For three straight General Assembly sessions, Gov. Robert Ehrlich, aptly dubbed “Bobby Slots” by my esteemed colleague Dan Rodricks at The Sun, has done nothing but try to ram through slot machines as a way to balance the state budget. And for three-quarters of his tenure, he has somehow eked by without getting a slots bill through, yet the budget gets balanced. Funny that, huh?
This reminds us of how Ronald Reagan always wanted to pass a balanced-budget act through Congress, yet he never submitted a balanced budget. You could say the Ehrlich version works in reverse. Maryland’s constitution requires a balanced budget, so by law, the governor has to balance the thing come hell or high water, and the high water part really isn’t an option before hurricane season. So he pokes through a tax here and calls it a fee, and a tax there and calls it a revenue enhancement, and spends a lot of time cutting TV ads with his kids where he does his best to make the average Joe think he’s a great guy. In the meantime, all the big, mean bad guys who work for him slice bits and pieces out of the parts of state government that actually help people, while he tries to bring in the dough that will pay off all those gambling interests who bankrolled him in the first place.
So what have we got so far that he can take credit for this season? Well, as of this column’s deadline (Monday morning), the legislature passed a total of three of the governor’s policy initiatives. This out of a total of 19 to start with, according to The Washington Post. The rest of the time, he has done little but yak it up with right-wing talk radio hosts, trying to “bypass the filter,” as the Washington term goes, to get through to constituents who might put some pressure on lawmakers to give him more support.
Except here’s the problem: Maryland, despite Ehrlich’s win in 2002 against a weak opponent who ran a lousy campaign, is still a 2-1 Democratic state. No matter how many times he yuks it up with the guys on WBAL, it’s not going to change a single mind in those swing counties that yawned when they went to the polls three years ago—the governor’s got to deliver. Playing to people who listen to ’BAL (a station that aims at white Republican males in Baltimore County—take it from a former employee) doesn’t help him a bit.
The session opened with Ehrlich’s push for medical malpractice reform—but when the lawmakers passed something that wasn’t 100 percent what he wanted, consensus be damned, he vetoed it, only to see his nyet overridden. Most of Ehrlich’s concerns about the bill were over a 2 percent tax on HMO premiums to help doctors pay malpractice costs, even though HMOs were granted a generous tax exemption 30 years ago, which means that people covered other forms of insurance, in effect, already give HMO customers a subsidy. The state’s largest insurer, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, then reaped a windfall of goodwill and cut a hole in the governor’s case by deciding to eat the cost of the 2 percent tax. So once again, Ehrlich came up with bupkis.
It really is stunning to watch the way the game of state politics is played by the Ehrlich administration. In any normal sense, laws are made by consensus—there is give-and take. But Ehrlich—thanks to the “my way or the highway” politics the former congressman learned under Newt Gingrich—has made no effort to talk to lawmakers, to offer up any compromise, or to see eye-to-eye with anyone else. Time after time, stories emerge of how the governor’s aides craft proposals in secret, only to spring them on Democratic legislators, who hold an overwhelming advantage. The governor’s people seem to think they can reshape the playing field by sheer force of will alone. Ehrlich’s legislative policy director, Joseph Getty, was quoted in The Washington Post saying, “Could we have done more outreach or better outreach? I’m sure we could have. . . . But I think the reason there are complaints is not because we’re doing our job poorly. It’s because we’re doing it differently.”
After three years in the governor’s mansion, you would think that Ehrlich would see the need to mellow his hard-nosed approach to governance, because at this rate, he’s not going to have a whole lot to brag about come next summer when campaign season ramps up. He’ll have to run on the slogan “I Didn’t Raise Your Taxes a Whole Lot.” Like his approach to lawmaking, you’d think he could have done a whole lot better.
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