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Political Animal

Funny Business

By Brian Morton | Posted 6/9/2010

It is during the slow summer months when political campaigns start looking for the narrative they plan on focusing on during the rock 'em sock 'em fall campaigns. Former governor Robert Ehrlich (R-WBAL) seems to have made his choice in how he plans on attacking incumbent Gov. Martin O'Malley: business and taxes.

Ehrlich's first policy whistle-stop tour across the state this week is aimed at undermining business support for O'Malley and trying to hammer the governor for what Ehrlich campaign e-mails call "the largest tax increase in Maryland history."

The problem with this strategy is two-fold. First, now probably wouldn't be a good time to leave oneself open to charges of being bought-and-paid-for by big business. Second, Ehrlich may want to roll back the 1-cent sales tax increase, but as usual, he never says how the state will recoup the money the tax brings in.

This isn't really a new thing for Ehrlich. When he was governor, Honest Bob the salesman made a habit of making claims without solid underpinnings. In January 2004, when he released his budget plan, Ehrlich refused to put out a detailed accounting of the fees he planned to increase. It turned out later that Ehrlich ended up raising the cost of every toll in the state, the cost of renewing a driver's license or vehicle registration, and even sewer fees, which wound up being called "the flush tax."

In the end, his whole goal was to try to campaign in 2006 as someone who "never raised your taxes." As state Sen. Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery County) presciently told The Sun back in 2004, Ehrlich's "no-tax stance is obviously just a sham." In 2005, Ehrlich's administration, after initiating the car-registration fee hike and pushing it through the legislature, then tried to pass off the blame for it. During the 2005 legislative session, Democrats heard a bill in committee that would've made Ehrlich come clean about notices sent to drivers that said, "The Maryland General Assembly has approved a fee increase for vehicle registrations" with no mention of the governor's sponsorship.

Now the former governor is touring the state this week to contend that 3,000 small businesses have closed under O'Malley, and that the state needs to change the way state regulators deal with small business. In addition, Ehrlich is arguing for a rollback in the state's corporate tax rate.

At 8.25 percent, Maryland's corporate tax rate is higher than Virginia's, but lower than those in D.C., Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Delaware, which makes one wonder if Ehrlich is simply trying to buy votes from the big-money community. Let's also remember that Ehrlich has a history of corporate money giveaways: It was the Ehrlich administration that tried to engineer a fire-sale of state-protected land in St. Mary's County to politically connected developer Willard Hackerman of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., which would have netted the business a possible $7 million in tax breaks.

Since Ronald Reagan's successful run with "voodoo economics" in 1981, Republicans have for decades campaigned on the belief that lowering taxes increases revenues, and Ehrlich, a staunch Reaganite, has adopted the mindset in toto, with little regard to the fact that the state budget must be balanced. So far Ehrlich has yet to detail where the income to balance the state's finances would come from if the sales tax were lowered or if the corporate income tax were cut, and it's a fair guess that we won't be seeing such a detailed plan anytime soon.

Then there's the matter of oil. By the time the campaigns kick into high gear in September, there is a chance that the gushing oil from the BP spill might have made it all the way up the Gulf Stream waters to Maryland. If this occurs, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility that it would become a political issue here.

Remember "Drill, baby, drill," the putative slogan for the Republicans in 2008, as articulated by noted geologist and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin? Just because the spill has put the kibosh on plans for offshore drilling in Maryland and Virginia doesn't mean the slogan won't haunt someone this fall: Ehrlich.

Ehrlich spokesman Andy Barth told The Sun that "Governor Ehrlich didn't say ['Drill, baby, drill'] and doesn't really have anything to say about it." Yet the state Democratic Party has released a YouTube video with audio from Ehrlich's WBAL-AM radio show in September 2008 featuring Ehrlich chanting "Drill, baby, drill" in support of what would be the failed Senate campaign of his then-lieutenant governor Michael Steele.

By the middle of 2005, Bob Ehrlich had begun a policy of not speaking to any of the region's major newspapers and instead ran the communications shop of the governor's office from the same place he has a radio show now: WBAL. Now the man who wants to be the governor for business is using a business to run for governor again. But there's one aphorism he seems to have ignored that comes from show business: The sequel is never as good as the original.

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