The Interview: Ellen R. Sauerbrey, Former House Minority Leader

We continue our series of interviews with the major contenders in the 1998 gubernatorial race. In this issue, we talk with Ellen Sauerbrey, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in 1994 and the former minority leader in the Maryland House of Delegates.

Calvert Question. What accomplishments were you most proud of as minority leader in the House of Delegates?
Sauerbrey Answer. I think, first and foremost, it was raising the visibility of the Republicans, so that there was more of a sense of a two-party system. Also, I think we got the press to realize that there were differences of opinion in Maryland, that Republicans were willing to take positions on issues – even though we might not have had enough votes to win the battle. From a legislative standpoint, the issue that I worked hardest on was probably the spending affordability law, which ultimately passed. This began as an initiative on my part to pass a constitutional amendment to limit the growth of the state budget to the growth of personal income. The law, which I introduced, has had a profound effect on the way Annapolis does business. One often reads about the spending affordability recommendations which attempt to keep Maryland’s budget in line with the economy.

Q. What deficiencies of the current administration have compelled you to run for governor?

A. It started with the constant drip-drip of ethical lapses. First, there was the pension scam; then the irregular fund-raising efforts, like flying out of state for a fund-raiser hosted by someone who was obviously trying to get a state contract. There was a perception that the whole state was up for sale in return for political contributions. From a policy standpoint, I don’t see things getting better in the areas that I care most about. The economy of Maryland remains very sluggish. The governor boasts that today we have a vibrant economy because we are growing at 2.2 percent. That’s not very vibrant. When you look at the states we compete with, it’s obvious that we are lagging significantly.

Then there are quality-of-life issues, like public safety and education. This administration has not really done anything significant to improve the safety of our community. One of my platform issues in the last campaign was truth in sentencing, which means that if you give someone a sentence for 10 years, he is going to stay in jail for 10 years. This has not been pursued. As for schools, while money has been thrown at our education system, there certainly has not been true education reform. Instead, there has been a politicization of how moneys are distributed around the state. The education funds, which used to be distributed according to a formula that was fair in terms of school construction and operating funds, have now become little more than political footballs.


Q. It’s no secret that Maryland’s income-tax burden is very high – 20 percent higher than in Virginia, our principal competitor. Do you think taxes are too high in Maryland?

A. As the person who launched the movement to lower personal income-tax rates in Maryland, I believe taxes are too high. The 10 percent cut that was passed in the last legislative session is a step in the right direction. I think, once again, I forced the agenda. But it’s a very small step. The cut is to be spread over a number of years and it will only happen if there is a governor committed to making it happen during the next term. Between now and November, people are going to realize about $20 per person savings, which is certainly not going to make us more competitive.

Q. High-growth states are typically those with lower personal-income taxes and higher sales taxes. Maryland has the exact opposite mix. Certainly its growth has been anemic. Do you think a broader reduction in tax rates and a greater reliance on sales taxes would help improve Maryland’s economy?

A. My only concern is that we end up with the worst of both worlds: You start talking about using the sales tax as a trade off and end up with a broader sales tax, but then income-tax rates go back up again. I’m not particularly fond of the idea of expanding any kind of taxation. I would like to cut spending, or at least control the growth of spending, and bring in more revenue through economic growth.

Q. How about eliminating the state capital gains tax?

A. I sponsored that legislation. Capital-gains tax relief makes capital more affordable. And it is not, as is often said, tax relief for the rich. Take, for example, a widow who is trying to put two children through college. She sells her home and takes a capital gain of $50,000. It is added to her $30,000 salary and suddenly it makes her look like she’s an $80,000-a-year wage earner, which she isn’t.

Q. What do you think about requiring a supermajority vote of the legislature and/or a vote of the people to raise taxes?

A. I’ve always thought you should make it harder to raise taxes. I’ve long been a supporter of that.

Q. The Baltimore Sun suggested the elimination of the state income tax for residents of Baltimore City as a way to attract middle-class families. What is your view?

A. I would not be averse to any approach that eases the tax burden. I think a reduction in the tax burden would encourage people to buy homes and live in the city, as well as spurring investment there.


Q. Many government activists believe that through tax credits and subsidies, states can attract business and thus improve their economies. Many analysts, however, hold that, if anything, it is better to reduce taxes and let the free market pick winners and losers. Your view?

A. It is unfortunate that Maryland sinks tax dollars into bringing in selected industries. I don’t believe the economic decision-making capacity of the political class is better than that of the free market. If anything, government funds just get politicized. They get handed out as work in return for political contributions. You can see a direct correlation between Governor Glendening’s last campaign finance report and many of these awards that have been made. Even worse, business in the state is asked to pay money into a government fund, which is then doled out to businesses who come from out of state with this new, comparative advantage.

Q. What do you think is the appropriate role of state government in bringing business to Maryland? Are trade missions abroad reasonable?

A. I think the governor should be the cheerleader of the state and for the business climate of the state. A big issue is, how do we get companies abroad to locate business operations in Maryland as opposed to Virginia or Pennsylvania? I think, for example, that Israel provides tremendous opportunities for us to build linkages. Israel is a major ally and the only democracy in its region. If elected governor, I would set up a trade mission in Israel’s capital, Jerusalem.


Q. With privatization, private firms are allowed to compete with government agencies for service contracts. What do you think of this practice?

A. Actually, when I was in the legislature, I introduced competitive contracting. I think that in many areas, private industry can do things more cost-effectively; for example, in mass transit. The goal should be to preserve quality but at the lowest possible price.


Q. Governor Glendening has committed over $200 million of the state’s money to build a new football stadium, which is expected to be opened shortly before the election. Do you think this is an appropriate use of state money?

