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O'Malley takes a bow

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As Muhammad Ali once observed, "It's not bragging if you can back it up." Thus, even his most caustic critics will have to concede that Gov. Martin O'Malley's State of the State address may have been the most heavily footnoted piece of braggadocio in Maryland history.

Here's the CliffsNotes version of what Governor O'Malley had to say this afternoon: In the economic downturn, Maryland had to make tough choices, but they were good decisions — better than made elsewhere — and now things are looking pretty good. (Add no fewer than 28 footnoted claims about how the state leads the nation in public education, entrepreneurship, median family income, etc., as well as a fairly ambitious legislative agenda for 2013, and you can delete the speech from your DVR).

As boastful as that may seem, the governor had some valid points to make — and it's more than worthwhile to walk through the last half-decade or so of economic downturn and recovery to consider the journey Maryland has taken. Much of it involved finding a balance between preserving the services provided by government against substantially raising taxes and fees.

For the most part, core functions like public schools and higher education won out. Mr. O'Malley and the General Assembly raised taxes (on more than one occasion) to address deficits and make sure schools were sufficiently funded. The governor pushed through a substantial expansion of legalized gambling (which might be considered a tax on the foolish). But he also cut back on many government programs, constrained the growth in spending, shrank local aid, and forced state employees to contribute more to their pensions.

Today, state government appears to be in much better shape, particularly its budget. Instead of the $1.7 billion structural deficit the governor faced just five years ago, the projected shortfall is now "nearly" eliminated, as Mr. O'Malley noted. Meanwhile, Maryland schools are generally well-regarded (with some exceptions, of course), the economy is growing (albeit modestly), violent crime is down, the state's credit rating is as high as ever and Baltimore's port and airport are doing record business.

As for looking forward, the governor reiterated his support for the major items in his legislative agenda: gun control, abolishing the death penalty, offshore wind power and some tax credits. He even put in a plug for addressing the "worst traffic congestion in the country" but found little enthusiasm in his audience of lawmakers and political glitterati for the obvious — though unspoken — remedy of a higher state gas tax.

We could quibble with some of the governor's more self-serving assertions (aside from his unyielding support for the Ravens) but perhaps the most glaring shortcoming of the address was a notable absence: not even so much as a passing reference to $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts, the much-feared federal sequestration, that could become a reality in one short month.

If Mr. O'Malley thinks he has introduced a "jobs" budget because it contains some modest tax incentives and supports some capital projects, he may find it wholly inadequate on March 2, the day after the congressional deadline. The standoff seems much like the fiscal cliff debate of last year — only with even less chance of compromise, given that the Bush tax cuts are no longer on the table. Those sequestration cuts to government agencies, defense contractors and others will be felt most keenly in Maryland, perhaps more so than anywhere else.

That's not to rain on the governor's parade. If this was an audition for the 2016 presidential election, Mr. O'Malley demonstrated some much-improved oratory skills in his seventh State of the State speech. He smartly packed the audience with some notable achievers, ranging from a teen entrepreneur to an award-winning scientist. He's made those good, if difficult, policy choices over the years, and it's reasonable to crow about some of them.

But for all the happy talk, there's a pretty serious threat to this state's well-being lurking just a 45-minute drive west from the State House. Perhaps there's little the Democratic governor of a medium-sized state can do about partisan gridlock in Washington, but it should be A-material for a potential presidential candidate. Off-message, maybe, if the point was to look like a problem-solver, but all that optimism called for a little bit of caution, too.

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