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Now or never for O'Malley

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The next two and a half months appear destined to provide a defining moment for Gov.Martin O'Malley's second term in office. If his agenda for the remainder of this General Assembly session doesn't match the intensity of his effort during 2007's special legislative session, when he successfully pushed for a package of tax increases, spending cuts and expanded gambling, it surely wins out in the breadth of what he is seeking to accomplish. He has promised to lead the charge on the defining social issue of the day, gay marriage. He is asking the legislature to accept more taxes and spending cuts in an effort to permanently realign the budget to Maryland's post-Great Recession reality. He is trying to put real teeth in Maryland's Smart Growth policies, to jump start a green energy economy and to pour hundreds of millions into new schools and roads. What happens next could leave him poised for the higher office that many assume he covets — or battered, defeated and weakened for the rest of his term.

It's indisputable that Mr. O'Malley's focus on the national political stage has grown. He is now entering his second term as head of the Democratic Governors Association — a launching pad over the years for several presidential candidates, senators and cabinet secretaries — and is a frequent guest on the Sunday morning talk show circuit. The national Democratic talking points are never far from his lips, and at times — such as his recent idle musings about raising the sales tax — he appears to be phoning in his day job.

But if his aim was to build a resume for a post-Annapolis political career, he's chosen an odd way to go about it. If he wants to present himself as the eco-governor, there are easier ways to do that than to attempt far-reaching restrictions on the installation of new septic systems in residential developments. If he wants to be the jobs governor — evidently not far from his mind; the first slide of his budget presentation compares the number of jobs created last year in Maryland and Virginia, which is led by its own ambitious young Republican chief executive — he could have touted an existing investment capital fund and his recent overseas trade missions. Pushing a major new transportation package, as he is expected to do, would be unnecessary. If he wants to tout fiscal responsibility, there were plenty of avenues for him to spin the numbers that would take less effort than explaining to a national audience what Maryland's "structural deficit" is, much less actually fixing it.

Instead, he has chosen to address long standing issues that are peculiar to Maryland — and which carry considerable political risk.

Mr. O'Malley's effort to shift some of the burden for teacher pensions from the state to local governments is a long overdue measure to fix a system that had the effect of subsidizing the state's wealthiest jurisdictions at the expense of its poorest. But he faces a nasty fight from the state's county executives and has angered the teachers unions, which otherwise might be powerful allies if he runs for office again.

His proposal to permanently resolve about 60 percent of Maryland's $1 billion "structural deficit" — that is, the persistent gap between projected spending and revenues — relies on about $400 million in ongoing spending cuts and $200 million in ongoing revenue increases. It keeps him on pace with a three-year goal set by the legislature to put the state on genuinely sustainable fiscal footing, something that's important but unlikely to win him any friends.

The governor's plan to reduce exemptions and deductions from families earning six-figure salaries has been the major focus so far in discussions of Mr. O'Malley's budget, with Republicans decrying the measure and even leading Democrats greeting it warily. But the plan also relies on dozens of small proposals, any one of which could lead to a major blowup in the legislature or with the public.

Extending the sales tax to online purchases and downloads from iTunes? That could get the state sued, it could irritate voters, and it only nets about $25 million. Continuing to divert work zone speed camera fines to the state operating budget — something the state had been doing but was supposed this year to stop? That's a double-whammy, both fostering the false notion that the cameras are really a tax in disguise and the idea that the state is bleeding dry the Transportation Trust Fund (where the money would otherwise go). And what does the governor get out of it? About four million bucks.

The one part of the governor's agenda that is most closely tied to national politics is his embrace of legislation to authorize same-sex marriage in Maryland. Mr. O'Malley kept his involvement in the issue last year distinctly behind the scenes, and prior to that, he had favored civil unions instead of full marriage equality. But after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo successfully shepherded a gay marriage bill through his legislature (and got huge national media attention in the process), Governor O'Malley's support for the issue became conspicuously public. The assumption was that he was playing catch-up in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.

But on this issue, too, the governor is taking a risk. Although his public involvement improves the legislation's chances immeasurably, its passage is by no means guaranteed. House Speaker Michael E. Busch this week said he would jointly assign the bill to two different committees amid uncertainty that the one that has handled it in previous years — Judiciary — would give it a favorable recommendation this year. No new supporters have announced themselves since last year, when the legislation was withdrawn before a formal vote in the House. And even if the governor is successful in the legislature, he faces a risk Mr. Cuomo did not: a voter referendum. In Maryland, acts of the legislature can be petitioned onto the ballot for voters to decide. This bill almost certainly would be, and the latest poll on the matter by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies found Maryland voters evenly split on the issue. A defeat at the ballot box would be devastating to the governor's prestige.

The are dozens of other items on the governor's agenda that will require heavy lifting, and he's pursuing those goals in ways that will only make them harder for the legislature to process. He's likely going to propose an increase in transportation revenues, but rather than just a straight increase to the gas tax or car registration fees, he has been hinting at creating some kind of motor fuel sales tax so the rates adjust automatically with the price of gas rather than remaining stagnant. He has indicated that he will seek to double the amount of money the state collects from the "flush tax" — but he has left open the possibility of changing that levy from a flat fee to one that varies based on income or water usage. He has proposed squeezing about $200 million out of the Medicaid program without limiting enrollment. The plan incorporates a number of innovative strategies, but it also employs some tactics that may not always please Maryland's hospitals and nursing homes.

If there is a theme that ties together everything the governor is trying to do, it is his belief that through smart policy and diligent execution, government can help foster a better, fairer and more prosperous society. It doesn't fit easily on a bumper sticker, and it runs counter to the limited government rhetoric that has dominated much of the national political discourse since the rise of the tea party. But that was the philosophy Maryland voters chose when they elected him in 2006 and re-elected him by a landslide margin in 2010. Time is running out for Mr. O'Malley to put it into practice — by next year, his political capital will inevitably be on the wane as the state begins looking toward the election of his replacement in 2014. That leaves him 78 more days to determine his legacy — and the direction of the state for years to come.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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