Analysis: Debate comes up short again on policy proposals

By Len Lazarick

If elected again as Maryland’s governor, Bob Ehrlich would eliminate traditional pensions for new state employees and give them defined contribution plans like the 401(k)s that dominate the corporate world.

That’s one teensy bit of news – as in something you’ve never heard before – that came out of the second televised debate between the Republican ex-governor and incumbent Democrat Martin O’Malley.

[ EDITOR’S NOTE: Apparently this was not so new. Ehrlich made a similar comment to The Gazette editorial board Oct. 6 that was published toward the middle of an article by Alan Brody that ran Oct. 8.’s State Roundup linked to the story that day.]

O’Malley made no news on pension changes that employee and teacher unions supporting him might oppose. “This is a complex and difficult challenge,” he said, and would wait to see what a new pension commission would recommend.

Beyond that, the debate at The Washington Post added little information for anyone who’s been paying even passing attention to the six-month rematch of the two men.

The pension question from Derek McGinty of WUSA TV channel 9 and Ehrlich’s candid response raised the false hope that the candidates would finally begin giving concrete answers to what they would do in the next four years.

That hope evaporated when McGinty questioned whether O’Malley had played the race card against Ehrlich in Monday’s debate, and the candidates revived old disagreements.

Comes out swinging

At the outset, Ehrlich had come out of his corner swinging in a more focused fashion than he did on Monday. He complained that under the O’Malley regime, small businesses were “getting hammered.” O’Malley later complained that Ehrlich was constantly “talking down Maryland” and belittling the progress made in the city of Baltimore.

Ehrlich has promised to roll back the 20% increase in the sales tax O’Malley got passed, and was asked how he would replace the $600 million to $700 million that might cost a state already facing a $1 billion deficit. “I don’t believe we’ll lose that much money,” Ehrlich said, as consumers would buy more.

O’Malley retorted, “I think the answer to that last question, asked repeatedly was … He has no idea how would make up the $700-800 million shortfall.”

Neither man gave much idea of what they actually planned to do about a continuing budget shortfall. After talking about the sales tax, Ehrlich said, “I suspect we’ll get into the budget as well.” But the discussion never happened – as it hasn’t happened throughout the campaign.

O’Malley accused Ehrlich of raising $3 billion in taxes and fees during his term and sponsored record spending. But O’Malley was pointing out the taxes not because he objected to them or wanted to roll them back – “Actually I haven’t said I’d repeal” the $2.50 a month “flush tax” for the Chesapeake Bay, for instance – but because the property tax hike, the higher corporate filing fees, and the increased car registration fees, as well as hefty increases in the budget in the last two years, show that Ehrlich couldn’t be trusted when he promised lower taxes and reduced spending.

“The former governor’s credibility on this issue is non-existent,” O’Malley said in one of the sharp barbs they tossed at each other.

The same went for O’Malley’s non-answer on the mounting debt from promised pensions when he noted that “the former governor never took a shot at addressing” the problems. He could have gone further, and noted that not only did Ehrlich not try to reduce pension benefits as governor, but he actually signed legislation increasing benefits for teachers and state employees that added $1.8 billion to pension liabilities. But that would have been a bit impolitic in that the major unions for educators and state workers strongly backed the increased benefits, and an overwhelming majority of the legislature went along.


The questioners from the Post, WUSA and WAMU tried hard to get specifics on job growth and other issues, and move the candidates off their familiar talking points with little success.

The questioners then tried to change the dynamic with offbeat questions that produced fairly inane answers about the Redskins and the Orioles.

What do voters not know about you? the candidates were asked. Ehrlich said it was his extensive knowledge of pop music from the late 60s and early 70s – he’s a fan of the Stylistics, for one thing.

As for O’Malley, he said, “My wife tells me I work too hard and need to come home earlier more nights of the week.” Wow, who would have thought?

What would have been a real revelation is what the next chief executive was actually going to do to balance the budget in the next two years without more federal aid. Cut taxes and school aid, as Ehrlich has suggested? Raise taxes, as O’Malley has refused to rule out?

Looks like we’ll have to wait for January’s budget proposal from the winner to find out.

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