Debate unlikely to tell us what we really ought to know

By Len Lazarick

Today’s first televised debate between Gov. Martin O’Malley and ex-Gov. Bob Ehrlich will provide us the opportunity to find out exactly what they will do about Maryland’s budget and its projected $3 billion deficit in the next two years, right?

Fat chance. For six months this campaign has dragged along with precious little detail about the hard choices that lie ahead now that special funds have been emptied, and the feds are unlikely to come to the rescue.

And why should these candidates give us this bad news? Republican Ehrlich last week showed the price to be paid when he abandoned his disciplined vagueness about how he would pay for his promises.

In a Sept. 29 interview with Brian Witte of the Associated Press, Ehrlich said he would discontinue $126 million in school funding to jurisdictions with high costs.

The comment went largely unnoticed for almost a week until Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett pounced on the issue, along with Prince George’s County’s likely chief, Rushern Baker. The two counties get over half the funding that would be cut.

Then the story got legs. To pay for his pledge to cut the penny sales tax hike in 2007, Ehrlich was actually saying he would cut funding for education to Maryland’s two largest counties, where he needs an above average showing for a Republican if he wants to be elected. It was an admission that fulfilled the messaging of the O’Malley campaign.

O’Malley is even less specific about he would handle the budget situation next year. On the subject of taxes, for instance, his campaign touts cuts in taxes to the middle class, rips Ehrlich for past tax hikes, and makes no mention of increased sales tax and corporate taxes O’Malley supported and signed.

Some Democrats are even denying a deficit really exists. At a candidate’s forum two weeks ago, Appropriations Committee member Del. Guy Guzzone of Howard County said “There is no deficit. A structural deficit means a deficit [that exists] if we should not take action.” But every year, the governor and the legislature take action to reduce mandated spending, and “we will do that again,” Guzzone promised.

Yes, they will pass the balanced budget the constitution requires. But how will they do it? We’re not likely to know before the election. Republicans have been predicting more tax increases.

Professor Roy Meyers, who teaches government budgeting at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, has prepared a detailed paper about the upcoming budget problems and proposed a series of detailed questions for the candidates to answer.

We are not likely to get serious, detailed responses to any of them in Monday’s debate, nor in the two or three debates to come.

Perhaps rather than a series of one-hour debates, we should actually have a series of one-hour press conferences with each candidate on just one or two topics, rather than the five-minute gaggles or “availabilities” reporters are fed. It was that sort of prolonged sit down with Brian Witte that produced the quote on school aid from Ehrlich.

That unusual frankness on a real “hard choice” is why we’re unlikely to get anything close to that revealing in the next three weeks. What we’re more likely to hear is a live replay of campaign commercials.

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