Mr. Duck vs. Mr. Dodge

Monday, May 3, 2010; A14

LONGSHOT PRIMARY challenges notwithstanding, Maryland voters face the likelihood of an electoral rerun of the 2006 gubernatorial race. Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, who won that contest, and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the incumbent at the time, who lost it, say that they're prepared this year to talk about their ideas for the state. You'd certainly hope so, given Maryland's staggering short- and long-term economic problems. So far, though, it remains unclear that this year's campaign will be more than a grudge match between two men of comparable age, bearing, talent and political agility.

Mr. Ehrlich appears to have jumped into the race not so much to champion any cause but because the political climate has shifted in his party's favor. Mr. O'Malley, for his part, has had the misfortune to govern in terrible economic times, which has hamstrung his ability to steer any real course beyond retrenchments. Still, he has avoided addressing a number of critical challenges. Taking the two candidates' performance so far, the campaign's beginning has not been auspicious.

Mr. Ehrlich's four-year term was marked both by gratuitous partisan squabbling, petty scandals and a tin ear for political ethics, as well as by a generally pragmatic approach and modest victories -- pushing forward the Intercounty Connector in Washington's Maryland suburbs and imposing a tax to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay and other state waterways. Mr. Ehrlich governed in boom times but still left the state with a structural deficit that Mr. O'Malley was compelled to address in his first year in office, largely with tax increases.

Now Mr. Ehrlich says that he would repeal a chunk of those increases by rolling back the 6 percent state sales tax to 5 percent. That would cost the state $739 million a year by 2015, widening an already gargantuan projected annual deficit to more than $3 billion (about a fifth of revenue). He'd also trim the corporate tax that Mr. O'Malley raised. And just how would Mr. Ehrlich pay for those tax cuts in an era of depleted revenue? He's not saying.

Mr. Ehrlich has been more substantive and sensible in talking about the need to expand charter schools in Maryland. But he has yet to flesh out a plan to balance budgets, pay for transportation initiatives or deal with the state's long-term pension obligations.

Mr. O'Malley has been nearly as evasive, although his status as an incumbent has compelled him to answer more questions. His record includes an important expansion of Medicaid health coverage for impoverished adults; three years of holding the line against tuition increases at state colleges and universities (though a small hike is pending); major reductions in crime (in line with those in other states); passage of legislation that led to the authorization of slot machine gambling (but so far, not a nickel of the $600 million that slots were to yield for the state annually); and, as he never tires of pointing out, schools that are among the best in the nation.

However, Mr. O'Malley, though he has managed successive spending cuts to balance the state budget, has not addressed the medium-term problem of annual deficits that are projected to reach and exceed $2 billion in the next few years. And he has dodged critical questions about the longer-term but more daunting challenge of billions of dollars in unfunded obligations to pay pensions and health-care benefits for retired state government employees and teachers, the burden of whose retirement benefits falls overwhelmingly on the state. These ticking time bombs demand serious ideas and debate. So far, we haven't heard them from Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. O'Malley.

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