IT MAY NOT top "Desperate Housewives" in the Nielsen ratings, but Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s taxpayer-sponsored TV blitz of "Governor Bob" spots is a smash hit in state administration circles. The fave is a series of ads featuring Mr. Ehrlich as the folksy handyman who pops up unannounced to do household chores so that surprised and delighted homeowners can go have fun in the Free State. Some leading Democratic lawmakers are less than amused, however. They are talking about legislation to restrict appearances by Maryland politicians in publicly funded TV spots. Their chief complaint: The ads promote Mr. Ehrlich more than they do the state's tourist destinations.
True, the governor does upstage all else in these slick spots, and he may be guilty of overacting -- he has appeared in print and television ads for horse racing, the Motor Vehicle Administration and energy-efficient homes. The spots do seem to advertise the governor more than the state, and the tab for the latest series alone was $2.7 million.
But Mr. Ehrlich is not the first to seize the perks of office for mass-media exposure in the name of public service. Where were the squawks when former governor Parris N. Glendening (D) and his lieutenant governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, were taking to the airwaves for tourism and public safety? Mr. Ehrlich is more heavy-handed about it, but his critics are on thin ice in charging that some of the ads have, in the words of Del. John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery), "crossed a line from nonpartisan public service announcements into personal partisan political advertising with taxpayer resources." Mr. Hurson, who held a hearing on the matter on Tuesday, cites laws in other states that curtail appearances by governors in promotional or public service ads, especially in the months leading up to an election.
Perhaps such spots should be taken off the air at election time. But rather than getting embroiled in drafting elaborate legislation to edit Mr. Ehrlich's scripts, the lawmakers ought to focus on the involvement of private interests in the production of some of the ads. As reported by The Post's Matthew Mosk, five home-building firms contributed a combined $6,000 to a state Energy Administration commercial aired on Baltimore-area stations; the names of the companies appear at the end of the spot. In addition, Fox television's Baltimore affiliate, owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, produced the ads at no cost on the condition that the state buy $60,000 worth of time on the station to air them. Political contributions in disguise? Backroom back-scratching? Or harmless back-channel TV deals? More than the ads themselves, these arrangements bear watching.