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Political Animal

Party at Bob’s

By Brian Morton | Posted 1/18/2006

Any politician worth his salt learns to stick his constituents with bad news early in his term. This does a couple of things: It allows him to blame any and everything on his predecessor’s bad choices, and then later on, when the crisis is averted, he can take advantage of the public’s short memory and claim credit for saving the day.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich has done a variation on this—he of course blamed much on his predecessor, Parris Glendening, who helped by making it easy. Desperate to be liked, Glendening dumped massive amounts of money into the university system (some believe this was a failed attempt to buy himself the chancellorship after he left the governor’s mansion). He then pushed through a 10 percent tax cut, an effort to co-opt his Republican opponents’ effective tax-cutting message.

Back in 2003, Ehrlich did what worked for him. He made massive budget cuts at the state level, which rolled down to the localities, where—surprise!—the heads of those cities and counties had to fend for themselves. House Speaker Michael Busch told The Sun back in 2003, “If I’m sitting in Bob Ehrlich’s war room, I’m saying, ‘You have all these Democratic county executives. Let’s put the screws on them.’ . . . They’re avoiding governance and trying to get through to the next election.”

Well, the next election is coming up, and Ehrlich is on to the second section of the playbook—cry “Victory” and let slip the cash of war. If the last governor was Parris Spendening, then we’re seeing the dawning of Bobby Ur-Loot, and it’s loot that he certainly wants to spread around. Three years ago, Ehrlich jacked up property taxes in a big way; now he wants to give them back, and he wants the counties to do the same. But there’s a big difference here: If the governor makes his tax cut, knocking back the property tax rate from 13.2 cents to 11.2 cents per $100 worth of property, and the cities and counties do something similar, then those localities are going to get hit hard again—and only Ehrlich gets to look good because of it. Who the hell would sign on to do that?

As The Sun pointed out in an article by Andrew Green on Jan. 10:

A 15 percent cut in Baltimore County’s tax rate would amount to greater than 4 percent of the budget, or slightly more than it spent last year on the fire department and recreation and parks combined, according to county budget documents. Meanwhile, Baltimore County, like others in the state, is facing spiking costs for retiree health care. The same percentage reduction in the state’s property tax rate has far less impact. The proposed Ehrlich cut would reduce state general fund revenue by about 0.8 percent, which the state can absorb with the current budget surplus.

We may not be out of the woods yet, no matter how much Ehrlich crows about the so-called surplus he says he’s delivered. Remember, by law, this state cannot run a deficit. The state constitution calls for a balanced budget every year. What Ehrlich is really talking about is the projections game, where there are either projected surpluses or projected deficits. It was a projected deficit that allowed Bobby Smooth to come down in 2003 and claim that Glendening’s spending spree messed up the state, although the former governor worked with Ehrlich during his transition to ease the blow. It was that forecast that allowed Ehrlich to push through a 57 percent increase in property taxes in 2003, pushing the rate up from 8.4 cents to 13.2 cents per $100 of assessed value.

When the governor didn’t get his pie-in-the-sky slots plan any of the last three years, he spent each session moving money around from one place to another in the budget—and socking it to Baltimore City and the counties. Remember when the city had to solve its own school funding crisis? Yet it’s those same school funding problems that the governor’s campaign people are going to hang around Mayor Martin O’Malley’s neck come the fall.

In the meantime, it’s time to bring out the party hats on the second floor of the statehouse, because Bobby’s opening the wallet and letting the money flow. Tax relief? Sure! Tuition money? Bring it on! Land preservation? He’s all for it!

This last one is particularly rich. Ehrlich is now pushing for a full commitment to preserving Maryland’s open spaces, tripling what the state currently spends on land preservation. But it was Ehrlich’s attempt to sneakily sell off state land to developer Willard Hackerman that got him in trouble in the first place.

But who cares? It’s election season, and drinks are on Bobby! Just don’t look too close at whose wallet is providing the cash. You might recognize your own money from three years ago.

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Political Animal archives

More from Brian Morton

The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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