Remember when politicians had substantive debates?
Sine Die legislative parlance for "it's over!" arrived at the State House late Monday night, with all 188 members of the Maryland General Assembly taking the hint and high-tailing it out of town.
They completed this year's 90-day session without doing serious harm to Maryland or tackling the state's major problems.
It was a typical election-year gathering: Modest accomplishments while postponing action on big controversies.
Early in the year, Republican Minority Leader Allan Kittleman said the Democrats' delaying tactics in dealing with Maryland's record structural deficit amounted to "kicking the can down the road."
Here's a better analogy: It's as though Democrats are trying to roll a huge mound of ice and snow up a steep hill: The giant ice ball gets bigger and bigger with each step, as does the danger. At any minute this ice ball could get so heavy it rolls down the hill on its own momentum, crushing everything in its path.
That's what could be in store for Marylanders if leaders continue to ignore the $2 billion shortfall facing this state next year, and the year after that, and the year after that ...
Maryland's uncontrolled teacher pension liability could top $1 billion in 2011. There's no revenue source for tens of billions in generous benefits owed future state retirees. Automatic inflation mandates are driving education spending into the stratosphere.
Yet, the nation's slow economic recovery is blocking a strong rebound in Maryland tax receipts. State House leaders don't have the courage to tell voters there's a desperate need for higher taxes or for massive, painful elimination of important government services.
It's a mess of their own making. Instead of telling citizens the truth, state political leaders avoid delivering the bad news. Their motto: Never tackle today what you can put off until after the fall elections.
Fortunately, we need not wait until the 2011 legislature convenes to examine these issues: We've got center-row seats for the face-off between the once and possibly future chief executive, Bob Ehrlich, and the current governor, Martin O'Malley.
It won't be as entertaining as the dueling arias of Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras in "The Three Tenors," but Maryland's production of "The Two Governors" which already is under way offers a remarkable opportunity for a pair of polar-opposite candidates to weigh in on such pivotal issues as budget deficits, casino gambling, the death penalty and tax increases.
The problem is that neither candidate wants a serious public conversation. Neither is a Clinton-style "policy wonk." Both speak in campaign sound bites and political obfuscation.
On Tuesday, for instance, Ehrlich panned the 90-day session ("nothing much happened") while O'Malley gave an upbeat unity assessment that ignored the obvious partisan divide on nearly every issue.
Ehrlich said state Democrats have "a horrible record of massive tax increases, out-of-control spending and out-of-touch liberal programs."
He predicted that if O'Malley wins in November, Democrats will "pass the largest tax increase ever in the history of Maryland" a central Ehrlich theme comparable to Chicken Little's hysterical screams of pending doom: "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!"
O'Malley promptly called Ehrlich's remarks "part of the politics of fear and division. It's the sort of scaremonger politics that some folks choose to practice."
But will O'Malley, as Ehrlich charged, raise taxes in a second term?
"It's my intent not to. It's my great hope not to," he said.
Will he take a "no new taxes" pledge?
"I'm not sure that there's any person who's run for office that has made that pledge and kept it. And I think it's probably irresponsible, especially at a time of war, to make that pledge."
Did he say "time of war?"
What a bizarre diversionary tactic.
Note to O'Malley: There hasn't been an official U.S. declaration of war in more than 60 years. Yet O'Malley seems to be telling us that he considers himself a "wartime governor" who couldn't possibly raise state taxes while American troops are stationed in harm's way.
Funny thing, though: We were in that same "time of war" three years ago when O'Malley raised taxes by $1.3 billion.
The governor's comment is a classic obfuscation: a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
Ehrlich, meanwhile, is giving voters his own version of political nonsense. He has pledged to roll back O'Malley's 20 percent sales tax increase of 2007 but funny thing, he hasn't identified how he'd compensate for the $600 million in lost sales tax revenue.
He also never explains how he will fill the remaining $2 billion budget hole expected next year.
Such a discussion would require detailed policy debates, something that is unlikely in this campaign.
O'Malley and Ehrlich seem determined to avoid fundamental questions facing this state, such as the role of government in 21st-century Maryland and how the next governor should balance the growing needs of citizens against the need for citizen participation in paying for government services.
Instead, we can expect seven months of name-calling and pandering to voters' perceived prejudices.
It could make us yearn for the days prior to sine die, when delegates and senators filled the State House for 90 days with substantive debates on matters affecting Maryland citizens, even though the issues involved were far from earth-shaking.
Barry Rascovar is a State House columnist and communications consultant. His e-mail address is email@example.com.