A. It is a prime example of corporate welfare. We should compare Maryland’s investment of several hundred million dollars into two stadiums with what Governor George Allen did in Virginia with half that kind of investment in job training. Allen was able to get three electronic-chip factories employing 10,000 people at salaries of $35,000 a year. We get a few part-time groundskeepers and hamburger flippers. That is a sharp contrast in economic development.


Q. What is your view on school choice, where low-income parents are given vouchers to help send their children to private, and possibly sectarian, schools?

A. Again, I sponsored this type of legislation. I believe very much in competition for the public school system. At the end of the day, no child should have to go to a school that doesn’t work. The family should be able to make the decision that is in the best interest of their children. Many families do not have a choice because their financial situation does not permit them to send their child to any kind of alternative to a failed public school.

Q. A summer 1997 survey by the Calvert Institute found that 92 percent of African-American families who left Baltimore City for the suburbs in 1996 supported school choice. Does this surprise you, given that leadership organizations in the black community are firmly against school choice?

A. No, it doesn’t surprise me. I have talked with many African-American families. I visited a private school recently and the parents who met me there said how happy they were to have found an alternative to public school, that their children now had a future. In public school, their children weren’t learning, their reading was a disaster, the environment was violent and unsafe. I think there is a great hunger among parents in the black community to get their children a decent education. They know that the public schools simply aren’t delivering.

Q. Do you think the problem with the public schools is just a lack of money?

A. It’s clearly not a money issue; the funds are there. The problem is that the money is not going into the classroom. The kids don’t have decent books which they can take home. The teachers are buying art supplies out of their own pocketbooks. Also, it doesn’t require a lot of additional money to get children to read by phonics. Children who don’t learn to read by the first and second grades are simply promoted to the next grade, which almost guarantees that they will fail. Finally, a major problem is that teachers find it extremely difficult to maintain order in the classroom.


Q. If elected governor, how would you go about the task of increasing job opportunities for people coming off welfare?

A. The best social program for those coming off welfare is to improve the business climate in this state. This is because most of the jobs for these people will be in small business – and right now, the regulatory burden in Maryland is strangling small business.

Health Care

Q. People often worry about their health-maintenance organizations’ being arbitrary. Are controls necessary for HMOs?

A. The biggest change really needs to be made at the federal level, so that individuals can buy their health insurance with pre-tax dollars, not just employers. Employers look for ways to save money and this is what is driving the movement towards managed care. Under the current system, the consumer has few options. We can move Maryland toward a consumer’s market by giving patients more information about HMOs and increasing the number of insurance options available to them. For example, I am a big supporter of medical savings accounts. There is a role for government regulation, but I’m concerned that if we continue down that path, Annapolis will one day be micromanaging the health-care system. That is clearly inappropriate, even dangerous.

Q. Currently, the Maryland Health Care Access and Cost Commission (HCACC) collects outpatient medical data without patient consent. What is your opinion of the Patient Consent Act, which would stop this practice and require the permission of individuals before their medical data are entered into a government database?

A. I am happy to be one of the 12 legislators that voted against the creation of HCACC and this infringement on the privacy rights of individuals. Our medical information is something that we, as individuals, should control – we should decide if and when it is to be released. I strongly support requiring patient permission before any medical data are collected and put into a government database.

Q. As governor, how would you use the new federal moneys earmarked for children’s health insurance? As you know, Governor Glendening plans to expand Medicaid.

A. The Glendening plan is fiscally unwise and also unfair. Health insurance through Medicaid is more expensive than it is in the commercial market – thus, with a finite pool of money, fewer children will be covered through Medicaid expansion. Also, Medicaid expansion will create an enormous temptation on the part of parents and employers to shift the burden of insuring children from the private sector to the taxpayers. I have proposed a public/private partnership, where the new federal moneys the governor intends to spend on Medicaid would be made available to parents so that they might purchase private insurance. That way, they would have more choice – for example, they wouldn’t be forced into a state HMO – and with the savings that would accrue, we would be able to insure more children.


Q. Are you opposed to bringing casino gambling into the state? What about slot machines at Maryland racetracks and off-track betting sites?

A. I have a long record of opposing the use of gambling to fund government programs, and I continue to be opposed. I think it has been clearly demonstrated in other states that the severe social problems that accompany casinos far outweigh the short-term revenue benefits. The issue of slot machines at racetracks is a very difficult one because we have an industry that is being jeopardized by competition from surrounding states. I want to make sure we maintain a healthy racing industry in Maryland. I am looking into ways to achieve this.


Q. Many people assume that support for the free market and support for the environment are mutually exclusive, that one can’t be a supporter of both. Do you think this is true?

A. I don’t think such ideas are incompatible at all. In regard to the environment, I think you need to insure that you are using good science, not political science, as a basis for regulatory policy. Furthermore, I think the industries of the future are not the old smokestack polluters but quite clean ones. For Maryland to support business and move in the direction of biotechnology and information systems is not only good for the economy but also good for the environment.

Having a healthy Chesapeake Bay is essential for Maryland’s economy. The focus there needs to be on restoring the submerged aquatic vegetation that has largely been lost from the bay and bringing back the oysters, which are one of the major filters of bay water. The state also needs to stop being the culprit in creating environmental problems. I am referring to things like inadequate monitoring of sewage treatment plants and the large quantities of sewer sludge that provide nutrient run-off into the bay. At the same time we are complaining about chicken farmers hurting the Bay, we are putting tons and tons of sewage into the bay with similar effect.

Calvert. Thank you so much for talking with us today.

Interviewer Ron Dworkin is the chairman of the Calvert Institute. He will be conducting further interviews like this one.

Posted in: News Series, State and Local Politics