Analysis: Could Ehrlich fix the state and supply a positive vision?

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By Len Lazarick

In the next few weeks, we expect to learn the answer to the question many began asking Bob Ehrlich nearly two years ago: Is he going to run for governor again?

It is clear that the Ehrlich “family” — friends, staff and especially his wife Kendel — is behind a rematch between him and Gov. Martin O’Malley. That was one of the factors he mentioned to me at a dinner in May 2008. But the key questions, he said then, were “Can I win and can I fix it?”

Ehrlich himself is the one holding back on the decision, calculating his chances against an incumbent Democratic governor in a heavily Democratic state. He’s made no secret that he’ll run if he thinks he can win.

But can he “fix” what he sees as the fiscal mess in Annapolis and the left-ward drift of the state? Can he and his backers be more than just the party of “no” and supply a “positive vision for Maryland,” as he advised other Republicans in October?

The next two years facing the governor elected in November will be even more daunting than what both O’Malley and Ehrlich faced in their first terms. Elected state leaders have pushed the most expensive long-term problems until after the election.

Next January, the revenue picture continues to look bleak, and all the easy budget cuts have been long done. The fiscal 2011 budget depends on a series one-time transfers of funds that may not be available again. As one legislative wag said of O’Malley, “He’s broken all the piggy banks.”

For the third year in a row, state employees will have their pay cut in the form of furloughs. Administrators have asked lawmakers to stop cutting the staff piecemeal and to drop whole programs, rather than leaving them understaffed in many areas.

As we pointed out last week, the mandates that drive so much state spending will be funded at their current levels for the coming two years, but no permanent fixes have been made. That assignment had been given to a legislative workgroup whose final report is not due until December.

The blue ribbon commission to study the $15 billion in health insurance liabilities for state retirees is due to report back to lawmakers next year. And there’s not even a commission to tackle the $17 billion pension liability.

Handling these long term issues will require strong, even courageous action by the next governor in cooperation with the legislature. As they did on pensions in the early 1980s, state leaders must stand up to influential unions for state teachers and employees. They have to get a handle on education mandates, pensions and other retirement benefits. These are the fastest-growing state obligations, even when we’re not paying them.

With past performance as our guide, Ehrlich does not appear to have any greater chance to achieve these goals than O’Malley.

Ehrlich is certainly willing to stand up to the unions and other interests, but he had poor relations with the legislature, including the few remaining conservative Democrats and members of his own party. Ehrlich and his team blame it all on the Democrats, but others close to the action say it stemmed from a “my way-or-the-highway” approach.

O’Malley has suffered a number of losses at the hands of fellow Democrats – electricity re-regulation, for instance — and he has had to compromise on many issues to get half a loaf – slots gambling being a prominent example.

If Ehrlich does announce another bid for governor, he needs to start laying out his “positive vision” for Maryland. His Saturday morning talk show has been long on what he doesn’t like about what’s going on at the State House, and short on what he’d like to do – other than roll back all the tax increases.

The ex-governor also needs to say what would be different from his first term, when his vetoes were overridden 44 times.

While Ehrlich has been in “no” mode, O’Malley has largely been in denial of the difficult tasks ahead – focusing on the accomplishments the spending has accomplished, such as higher student test scores and expanded health coverage.

Republicans constantly spread rumors that O’Malley doesn’t really like the job., and he didn’t expect to be guiding the state through the Great Recession.

Given the reality of the big problems that need solving and the hard work of reaching compromise on solutions to deal with them, it’s a wonder that anyone wants the job.