Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. promised new ideas in his campaign to recapture the governor's mansion this year, and his announcement in Rockville this morning was a good start. The candidate who, four years ago, declined to lay out an agenda for the second term he hoped to win for fear of looking like "a politician making promises" made several specific proposals this morning in a speech that only flirted with the idea that his race against Gov. Martin O'Malley is a schoolyard grudge match. Some of the ideas Mr. Ehrlich suggested are good ones, others are questionable, but all merit debate. If this tone carries through the next seven months, Marylanders might just get the election they deserve.
For starters, we commend Mr. Ehrlich's proposal to double the number of charter schools in Maryland. Charters have been a crucial element of the renaissance in Baltimore's schools, but they have played a relatively small role elsewhere in the state, even in jurisdictions where student test scores are abysmal. Mr. Ehrlich gets credit for enacting Maryland's charter school law in the first place, in 2003, but compromises he was forced to accept to get it through the legislature have hindered its effectiveness. Maryland needs an independent chartering authority so local school boards don't have veto power over their potential charter school competitors, and the state needs to be allowed to provide capital funding to get charters off the ground. Mr. O'Malley missed the opportunity this year to push for such changes as part of Maryland's effort to compete in the federal Race to the Top initiative, and the former governor is right to hammer him on it.
The main theme of Mr. Ehrlich's campaign is the idea that the Democrats who run Annapolis are too quick to raise taxes, spend money and enact regulations that hurt business. This is hardly new ground for Mr. Ehrlich or for the Maryland GOP, but he did buttress it with some specifics. Mr. Ehrlich promised to attempt to repeal the sales tax increase Governor O'Malley pushed through the legislature in 2006. The former governor is right that the sales tax increase was a regressive one, though he neglects to mention that it was packaged with other tax law changes that softened the blow somewhat for low-income workers. He also said he would roll back a corporate income tax increase that was part of Mr. O'Malley's 2007 budget balancing package, saying that it has hindered hiring by small businesses.
That's well and good, but it's hard to evaluate those ideas without knowing how he would balance the budget without those revenues. Mr. Ehrlich promised an end to the budgetary gimmicks Governor O'Malley has used to keep the books balanced (notwithstanding the fact that he used many of the same fund transfers when he was governor). That's an idea we heartily endorse. Maryland has mandated spending plans for health care, pensions, education and other items that are clearly unaffordable. That was the case when Mr. Ehrlich took office, when Mr. O'Malley took office, and now. We need to face up to it.
Mr. Ehrlich is right to point out that Governor O'Malley's own budget department predicts annual budget shortfalls of $2 billion or more for the foreseeable future unless something is done to rein in spending. (Mr. Ehrlich's budget department also predicted shortfalls when he left office, though pre-recession, they were less severe.) Mr. O'Malley has made repeated rounds of cuts to keep Maryland's budget in balance over the last four years — in fact, cutting projected spending far more than Mr. Ehrlich did — but he has said little about his plans for the long term. Mr. Ehrlich hasn't offered specifics yet either, but If this campaign turned on a debate about differing visions for how to reconcile Maryland's commitments with its revenues, that would be a wonderful thing. Whoever is elected governor this year will have to make some painful decisions, and it would help if that person has a clear mandate for them.
The prospects for a campaign of ideas have gotten off to an inauspicious start, however. The debate over whether, when and how the two top contenders for governor this year will debate has already begun, and it's not pretty. Mr. O'Malley wrote an offer on his Facebook page to appear on Mr. Ehrlich's radio talk show on WBAL-AM this Saturday for an hourlong debate moderated by one of the station's staff and perhaps someone from WBAL-TV. Mr. Ehrlich responded on his Web site that he would do the debate, but only if there was no moderator. Mr. O'Malley rejected Mr. Ehrlich's terms, and the whole thing collapsed.
If either one thinks quibbling about the process makes him look good in the eyes of the voters, he's got another thing coming.