Howard County Maryland Blog

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WSJ on Maryland Politics

Posted by David Keelan on Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Ehrlich to Rise?

Don’t count on a big Democratic year in Maryland.

BY BRENDAN MINITER

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 12:01 a.m.

ANNAPOLIS, Md.–If this is going to be a watershed year for Democrats, there is little sign of it here, in the heart of one of the bluest states in the country. Only four other states handed Sen. John Kerry wider margins of victory two years ago, and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1.

Nonetheless, four years after becoming the Old Line State’s first Republican governor since Spiro Agnew became vice president in 1969, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is in a strong position to win re-election this fall. He’s raising plenty of money (including $1 million in one night at a fundraiser headlined by President Bush), is quietly cheered on by middle-of-the-road Democrats, and enjoys surprisingly high approval ratings. His approval rating has reached as high as 67%, and at the end of the Legislature’s regular session in April–when ratings are typically at low ebb–he was polling at 55%.

I sat down with Gov. Ehrlich last week to ask how he has survived titanic battles with a heavily Democratic state Legislature and hostile press. It’s worth noting that the governor has made some moves that might have alienated conservative voters. Over the past four years he has backed using tax dollars to fund stem cell research, increased property taxes (though he cut them back a bit this year), and imposed what’s been called the “flush tax”–a $30 annual fee on property owners that’s used to upgrade sewer plants. He’s found common cause with environmentalists in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and at times charted what the Washington Post has called a “moderate” course.

As we sat in a private study in the executive mansion, Gov. Ehrlich demurred, a little: “I won’t guarantee you that we will win re-election, because we are Marylanders and because we are Republicans.” His chief of staff, Chip DiPaula Jr., was more forceful. He said Democrats in the Legislature hold a “dangerous majority” that has given rise to harebrained far-left ideas, and that has handed the GOP an opportunity.

Set aside whether being able to override vetoes on party-line votes makes Democrats “dangerous,” and the nub of Maryland’s political story becomes clear. The Legislature has spent several years pushing pro-tax and antibusiness policies that are rarely popular with voters. The Legislature has voted through some $7.5 billion in tax increases for this governor to veto, raised the minimum wage, attacked Wal-Mart, and, most recently, spent several months trying to destroy an interstate merger between Baltimore-based Constellation Energy and Florida Power & Light. Maryland has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country (3.4%), but even voters who have jobs don’t like tax hikes.

Maryland’s economy is booming thanks to an explosion in federal spending, but the state has long suffered from a reputation as a bad place for the private sector to do business. And sure enough, a chat with the governor’s economic development secretary, Aris Melissaratos, confirms the state’s plans for attracting jobs still centers on gaining Pentagon, Homeland Security Department and National Institutes of Health dollars. Mr. Melissaratos, a registered Democrat and immigrant from Greece, says there’s bipartisan support in the state’s congressional delegation when it comes to winning federal contracts, but that the state Legislature has made itself “irrelevant” in bringing jobs to the state.

He was being kind. State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who is also a trial lawyer, made clear his party’s lack of interest in keeping jobs in the state two years ago when he helped turn a push for tort reform into a tax increase. The new tax, imposed on HMOs last year, was suppose to stop doctors from fleeing the state by raising money to help them pay rising malpractice insurance bills. But it quickly rebounded onto consumers. Shortly after the tax was enacted over the governor’s veto, Aetna and other HMOs announced they’d be passing the tax directly onto their customers.

How many voters did Gov. Ehrlich pick up thanks to the tort tax? It’s hard to know. But probably more than Sen. Miller gained by piling on a second health-care tax this year. Determined to do something about the rising cost of the state’s Medicaid program, the Legislature decided to forgo reining in the entitlement and instead took aim at Wal-Mart. Sen. Miller, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and others accused the retailer of not paying its “fair share” of health care costs for the poor because it didn’t spend at least 8% of its payroll on health insurance for its employees. Now a new tax–enacted over the governor’s veto in January–forces Wal-Mart to spend 8% on health insurance or pay the state the difference.

We’ll find out in November whether vilifying a company that wants to expand in Maryland was smart politics. But one early indication that it might have been a mistake is how badly similar efforts to tax Wal-Mart have fared across the country. Despite a push in dozens of states by the AFL-CIO, the Wal-Mart tax has so far been defeated everywhere else it’s been introduced. Even liberal Rhode Island rejected it.

Then there’s Sen. Miller’s gift to those voters who like using electricity. Seven years ago the senator pushed through a deregulation plan that imposed price caps at 1993’s rates until July 1, 2006. Now the caps are coming off and with 13 years of pent up increases hitting all at once, residents in central Maryland are going to be socked with a 72% rate hike. Legislators have been in a near panic to shift blame away from themselves and even met in special session last week to work out a compromise with Baltimore Gas & Electric. Regardless of how the fight turns out, no amount of political dissembling will get around this fact: Voters who run their AC this summer will still be paying steep electric bills when the campaign season heats up this fall.

A fair or at least a populist press might have cautioned legislators to cool it long ago. But the state’s largest newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, has been engaged in a protracted fight with the governor. Its opening shot came during the 2002 campaign, when Mr. Ehrlich tapped Michael Steele, who is black, as his running mate. The Sun editorialized that Mr. Steele “brings little to the team but the color of his skin.” That remark and a list of errors (including some 80 instances of misspelling the governor’s name) spurred Gov. Ehrlich to instruct his administration not to talk to two Sun reporters. The paper sued, claiming its free speech rights were being violated, but was forced to drop its suit after losing in every court that heard the case.

Last year the governor set up a Halloween display on the front lawn of the executive mansion and he was blasted for that too. Sun columnist Laura Vozzella scoffed at the large inflatable jack-o-lantern and other ornaments, calling them “a little, well, Arbutus”–a dig at the governor’s blue-collar hometown. Mr. Ehrlich has also been grilled by the media on why he supports defining marriage as between a man and a woman and why he put “Merry Christmas” on his Christmas cards.

It’s a safe bet that no one at the Sun appreciates how politically helpful have been Mr. Ehrlich’s defense of marriage and Christmas, his working-class background and his choice of a popular African-American as lieutenant governor–though clearly Mr. Ehrlich understands how helpful it has been to use the Legislature and the media as a foil. He has a framed picture of that inflatable jack-o-lantern on the wall inside the governor’s mansion. In it he’s standing next to two Democrats who understand how to win elections, Virginia’s former governor Mark Warner and Washington’s Mayor Anthony Williams. All three of them are giving the “Arbutus” jack-o-lantern the thumbs up.

Mr. Miniter is assistant editor of OpinionJournal.com. His column appears Tuesdays. Copyright © 2006 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/bminiter/?id=110008539

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