WASHINGTON – Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich earned a midterm grade of “C” Tuesday in a fiscal policy report card on governors by the Cato Institute, which said he did not do enough to cut back on state spending and taxes.
Ehrlich’s “mediocre” grade in the report card was pulled down in large part by Maryland’s enactment of the “flush tax” and revenue bills, said Stephen Slivinski, director of budget studies at Cato, who wrote the report with senior fellow Stephen Moore.
“He needs improvement,” Slivinski of Ehrlich. “He has to prove himself to be a fiscal conservative on taxes and spending.”
But Ehrlich said that evaluation is not fair.
“The grade doesn’t take into account the partisan and general philosophical divide in the General Assembly,” he said.
His spokesman, Henry Fawell, said the governor faces “one of the most hostile legislatures in the country,” calling the Cato report “inaccurate.” Fawell said Ehrlich had inherited a large deficit from former Gov. Parris Glendening.
Slivinski agreed that Ehrlich is much better on fiscal issues than Glendening, but said Ehrlich has the potential to do better.
The seventh biennial report card measured fiscal records of 42 governors — 25 in their first terms, including Ehrlich, and 17 “senior class” governors — from their first day in office through Nov. 1, 2004. Six states were not graded because their governors had not been in office long enough and Alaska and Wyoming were excluded by Cato for technical reasons.
Four governors — from California, New Hampshire, Colorado and Montana — got an “A” for cutting taxes and spending the most. Ehrlich’s grade fell below the “B” average for the freshman class of Republican governors.
Slivinski said Ehrlich’s grade suffered because he is ultimately responsible for tax-raising and spending bills from the Democrat-controlled legislature, although he was credited in the report for vetoing a bill to tax health maintenance organizations.
Ehrlich has spent too much time focusing on slots legislation to boost state revenues, Slivinski said. But he said approving slots will not necessarily bring up his grade, especially if the money were used to increase government spending on certain programs.
Richard Falknor, executive vice president of the Maryland Taxpayers Association, said Cato’s premise was right but that the authors were “generous” in saying state “spending has remained tame.”
“The ranking is reasonable but they missed some things in Maryland,” Falknor said. He pointed out that the authors “didn’t pick up on Thornton,” the multiyear public school reform plan that is expected to cost more than $1 billion.
But the director of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute said the Cato report emphasizes reducing spending, which does not reflect the values of Maryland residents. Steve Hill said state budget cuts have hurt many Marylanders.
“Taxpayers are sending their kids to crappy schools and seeing cuts in every area of service,” Hill said. “They are spending four hours waiting in line at the DMV to get driver’s licenses renewed because there are not enough staff.”
One Democratic state legislator agreed that Cato’s judgment of what constitutes an “A” — cutting taxes and reducing spending — is not what Maryland residents are mainly concerned with.
“We have to ensure that government has a good role, to help people get work and have a decent work place and decent wages,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s.
A better measuring stick is to look at progress in environmental protection and health care coverage, he said. He pointed to the flush tax, for example, as a positive thing for helping to clean up the environment.
As for Cato’s grading system, Pinsky said that when the next biennial report card comes out, “The lower the grade, the better.”
“If the governor gets a D or an F, I’ll cheer it on,” he said.
-30- CNS 03-01-05