To the uninitiated, the choice between two remarkably similar candidates, Govs. O'Malley and Ehrlich, must seem like a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
Both are candidates whose past appeals have rested on personalities rather than issues. Both have become expert at deferring hard fiscal choices. Neither has been vigorous in cutting budgets. Both have a mystic faith in gambling revenues. Neither has been given to outreach or the gathering of talent — Ehrlich's cabinet was drawn from the legislature and his staff from Capitol Hill; O'Malley's cabinet and staff are nothing so much as a reunion of Glendening administration retreads. Both have maintained in office an overrated, politically opportunistic and lightweight superintendent of schools. Neither is a reformer; there is no Charles Evans Hughes, Robert M. La Follette or Alfred E. Smith in this race.
Nonetheless, there are some differences, and they are not in O'Malley's favor. While both governors have raised revenues, O'Malley resorted to broad-based income and sales taxes, precipitating some flight of upper-income taxpayers. Ehrlich favored pollution taxes and tolls and transportation user charges. Ehrlich has promised to undo the sales tax increase, a promise that probably cannot be kept without a long-overdue broadening of the base of the tax to include services not now reached.
O'Malley showered money on the state's education establishment, funding tuition freezes with state aid, expanding the state school construction program and funding, as Ehrlich did not, a portion of the Thornton formula providing aid to more prosperous subdivisions. Ehrlich more adequately funded transportation projects, launching the Intercounty Connector and other projects and not as freely deferring road maintenance. O'Malley launched no significant road improvements and provided little in the way of new transportation revenues.
Neither took badly needed and obvious measures to provide the state with more high school science teachers. Neither moved to curb the teachers' unions or the scandalously run traditionally black colleges. Both curtailed parkland acquisition and historic preservation. Neither had an intelligible policy to foster local government and community-based institutions. Neither effectively regulated nor dealt with the state's largest public utility, which retains, despite its protestations to the contrary, important elements of monopoly power. Neither moved to replace the state's obsolete personal property tax with a broad-based business tax, like that in New Hampshire.
There are, however, two major differences between the two administrations.
The O'Malley administration has lost no opportunity to fortify the position of public employee unions. Thus, agency shop statutes have authorized the politically powerful unions to collect additional fees from nonmembers; a new board has been created to which settlements between unions and local boards of education can be appealed; a so-called "living wage" statute has been enacted governing wages in firms contracting with state government, the effect of which is to discourage the contracting out of janitorial and food-service functions in state institutions; prevailing wages on state construction jobs have been increased, and expansion of charter schools and aid to private schools has been resisted.
All these measures will explode the cost of government in future years by increasing labor costs and reducing private competition. In addition, the state's ballooning deficits for pensions and for employee health programs have been unaddressed. The O'Malley administration withheld even the nominal contribution toward employee health deficits provided in earlier budgets. While Ehrlich signed an expensive teacher pension law in an election year, he promoted charter schools and has been less receptive to other efforts of unions to entrench themselves.
The second difference relates to issues of crime and justice. Ehrlich fostered various measures to lighten sanctions for nonviolent drug offenses and to establish "drug courts" to divert offenders from the criminal justice system in favor of testing and treatment, and also supported "medical marijuana" legislation. His judicial appointments, like those of Govs. McKeldin and Hughes and unlike those of Gov. Glendening, were notably nonpartisan in nature. O'Malley, preferring to engage in posturing about being "tough on crime," vetoed a carefully worked-out drug reform bill sponsored by Baltimore Del. Curtis Anderson, and reverted to Glendening's partisanship in judicial appointments.
There is today net emigration from Maryland, and the tax climate causes private-sector migrants to gravitate to the south side of the Potomac. Montgomery County no longer can serve as the state's milk cow. Ehrlich, less beholden to the unions, is better able to launch the necessary pension and benefit changes and school reforms. His more enlightened crime and drug policies are more in keeping with changes taking place at the federal level and in Texas and California, which are likely to accelerate.
Maryland's Gov. Albert Ritchie was the nation's most outspoken opponent of alcohol prohibition, and Maryland was the only state not to pass a law in aid of its enforcement. Ehrlich's leadership on drug issues has not been as dramatic, but some leadership is better than none.
George Liebmann, a lawyer, is the volunteer executive director of the Baltimore-based Calvert Institute for Policy Research, a center-right think tank on public policy issues.