Thursday, August 26, 2010

Read My Lips...Oh, You Know The Rest

Today, gubernatorial candidate Bob Ehrlich stated that, if he’s reelected to his old job, he will not raise any taxes or fees. This promise goes way beyond the one he made in 2002, when he declared that he would not support any “sales or income tax” increases.

Why did Ehrlich broaden his declaration?

First, he’s running against a Democratic governor whose popularity took a hit when he raised a litany of taxes not long after taking office. To date, facing a looming $1 billion budget deficit, Governor O’Malley has equivocated on whether he’d raise taxes during a second term. Today’s declaration is calculated to frame the race as a stark contrast between “anti-tax” and “pro-tax” candidates.

Second, Ehrlich’s primary opponent, Brian Murphy, criticizes Ehrlich for being a tax and spend governor. Ehrlich’s declaration is an attempt to inoculate his candidacy from such criticism. While there is virtually no chance Murphy can win, tapping into lingering resentment over Ehrlich’s own tax and fee increases among some conservatives could boost Murphy's numbers into the embarrassment zone for Ehrlich.

While I believe Ehrlich’s declaration makes some short term political sense, it may come back to haunt him later for a number of reasons.

First, Ehrlich’s pledge could be interpreted as, at best, a mea culpa and, at worst, flip-flopping. In other words, he exposes himself to the following question: If you believe that raising fees is a bad thing, then why did you do it so often during your first term?

Second, Ehrlich’s promise makes him vulnerable to charges of fiscal irresponsibility. Earlier in the campaign, he promised to repeal O'Malley's 20 percent increase in the state sales tax. Just recently, he pledged to restore $60 million in road maintenance money to counties. To date, however, he hasn't articulated how these proposals are feasible during such tough budgetary times.

Rather than invoke the spirit of George H. W. Bush and his infamous “no new taxes” pledge, I think Ehrlich could better differentiate himself from O’Malley by taking two steps.

First, he should give a speech in which offers a compelling case as to why fees differ from taxes. And, he needs to illustrate his case with examples of expenditures (e. g. highway projects) that the increased revenue was used to finance. This will allow him to settle the issue and move forward. Otherwise, the O’Malley campaign will continue its shrewd tactic of trying to equalize both governors on the whole taxes/spending issue – something which benefits O’Malley in the long run.

Second, he needs to step away from politics as usual in favor of a big idea. For example perhaps Ehrlich should demonstrate that he is serious about reducing the size of state government by outlining a plan to reduce the state workforce – now approximately 80,000 workers strong – by 20 percent through attrition over the course of ten years. He could tie it to a specific plan to boost private sector job growth during the same period.

Is such a strategy risky? Yes, it is. But, campaign are usually won by the candidate who sets the agenda. A bold maneuver might help put Ehrlich in control of a campaign increasingly dominated by his better-funded opponent.

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