Thursday, April 15, 2010

Who’s the Big Spender?

At his campaign announcement in Arbutus, former Republican Governor Bob Ehrlich characterized his term as an era of fiscal restraint and said, “They spent beyond our means, and we spend within our budget.” And in a fundraising solicitation sent out on Monday, Ehrlich criticized “liberals in Annapolis” for “out-of-control spending.”

Oh really?

Below are all line items in the state’s General Fund for FY 2003 (the last budget from the Glendening administration), FY 2007 (the last budget of the Ehrlich administration) and FY 2011 (the most recent proposal from current Governor Martin O’Malley) that exceeded $100 million in FY 2003.

Below are the rates of increase in each line item over the four-year terms of both Ehrlich and O’Malley.

Ehrlich cut only two of the eighteen line items during his time in office: human resources and agriculture/natural resources/environment. O’Malley cut ten line items. O’Malley had lower rates of spending increases (or higher rates of cuts) than Ehrlich in fifteen of the eighteen spending categories. Ehrlich grew the general fund by 37% in four years while O’Malley has cut it by 7%. Since the legislature has added more cuts, O’Malley’s ultimate cut figure is bound to be even higher. And bear in mind that since state law does not permit the legislature to add general fund spending to a Governor’s budget proposal, Ehrlich cannot blame the Democrats for his spending record.

Now let’s be honest. O’Malley has not been a budget-cutter by choice; the economy has forced him to do it. And he has relied on both federal stimulus money and one-time fixes as well as real cuts to help him balance the state’s budget. Both O’Malley and Ehrlich have been burdened by the fiscal recklessness of the Glendening administration, which approved major income tax cuts in 1997 and 1998 and a giant 2002 increase in education spending that have created structural deficits ever since.

But at least O’Malley has shown some fiscal restraint when he had to. Ehrlich coasted on the economy, boosted spending even further by raising property taxes and fees and even signed a gigantic state pension benefit hike without paying for it. Now he promises to “fix” the budget while proposing a sales tax cut that would grow the state’s deficits by a third.

The mainstream media has breathlessly covered trivialities such as the candidates’ sparring over a radio debate. That may be fun for political reporters and easy to cover, but it means nothing to the future of the state. When one candidate has based his campaign so far on as much fiscal falsehood as has Bob Ehrlich, the media has a responsibility to call him out on it. If they don’t, they are abdicating their duty and should drop their pens.