O'Malley's legacy

O'Malley seems to think he's not getting the respect he deserves; he's got a point.

By the time Gov.-elect Larry Hogan takes office on Wednesday, many words will have been written about the legacy of his predecessor, Gov. Martin O'Malley. Most of those words, as it turns out, will have been written by Mr. O'Malley himself. During the last two weeks, he has taken to Tumblr to dump reams of musings and data from his two terms in office on the Maryland public. Though the exercise would be easy to lampoon as absurdly excessive navel-gazing, Mr. O'Malley's blog offers some truths about his legacy that are easily overlooked.

If we were to encapsulate the basic frustration that seems to underlie the blog, we could do no better than to quote the classic Animals lyric, "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good/Oh Lord! Please don't let me be misunderstood." It's the theme of probably the most amusing entry, in which the governor recounts a recent anecdote in which he calls to set up the home heating oil account on the North Baltimore house he and his family are set to move into. He gives is name as Martin ("like Luther King") O'Malley ("like the out-going governor"). "Ah yes," replied Cathy, the woman from the oil company. "The 'tax man.'" The governor recounts his effort to rebut her perception by noting that the aforementioned governor actually reduced income taxes for all but the wealthiest Marylanders (true) and that increases in the property tax she pays are her local government's doing. (The sales tax increase evidently slipped his mind.) Cathy, apparently figuring out who she was talking to, puts him on hold, and somebody else completes the call.

The governor continues in an expression of frustration that when he was mayor, it was obvious to constituents what he was doing, but now that he's governor, most of what goes on escapes the public's notice, is misunderstood or gets credited to someone else. With the state ready to inaugurate a governor who just spent the last year traveling the state to decry Mr. O'Malley's record on taxes, spending, job creation, environmental regulation, health care reform and more, we can see why he's feeling a little sensitive. But he's right that his legacy demands something more than an appraisal from Mr. Hogan's point of view.

Mr. O'Malley will almost certainly be remembered for raising taxes, thanks in no small part to Mr. Hogan's campaign and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown's utter inadequacy at defending that part of his shared record with the current governor (a shortcoming Mr. O'Malley alludes to at times). But consider this: Before Mr. O'Malley took office, according to the conservative-leaning Tax Foundation, Marylanders paid 10.6 percent of per capita income in state and local taxes. According to the foundation's most recent report, that figure now stands at ... 10.6 percent.

Mr. O'Malley raised the sales tax, the corporate income tax, the gasoline tax, the alcohol tax, tobacco taxes and assorted fees. He raised the income tax on top earners but lowered it for others, and last year he signed into law a reduction in Maryland's estate tax. Here's why he did it: When he came into office, the supposed surplus left by the Ehrlich administration was in fact a pile of cash that only temporarily masked a long-term imbalance between state expenditures, as governed by various spending formulas, and tax receipts. The tax increases he championed in 2007, along with the legalization of slot machine gambling, were an attempt to address that, and they were designed to make the state's tax system more progressive.

For a moment, it appeared that the state's budget imbalance was solved, but then the Great Recession hit, and Maryland's finances were again thrown into a tailspin from which they appeared about to emerge when federal budget cutbacks caused economic growth here to flatline. (For the record, the same thing happened in Virginia.)

Every Republican who ran for governor this year lampooned Mr. O'Malley's claim to have made $9.7 billion in spending cuts during his administration on the seemingly straightforward grounds that the state budget was $29.6 billion in the last year of the Ehrlich administration and is $39.2 billion now. Mr. O'Malley was talking about reductions in projected spending, which Mr. Ehrlich also did and Mr. Hogan no doubt soon will.

Mr. O'Malley's stewardship of the state budget included some policies that will put Maryland in a much stronger position in the long term, such as his reforms to the state pension system, though he backtracked somewhat this year from his efforts to make up for previous under-funding. It also included some policies that will cost us down the road, such as his use of capital debt to cover spending that would otherwise have come from the general fund. But his overall fiscal legacy is that he protected Maryland's levels of spending on K-12 education, including school construction; froze public university tuition for several years and then limited the levels of increase; expanded health insurance coverage to more of the working poor; and increased efforts to stem the flow of pollution into the Chesapeake Bay. Those were the big ticket items of his tenure, and if a large constituency of Marylanders disagreed with those priorities, they certainly didn't say so at the time.

The governor will surely be remembered for promising and failing to roll back the 72 percent BGE rate increase that hit during his first campaign. But less well appreciated are his policy changes that have enabled the state's utilities to incentivize energy efficiency and reliability, dramatically increased the state's use of renewable energy and limited emissions of greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, the average BGE bill after the 2006 rate increase was expected to be about $146. Now, thanks to lower energy prices and increased efficiency, it's $135. Adjusting for inflation, that's about 20 percent lower than it was when he took office.

Mr. O'Malley will most certainly be remembered for championing a variety of contentious social issues, including gay marriage, in-state tuition for some immigrants who lack legal status, the repeal of the death penalty, new gun control laws and the establishment and expansion of casino gambling here. The governor isn't running from any of that (though he still expresses some ambivalence about that last one). But what clearly animates him, if his blog is any indication, is the nuts and bolts of management. He goes on at great length about data-driven governance, setting goals and following up.

What's most curious about his legacy, then, is that the biggest debacles of his administration — the botched launch of the state's health insurance exchange website and the Baltimore City Detention Center corruption scandal — were failures of management.

Both come in policy areas where the governor was otherwise strong. He took a Medicaid program that was among the most restrictive in the country and expanded coverage to hundreds of thousands even before the Affordable Care Act. And the new Medicare waiver his administration negotiated with the federal government could make Maryland a model for stemming the rise in health care costs. One of the biggest coups of Mr. O'Malley's first year was the closure of the dangerous House of Correction in Jessup, and one of his most important innovations was to increase coordination between state probation agents and local law enforcement to better monitor violent repeat offenders. Overall violent crime in Maryland is now at a lower level than we have seen in decades.

Maryland wasn't the only state with ACA website troubles, and the city jail is hardly the only one to experience corruption. And on both issues, the governor took action to clean up the mess. But both are and will remain stains on his legacy. It's simply hard to understand how the hands-on, hyper communicative, data and results-obsessed governor Mr. O'Malley portrays himself to be could have missed so badly in those two cases, both of which loom large in our memories because they came so close to the end of his two terms.

We can understand why Mr. O'Malley would feel the urge to change the narrative about his administration, and not just because of Cathy from the gas company. Mr. Hogan campaigned on the notion that Maryland is on the wrong track, and the voters rewarded him for it. The obvious missing piece of Mr. O'Malley's legacy is the validation of seeing his lieutenant governor succeed him.

We are among those who believe the state needs a shift in policies and priorities to meet its present challenges — heck, even Mr. Brown said as much. But there can be no denying the enormity of the record Mr. O'Malley leaves behind or the difficulty of the circumstances he faced. Whatever comes next for him, he will clearly go down as one of Maryland's most influential governors of modern times.

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