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Opportunities missed

The Baltimore Sun

Grading the Maryland General Assembly's performance this year is no easy task. With the 90-day session complete, lawmakers can certainly point to some significant if not necessarily earthshaking accomplishments, from banning smoking in bars to raising the emissions standards for new cars. But the most pressing problem facing the state continues to be the growing gap between projected budget revenues and government spending - the so-called structural deficit. And on that front, virtually nothing was accomplished.

The most charitable grade under these circumstances would be an incomplete - with a mountain of homework to be done by Gov. Martin O'Malley and the legislature's fiscal leaders in the interim.

This was Mr. O'Malley's choice, of course. He said from the outset he needed a year to review state government operations with an eye toward cost-cutting and wants to present a comprehensive budget solution next year. That's not an unreasonable request.

But the trade-off is that the state's budget woes are likely to worsen, and if this year's session has demonstrated anything, it's that the schism between Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch still exists. Mr. Miller wants slots, Mr. Busch views them skeptically, and Mr. O'Malley is stuck with two lawmakers who are barely on speaking terms, let alone willing to negotiate a solution to the deficit.

The governor's aides insist he is well aware of the risks involved but believes the pressure of an immediate fiscal crisis (as opposed to an imminent one) will motivate lawmakers to make the difficult choices. That may be true - or Mr. O'Malley may look back at the 2007 session as a lost opportunity.

This much is clear: The most ambitious legislation to be offered this year died in the Senate with minimal consideration. One would have potentially provided health insurance coverage for 200,000 uninsured Marylanders. The other would have established a "green fund" to help restore the Chesapeake Bay.

Mr. Miller may claim that fiscal sanity required that both be killed, but the living-wage bill he and other lawmakers passed to ensure that state contractors pay their employees at least $11.30 an hour in most cases represents precisely the kind of unfunded mandate that has fed the deficit. The legislation may well have a positive impact, but any claim that it won't cost taxpayers a dime is nonsensical on its face.

On the plus side, Mr. O'Malley certainly deserves credit for returning civility to the State House and for meeting campaign pledges to beef up education spending and freeze college tuition, to return a regulatory sensibility to the Public Service Commission, and to limit overall budget growth. Legislation to protect the interests of homeowners who pay ground rent and to reform voting laws to, among other things, ensure a verifiable paper trail also deserves credit.

In many ways, Mr. O'Malley and the legislature are off to a good start. It's just that their decision to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the State House is worrisome.

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