be OK. But [without some new revenue] I don't see how he can sustain his popularity," Mr. Smith said.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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