Mr. O'Malley for governor

Sunday, October 17, 2010

MARTIN O'MALLEY took office as governor of Maryland in 2007 facing projected deficits as far as the eye could see -- and that was before the recession gutted state revenue and forced extensive spending cuts. In his first year, he took tough, decisive steps to close those deficits, rallying state lawmakers to revise and raise taxes. Had he not done so, the reductions in state programs, services and payrolls over the past four years, already painful, would have been draconian and the state's fiscal health imperiled.

Now, as he approaches the end of his term, he can justifiably say that Maryland has withstood the recession better than many states, although like most it faces further cost-cutting and grave long-term problems. That is a credit to Mr. O'Malley (D), who in fiscal and other areas has been a good, level-headed governor. He deserves reelection.

Unsurprisingly, former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Republican nominee, has assailed the 2007 tax increases, which he fairly describes as a hallmark of Mr. O'Malley's administration. But Mr. Ehrlich, who was himself an able governor from 2003 to 2007, has his own record of increasing taxes and fees to achieve defensible and laudable goals. And despite the applause-inducing nature of Mr. Ehrlich's main fiscal proposal in this campaign -- to roll back the 20 percent sales tax increase at the heart of Mr. O'Malley's 2007 tax package -- he has refused to say how he would absorb the resulting loss of $600 million in state revenue.

By pretending that he can painlessly starve state government of income, Mr. Ehrlich has failed to level with Maryland voters. He has also undercut his own campaign's main thrust, which is that he would reinvigorate the state's business climate and create jobs. If he balances his budget by hacking away at the budgets for schools or public safety, how credible is his assertion that he would be more successful in attracting new companies?

It's become a cliche that the two candidates can't stand each other. But don't be misled into thinking that Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Ehrlich are polar opposites. In fact, each has established a record of moderation and pragmatism, of solid environmentalism, and of Baltimore-centrism that doesn't quite square with the evident personal venom that colors their rivalry.

It was partly on that record of moderation that we endorsed Mr. Ehrlich for reelection four years ago. Our reasoning then was that Mr. O'Malley, despite an impressive record as mayor of Baltimore, had failed to make a persuasive case for toppling a generally proficient incumbent. We also worried that replacing Mr. Ehrlich, the first Republican in a generation to serve as Maryland's chief executive, would restore one-party Democratic rule to Annapolis, along with its corrupting tendencies.

Now, in their rematch, we remain worried about one-party rule -- specifically, that a state lacking a genuine contest of ideas and outlooks is unlikely to be well governed in the long term. But while Mr. O'Malley can be flippant and occasionally disingenuous, he remains at heart a wonkish, disciplined, good-government Democrat.

He has named top-flight technocrats to his cabinet -- a more impressive crew, generally speaking, than Mr. Ehrlich's top appointees. He has vastly expanded Medicaid coverage for the state's most vulnerable and poor citizens. He has done good things to help restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay. And Mr. O'Malley's four years in office have been scandal-free, a refreshing departure from recent history in Annapolis.

Mr. O'Malley can be calculating, even timid. We wish that he would articulate a plan to address the $33 billion in unfunded liabilities the state faces in pensions and health care for retired teachers and state employees; instead, he has dodged the issue publicly and named a commission to make recommendations -- after the election. Mr. Ehrlich, by contrast, has been frank about the need for change, for example in the type of pensions offered to new employees. Mr. O'Malley also has ducked explaining how he would close looming operating deficits, although he has sensibly refused to rule out new taxes to fix projected budget shortfalls. On this score Mr. Ehrlich has been even more evasive, by promising lower taxes while declining to specify spending cuts.

On transportation, Mr. Ehrlich deserves recognition for launching the Intercounty Connector, a suburban highway outside Washington now approaching completion thanks to funding furnished by Mr. O'Malley's administration. But it is Mr. O'Malley who is more forward-looking in advocating that the Purple Line be built as light rail transit connecting Metro lines in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Mr. Ehrlich's competing proposal -- the Purple Line as a rapid bus route -- would be more affordable in the short term, but it would lack the ridership and economic development potential of a light rail link.

On education, we admire Mr. Ehrlich's advocacy of charter schools; if not for him, there likely would be no state law allowing these alternative public schools. He is also to be commended for focusing attention on the shabby quality of education provided to poor, minority students in Maryland's worst schools. Nonetheless, Mr. Ehrlich has otherwise failed to present a clear vision for education reform.

Mr. O'Malley, meanwhile, sees education as a top priority. He put aside his differences with State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to give her the support that she needed to push reforms and win precious dollars from the federal Race to the Top program. Maryland's reforms have not, unfortunately, been as bold as in other states, leaving us concerned that Mr. O'Malley's strong support from organized labor might impede the changes that must be made in improving teacher effectiveness or promoting more charter schools. We hope that he can deliver on his promise to deliver change through collaborating with rather than confronting the powerful teachers unions.

Mr. Ehrlich governed in boom times. It is Mr. O'Malley's ill fortune to have governed through a severe slump. The economy's meltdown has made it difficult for him to leave a lasting mark, despite solid initiatives. Still, he has governed ably. While Mr. Ehrlich tilts disingenuously toward his party's anti-tax orthodoxy, Mr. O'Malley has established his credibility as a sensible, responsible executive who merits four more years.

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