Shawn J. Soper
BERLIN – Just three weeks away from what many are billing as the “election of a lifetime,” candidates at each level in Maryland are jumping at every opportunity to get their messages across, and perhaps no greater stage was provided than this week’s gubernatorial debate between incumbent Governor Martin O’Malley and Republican challenger and former Governor Robert Ehrlich.
An opportunity for change is at the heart of every local, county and state election across Maryland and perhaps no better example of that is the ongoing race between O’Malley and Ehrlich. State voters will have to decide whether to stick with the status quo already starting to emerge from one of the darkest chapters in state and national history, or veer in an entirely different direction, albeit a direction taken just four years prior to the current administration.
O’Malley started this week’s gubernatorial debate by illustrating the choice state voters will have to make next month.
“You have a clear choice to make in this contest,” he said. “It is whether we move forward to better days or whether we slip back. Every decision I’ve made over these last difficult years has been made with one consideration only. And that is, what is best for the people of Maryland? I have fought every battle on your side.”
Much of Monday’s debate between O’Malley and Ehrlich focused on the state’s economy, jobs and the perception of a hostile business climate in Maryland. Ehrlich said on Monday over-regulation by many of the state’s agencies has prevented any real progress in reversing that perception.
“The fact of it is, we have some really broken state agencies that have been increasingly hostile to business and business creation in the state,” he said. “We have not created one new job in the state over the past four years and that’s a real problem. We’ve doubled out unemployment rate, in fact, and that is a huge problem.”
Ehrlich said Maryland’s unemployment problem is directly related to its unfriendly business climate, particularly for small businesses.
“To the extent you have a hostile environment created, to the extent you have business people just hurting around the state of Maryland as a result of actions by state regulators, you have a loss of jobs,” he said. “That’s what I hear time and time again around the state from the small business community, the people that really are the backbone of our economy and our state.”
O’Malley defended his administration’s record on attracting new businesses, small and large, to Maryland during one of the toughest economic periods ever.
“Our country’s gone through a tough recession over the course of these last three years and I don’t think there’s a single family or business that’s been spared this national, this global recession,” he said. “But our economy is an innovation economy and it’s an innovation economy that is fueled by small business. Two-thirds out of all jobs created in our state are created by small business.”
While he acknowledged Maryland’s perceived hostile business climate in some respects, O’Malley said he would not compromise the state’s regulations at the expense of the environmental gains in the state.
“Nonetheless, as a state, we need to take stock of our competitive strengths in this environment,” he said. “I’ll make no apologies for standing up when necessary to environmental polluters and for protecting our quality of life and the health of the Bay. I believe there’s something we can only do together and protecting our natural resources is one of those things.”
O’Malley said Maryland continued to move forward and grind its way out of the recession by reinforcing existing businesses and embracing new ones. He pointed to a vibrant medical and technological atmosphere in Maryland.
“Last year, we had one of the highest-performing technology sectors in the country because we’re moving forward,” he said. “The truth of the matter is, we have actually created over 33,000 net new jobs. That’s not me saying that, that’s the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and we have to continue to create jobs because we have a deep hole to climb out of. This recession has cost all of us over these last three years, but for all of our anger and frustration at this recession, that anger and frustration isn’t going to move us forward.”
However, Ehrlich pointed out any advances in the high tech fields were leaving behind most of the state’s unemployed lunch-pail carrying workers.
“This is what it is all about and Governor, you know that,” he said. “The fact of it is, we have dropped in our business ratings significantly. We have 16,000, I’m sorry, 216,000 Marylanders out of work. The Tax Foundation and various rating groups rate us as one of the worst business environments in the country.”
O’Malley pointed out some of Ehrlich’s flawed policies initiated long before the recession.
“I will pledge not to raise property taxes like you raised property taxes, Governor, when you were governor in easier times,” he said. “I will pledge not to jack up college tuition by 40 percent. I will pledge not to increase by 300 percent the annual filing fees for every small business incorporated in Maryland and I will pledge not to pretend that fees are not taxes.”