Leading Democratic lawmakers will attempt to restrict appearances by Maryland politicians in taxpayer-financed television commercials, a response to a recent series of folksy tourism ads featuring Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Ehrlich's $2.7 million tourism campaign, which has been broadcast across the Middle Atlantic region -- including in Maryland -- has been criticized by Democrats for promoting Ehrlich more effectively than it does the state's tourist destinations.
"I personally believe that several of these ads have crossed a line from nonpartisan public service announcements into personal partisan political advertising with taxpayer resources," said Del. John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery), who chaired a hearing on the matter yesterday.
Hurson pointed to laws in six other states that curtailed appearances by governors in promotional or public service ads, especially in the months leading up to an election. The legislation he plans to introduce would prohibit such commercials from airing "once the campaign season is underway."
Democrats generally supported the idea, but Republicans released a statement calling the response "a partisan witch hunt." Republicans said they consider the commercials a legitimate perk of incumbency, one that has been enjoyed by governors in most other states and by some of Ehrlich's predecessors in Maryland.
Ehrlich's communications director, Paul E. Schurick, played for lawmakers a tape that included tourism commercials from 10 other states featuring governors from both parties. The tape concluded with a four-year-old Maryland tourism spot that starred then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D).
Schurick said there are laws on the books in Maryland to prevent such promotions from becoming overtly political, though state ethics and elections officials testified that existing laws do little to restrict the content or timing of this type of ad campaign.
Aris Melissaratos, the state secretary of business and economic development, also defended the commercials, saying they have been a cost-effective tool for promoting tourism. He said the state has seen a $20 return for every dollar spent on the spots, judging from tourism indicators tracked by his office.
Still, several lawmakers said there did appear to be a clear difference between the commercials featuring Ehrlich and those featuring other governors. Where Glendening delivers a single pitch line, "Experience the treasures of Maryland," Ehrlich's commercials have been much more elaborate.
The Ehrlich ads portray the governor as a chummy, regular guy who pops up unexpectedly to help with household chores or provide friendly advice. Most conclude with Ehrlich issuing a punch line. In one, he tells viewers, "You know, I really love my job." In another, he says: "Do other governors go this far? I think not."
Moreover, Ehrlich has appeared not only in tourism spots, but also in ads promoting the Motor Vehicle Administration, energy efficiency, horse racing and other state interests.
James Browning, the director of Common Cause/Maryland, told lawmakers yesterday that he views the commercials as part of a perpetual political campaign. He also questioned the involvement of private interests in the production of the ads.
Five home building firms contributed a combined $6,000 to the state Energy Administration commercial that went into rotation in September on Baltimore area stations. The ad urges consumers to help the environment and save money by purchasing energy-efficient homes. The names of the companies appear on-screen at the end of the ad.
Another contribution came from Fox television's Baltimore affiliate, owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., which produced the ads at no cost on the condition that the state purchase $60,000 worth of time on the station to air them.
The question of when to accept private contributions for such ads sparked questions from lawmakers, many of whom appear on holiday greeting announcements filmed and broadcast by Comcast.
"We need to deal with those ads as well," Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Prince George's) said after the hearing.