The rematch between Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. presents Maryland voters with a rare and difficult choice between two men with the proven stature and experience to serve as the state's chief executive. The voters of Maryland have shown a willingness to trust both of them with the leadership of the state, and they know from direct experience that neither man is perfect — nor so terrible as his opponent claims. While a strong case can be made for either one, we believe that Mr. O'Malley's talents, vision and track record make him the better choice to tackle the challenges Maryland faces.
There are several issues on which we believe Mr. Ehrlich's positions are superior. He has a stronger and more specific stance on tackling Maryland's looming $30 billion in unfunded pension and retiree health care liabilities. He is in favor of moving toward 401(k)-style plans for future state workers; Mr. O'Malley can do no more than point to a commission studying the matter. Mr. Ehrlich has the right idea on slots. He favors the proposed Arundel Mills casino, which is crucial if the state is to realize significant revenue from gambling anytime soon. Mr. O'Malley is campaigning against it. Mr. Ehrlich is more enthusiastically committed to education reform, and the Republican is more thoughtful when it comes to pardons and commutations — he took that power of his office seriously and put real effort into seeing that justice was done, whereas Mr. O'Malley has eschewed it.
But on the whole, Mr. O'Malley's ideas are better suited to the challenges Maryland faces now, whereas Mr. Ehrlich at times has failed to recognize the ways in which the world has changed since he left office four years ago.
For example, Mr. O'Malley sees economic development and job creation as the product of the state's public education system, colleges and universities, infrastructure, tax incentives and quality of life. He says the state must leverage all of those things to make Maryland internationally competitive in health care and high-tech fields. Mr. Ehrlich, by contrast, is focused on relatively small adjustments to tax rates and the question of whether the state's unemployment insurance system is too generous or whether its environmental regulators are too diligent in enforcing the law. Attention to those issues is important, but it is not nearly sufficient to guarantee the state's prosperity in an increasingly competitive world.
On the environment, Mr. O'Malley sees the opportunities presented by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new role as an enforcer in Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts. Maryland has always led the region in the drive to reduce bay pollution, and it stands to benefit from the EPA's involvement far more than neighboring states, which have traditionally been reluctant to make the changes to agricultural, development and industrial practices needed to restore the estuary. Mr. O'Malley has embraced the federal government's role, but Mr. Ehrlich says he would fight it.
Although the fiscal circumstances the two faced were different — Mr. Ehrlich governed in relatively flush times and Mr. O'Malley in the worst economy of a generation — much has been made about which candidate is the bigger spender. No matter how you look at the numbers, Mr. Ehrlich increased spending by more than Mr. O'Malley did, both in percentage terms and in raw dollars.
The state general fund (not counting transfers to reserve funds) stood at $10.2 billion in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's final year and at $13.6 billion in Mr. Ehrlich's, a difference of $3.4 billion, or an annual growth rate of 7.43 percent. In Mr. O'Malley's final year, the fund stood at $13.2 billion — it actually went down by $404 million, or 0.75 percent a year.
However, since Mr. O'Malley relied on federal stimulus funds to displace some spending that otherwise would have come from the general fund, it's worth looking at the overall budget as well. The total state budget in Mr. Glendening's final year (not counting reserve funds) was $22.3 billion. In Mr. Ehrlich's last year, it was $28.1 billion, an increase of $5.8 billion, or annual growth of 5.95 percent. In Mr. O'Malley's final year, it stood at $32 billion, an increase of $3.9 billion, or 3.3 percent a year.
But the important thing is not just what they've done but how they intend to tackle an extremely challenging fiscal climate during the next four years — starting with a projected $1.1 billion shortfall next year. Mr. O'Malley's plan appears to be to hang on and wait for the economy to recover. He proposed almost no additional spending during the campaign and promises more of the same incremental cuts and employee furloughs he's used to get through the recession so far.