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The Tentacle


November 28, 2007

What a Difference a Year Makes – Part 1

Kevin E. Dayhoff

The ink had hardly dried on Gov. Martin O’Malley’s signature on November 19 when the peripatetic gerbils powering the Maryland media spin machines went into high gear.

Remember, it was WBAL that called to our attention that “The governor didn't waste any time signing the legislation … that will raise taxes by about $1.3 billion … The General Assembly adjourned in the early morning hours today …”

The very next morning Baltimore’s Sun editorialized: “The deficit, slain.”

While I certainly do not always agree with The Sun editorial board’s point of view, I have certainly come to respect their ability to maintain the dominant narrative on political dynamics in Maryland.

Yes, to be certain, harsh words are available in an analysis of the editorial. However my shriveled – but nevertheless – pragmatic sense of decency has left that arena available for people more practiced in the art of professional outrage.

Nevertheless, by jumping so quickly – within hours of the General Assembly adjourning – to conclude that the Special Taxing Session was “an impressive victory for Mr. O'Malley;” the august minions of Calvert Street have once again reaffirmed a belief in rural Maryland that the paper is essentially a hired gun for the O’Malley administration.

The spin being put into action here by the newsletter of the state’s dominant political party rivals the “political machines” in Maryland’s past.

Politics in Maryland is beginning to resemble the old joke about Russian television, where they “had two TV channels. Channel One was propaganda. Channel Two consisted of a KGB officer telling you: Turn back at once to Channel One.”

First of all, the editorial reinforces a maxim of political spin: If it is repeated often enough, it becomes real.

There was no budget on the table for consideration during the Special Taxing Session. The $1.7 billion number was a “projection,” and lost in all the spin and rhetoric was the fact that the “structural deficit” was caused by the Glendening era passage of an expensive education program with essentially no funding scheme.

To wit, the editorial said that the enacted tax increases leaves the state “with significant and lasting implications. At a minimum it means the state's structural deficit has finally been brought under control beyond the piecemeal ‘take from Peter to pay Paul’ approach of the last administration.”

Insiders whisper that the $1.7 billion projected deficit involves some assumptions that include increased program spending far above a budget that would have been balanced with a disciplined 3.5 percent increase in spending.

And never mind that in addition to a 20 percent increase in the sales tax, the lynchpin of bringing the “state’s structural deficit under control” is slots – that was proposed by the Ehrlich administration. A proposal denied by the Maryland General Assembly simply to spite Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., but now moving forward under the auspices of an administration more to the Assembly’s liking.

Be sure to note that the beef is not with the editorial board. They have a right to their opinions. The challenge remains when the news coverage begins to mirror the position of the editorial board and gives the current administration a pass on matters which would have been excoriated during the former administration.

True to form, last Friday, The Sun ran a Capital News Service article, in support of the Special Taxing Session’s “Green Fund,” with the headline, “Cover crop program a hit.”

The article went on to explain: “The program is in such demand that the Maryland Department of Agriculture has more farmers than funds… ”

That was the set up. Next comes: “Experts say controlling farm pollution is the cheapest and most effective way to reduce bay pollution. Agriculture contributes about 62 percent of sediment, 45 percent of phosphorus, and 44 percent of nitrogen that ends up in the bay, according to federal data…”

“… A proposal that could have increased funding for cover crops was included in a proposed $50 million Chesapeake Bay 2010 Trust Fund considered in this month's special legislative session.”

Now, are you ready? Here’s the point: “… The bill passed, but the final version mentions only general bay cleanup goals and not cover crops specifically. It dedicates the money to the Department of Natural Resources, instead of splitting it with the Agriculture Department and other agencies… Supporters of the original bill have said they expect to come back in January to try to specify how the trust fund money will be allocated…”

Then the article quotes Gerald W. Winegrad, a former state senator, who says “that voluntary programs are not enough. He instead supports making cover crops mandatory and imposing regulations to cap farm nutrient pollution… ‘When you only use carrots, and you don't use sticks, you have a failing effort,’ he said. ‘The bay is not improving and agriculture is nowhere near meeting their requirements.”

Hmmm. The next session of the Maryland General Assembly may make you forget the Special Taxing Session.

Meanwhile, understand this latest article in contrast with the position of a Sun article from September 11, 2006 – just before the Maryland gubernatorial election: “Flush funds enables building.” The article chastised the Ehrlich administration’s “Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund” for “allowing sewage plant upgrades – which is allowing increased development.”

“The 2004 law – Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr.'s signature initiative – has been applauded by environmentalists because it will help reduce pollution flowing out of sewage plants, feeding low-oxygen ‘dead zones’ in the bay.”

“But a review of the first 10 projects being built with money from the fund reveals that in some cases, the new plants are spurring development that is disturbing to conservationists.”

Oh, what a difference year – and an election – makes in slanting news coverage.

Nevertheless, there are more important dynamics in play, with far more dire implications than the slant of The Sun.

In tomorrow’s column this will be explained with a little more detail.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at: kdayhoff@carr.org



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