Promises, reconsidered

Our view: Ehrlich is right that transportation funding is vital, but where will he get the funding for this and his other proposals?

August 23, 2010

Last time Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. ran for governor, he took curious pride in not telling voters what he would do if he won, saying he didn't want to come off as a "politician making promises." This time, he apparently feels no such compunction and has taken to making promises with no indication whatsoever of how he would fulfill them.

The latest example was his promise Friday to local officials at the Maryland Association of Counties conference in Ocean City that, if elected, he would restore a quarter of the local highway funds that his likely opponent, Gov. Martin O'Malley, raided to keep the state's books balanced. Mr. Ehrlich pointed out, quite correctly, that such local funds have been all but eliminated as Mr. O'Malley has dealt with the state's fiscal crisis during the last two years. We wouldn't begin to quibble with Mr. Ehrlich about the importance of the highway funds — they are critical for maintaining the state's aging infrastructure. We doubt Mr. O'Malley would argue with the goal of restoring the funding either.

The problem is that Mr. Ehrlich has been going around the state complaining that Mr. O'Malley is spending too much money and talking up the budget estimates that show a shortfall next year of as much as $1.5 billion. Yet now he's promising $60 million in additional spending without any hint about what he would cut or what new revenues he would raise to pay for it.

Taking that disingenuousness to new heights, Mr. Ehrlich issued a news release touting his promise and noting, "As governor, Bob Ehrlich enacted an ambitious plan that generated $247 million in new transportation funding per year and helped launch 123 new road, bridge, and transit projects statewide. The O'Malley administration has failed to enact any similar plan in four years." Unmentioned is that the source of the $247 million was his widely unpopular increase in car and truck registration fees. Had Mr. O'Malley done something similar, would Mr. Ehrlich be praising him for it now? Not a chance.

Mr. Ehrlich has also been stoking discontent among small business owners about recent rises in unemployment insurance tax assessments. He has been promising to re-evaluate the system, notwithstanding the fact that the increases are the result of recession-induced unemployment and came about as a result of new formulas adopted after consultation with the business community during Mr. Ehrlich's term. Changes Mr. O'Malley pushed through this year added marginally to the cost of the system but made the state eligible for an immediate $127 million in federal funds. He offered to use the money for immediate rate relief for businesses, but the Chamber of Commerce argued successfully for the money to be used instead to shore up the unemployment insurance trust fund's stability. Mr. Ehrlich has not said how he would manage to reduce the burden on businesses without destabilizing the fund.

But those promises are peanuts compared to Mr. Ehrlich's pledge to roll back the sales tax increase Mr. O'Malley pushed through the legislature in 2007. Bringing the tax back from 6 percent to 5 percent would cost the state about $600 million in annual revenue. Mr. Ehrlich first made this pledge in April with a promise that he would soon explain how the state could afford to do this. We're still waiting.

The lesson of Mr. Ehrlich's first term that we need to remember when evaluating his campaign promises this time is that the General Assembly won't just roll over and do whatever Mr. Ehrlich wants just because he's the governor. He needs to be able to present plans that appeal across the political aisle and to build coalitions of support. Not only do we need to know how he would like to pay for his promises, but we also need to know how he's going to get the legislature — still all but certain to be controlled by the same Democrats who stymied him four years ago — to agree with him.

Maybe Mr. Ehrlich figures he doesn't need to worry about all that. He can promise anything — heck, why not pledge to restore all of the local transportation money? — and when he fails to deliver, just blame the legislature. But voters do need to worry about it. They need to demand that Mr. Ehrlich prove he's more than just another politician making promises.

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