Four years of real debate leaves us a better state

January 14, 2007|By Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

As I leave office and look back over the past four years, I see a remarkable and rewarding opportunity to redefine the way state government operated. The voters wanted change when they elected me in 2002. But they also wanted a marketplace for ideas and debate. Their state government had sunk into a comfortable, predictable way of life where taxpayer needs and desires were met the old-fashioned way: with new spending plans, new taxes and a pat on the head. Creativity and accountability were words rarely heard in Annapolis.

When I was sworn in as governor, we inherited major problems, starting with an immediate $2 billion structural deficit, the result of a state spending spree. Our government's core missions -- education and public safety -- had become routines rather than priorities. Student performance in our public schools hovered at just-respectable levels, prisons were revolving doors for criminals, and too many neighborhoods were afflicted with violent crime. The Chesapeake Bay suffered from bureaucratic malaise. Businesses felt captive to a legislature that piled taxes and regulation upon taxes and regulation.

My job was to challenge the status quo. I began by asking simple questions: Why was spending outstripping revenue? If education is truly our priority, why were so many students -- and schools -- failing to excel? Why were so many prisoners returning to prison? Why was the bay's health still in decline? Why were Maryland's employers, even its farmers, considered enemies of Annapolis rather than partners?

We began with a strategic budgeting initiative that examined and challenged every state expense. We demanded results. We shrank the size of the executive branch by 7 percent. We demanded that Cabinet agencies manage their money wisely. We said "no" to new across-the-board spending and to general fund tax increases. In three years, we had replaced Maryland's budget deficit with a $1 billion surplus. We tripled Maryland's "rainy day fund" to $1.4 billion. I leave office with a sound budget and robust economy.

Educational improvement became our priority. We made major new investments in our public schools without raising taxes but while demanding results. Our school construction budget is at an all-time high. Today, student test scores have improved statewide, and there are more black and Hispanic students in Advanced Placement classes than ever before. I leave office at a time when every school system in the state except Baltimore's is on sound footing.

I authored Maryland's first-ever charter schools law and opened 24 new schools that give parents the opportunity to remove their children from chronically failing schools. I doubled need-based college scholarships, helping college enrollment reach an all-time high. We expanded our outstanding network of community colleges and poured long-overdue capital investments into our historically black universities.

Prison reform and violent crime demanded our attention. In 2003, I embraced a new approach to prisoner rehabilitation, called Project RESTART, that expanded education, job training and drug treatment to help nonviolent offenders become responsible members of their community upon release. We also targeted violent criminals with tougher penalties for sex offenses, drunken driving and witness intimidation. Our state is safer as a result.

We also designed a groundbreaking plan to revitalize the bay. My Chesapeake Bay Restoration Program created a user fee to rebuild 66 wastewater treatment plants in Maryland that will reduce wastewater pollution by 7 million pounds annually, cutting current levels in half. We jump-started a moribund initiative to reduce farm runoff and pollution by another 1 million pounds every year. Oyster recovery efforts, bay grass restoration and land preservation programs have been reinvigorated. Two months ago, for the first time in years, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's annual report on the health of the bay reported a measurable improvement in water quality.

We also challenged our business leaders to "get dangerous" by bringing their agenda to our legislature rather than the other way around. Together, we defeated $7.5 billion in new taxes. We expanded our technology industry and international marketing efforts; we kicked off a massive transportation improvement program, including the Intercounty Connector; we landed the largest defense job realignment prize in the nation; and we sent the word that Maryland wants private-sector investment. These priorities paid off; we partnered with the business community to create 100,000 jobs in four years.

Apart from specific policies and programs, my administration did something larger: It ushered debate back into Annapolis. For 40 years, there was little debate and even less public dissension. Over the course of four years, we established a marketplace of competing ideas and open debate in Annapolis. We challenged the status quo, and Maryland is better for it. My greatest wish is that this debate continues despite the return to single-party rule.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is the governor of Maryland.

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