State of the State: O'Malley makes half his case

Shortly before Gov.Martin O'Malleytook the rostrum in the House of Delegates for his State of the State address today, his office issued a preview of the speech in the form of a word cloud — a visual representation of the most-used words in the speech in which those that are most emphasized appear the largest. The biggest word, by far, was "jobs," larger even than "Maryland." Conspicuously absent was the term that would probably show up biggest if Maryland legislators or many of the state's residents were to come up with word clouds for their own personal State of the Governor addresses: "taxes."

("Marriage," as in same-sex marriage, would probably come in as a close second, and it does appear in the governor's word cloud, too, but in a font so small as to be nearly invisible to the naked eye.)

Probably more than at any other time in his two terms as the state's chief executive, Governor O'Malley came into today's State of the State address in need of framing an expansive, ambitious agenda — many elements of which are controversial on their own — in a way that makes sense both inside the halls of the State House and in communities across Maryland. With proposals on the table to raise the income tax, gas tax and flush tax, and to start taxing online purchases and iPhone apps, among other things, he runs the risk of sending lawmakers and voters into a defensive crouch before they are even able to hear the details and digest what it means to them. Rather than sparking a conversation about investing in a 21st century economy, Governor O'Malley's agenda was generating jokes about the state figuring out a way to tax the air we breathe.

He needed to turn that around and appeared to recognize that, promising to provide a straightforward explanation for what he was asking of lawmakers. How did he do? So-so. The governor provided a solid rationale for the need to continue making investments in education, infrastructure and environmental protection, and he made an explicit and detailed connection between those investments and that biggest term in his word cloud. What he did not do was to speak to the concerns of those who appreciate his goals and share his belief that government can play a role in helping individuals to better their lives but who fear that he is asking too much from them at a time when they cannot afford it.

The headwind the governor is facing is a belief among many that the state of the state is not "strong," as Mr. O'Malley put it, but is, in the words of Sen. E.J. Pipkin, who presented the Republican response, "heavily taxed, and those taxes are killing jobs." It is true that Governor O'Malley has relied far more on spending cuts than on tax increases to keep the state budget balanced since the start of the recession — it's even true of this year's proposal. But many people don't believe it, and Mr. O'Malley did little to change that. He spent a great deal of time talking about spending and very little on what he has cut. There are good stories to tell there, too; the state has managed to wring hundreds of millions out of its Medicaid program, for example, while continuing to expand services. But that went unmentioned.

Likewise, the governor did little to dispel the notion that he's trying to tax everyone and everything every second of the day. The fact that the governor's budget proposal relies on several different sources for new revenues rather than just one is commendable; it means that the burden for maintaining government services, investing in infrastructure and cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is shared more fairly. But it means that Mr. O'Malley faces a tough job to put the cumulative effects for any individual family into context. He did that in 2007, when he last sought major tax increases, but not this time.

The governor did a better job of explaining his support for legalizing same-sex marriage. He put the matter in the context of respect for individual rights and of fairness: "It's not right and it's not just that children of gay couples should have less protection than the children of other families in the state."

But when it came to taxes and the budget, that kind of clarity too often eluded him. During some portions of the speech, it seemed Mr. O'Malley forgot who he was talking to, engaging in a national argument over the role of government in society rather than making a case for his specific proposals to an audience that largely agrees with him on that fundamental question. The people of Maryland have shown a consistent willingness to support government investments in high-quality public services. But particularly in these tough economic times, they need to be comfortable with the cost.

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