O'Malley faces his first test in office

The Baltimore Sun

When Gov. Martin O'Malley took his oath in January, he spoke of "One Maryland," celebrating an end to the partisan feuding that had beset Annapolis under his Republican predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. With O'Malley at the helm and strong Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, state business would be less contentious, lawmakers said, even pleasantly efficient.

Those were the days.

Last week, the governor heard the first rumblings of discontent over his proposal for solving the state's $1.7 billion budget crisis and his call for a November special legislative session to consider his plan.

The criticisms aren't coming from Republicans alone. House Speaker Michael E. Busch bucked the governor by questioning the wisdom of a special session, and the Anne Arundel Democrat has also said that legalized slot machine gambling, a core component of O'Malley's proposal, is not the way to go.

The episode marks the first true political test of O'Malley's young administration. Lawmakers are giving the governor relatively solid marks for his ambitious budget proposal but poor reviews for outreach. As a result, O'Malley's special session, and maybe even his budget plan, could be in peril.

O'Malley's quick-fix mentality reveals the pluck that made him appealing to voters during the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, but it is an attitude, some say, that requires that everyone get in lock step behind him.

"The first rule of any governor is:,You have to count votes. And if you can't count votes or you don't have enough votes, you look silly by bringing up an issue and it gets killed," said Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat who joined Comptroller Peter Franchot at an anti-slots news conference Thursday morning at Harborplace. "Maybe this is a lesson that O'Malley had to learn."

Stephen J. Kearney, O'Malley's communications director, said the governor's record this year with the legislature shows that he can count votes. The governor briefed the Senate Democratic caucus last week and has met with lawmakers every day for the past week and a half, Kearney said. Last week, O'Malley spoke with 25 lawmakers and plans to talk with another 30 in the coming week.

"We are full speed ahead. We certainly anticipated that the Republicans would pull this kind of thing," Kearney said. "We knew we would have some convincing to do in the House. And that is what the governor is spending a lot of time doing."

"It's ludicrous to suggest we have not reached out to the Assembly," he said.

The governor has described his proposed budget in recent interviews as a "consensus" proposal that includes initiatives that the majority of members have supported in the past.

Late meetings

But O'Malley waited until late last week, well after he presented the package, to hold face-to-face meetings with lawmakers outside of the top fiscal leadership to seek their support. He and Busch wrangled Thursday in a private meeting, sources say, in an attempt to hash out their differences and count heads in the House of Delegates.

Franchot, too, has been dogging the governor, repeating his opposition to a special session and slots during events in Baltimore and Silver Spring on Thursday.

Franchot, a Democrat, went so far as to release a proposed alternative to slots Friday, a plan to bring in $200 million in tax revenue over four years by auditing individuals and companies failing to comply with the state's tax laws.

Republican leaders, who had showered praise on O'Malley this year for reaching out to them when he took office, hammered him last week for taking their support for slots for granted. Usually reliable and critical votes for slots, the GOP's Senate leaders threatened to sink any gambling proposal brought to a vote during a special session on taxes.

"The whole package has been crafted without our input," said Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican who has voted for slots in the past.

O'Malley can probably count on Democratic majorities in the legislature to pass many elements of his tax plan, but it is widely believed he will need Republicans to get approval for a slots bill.

Past problems

This isn't the first time O'Malley has experienced growing pains. When he took over at Baltimore City Hall, he stunned people with his sometimes brash behavior.

He drew stick figures to show how he thought Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy should run her office. He declined to pay obeisance to William Donald Schaefer, a former mayor and governor who wanted to be O'Malley's liaison to the business community. O'Malley had to negotiate with some City Council members to win support for a convention center hotel, but council members were generally receptive to his ideas.

The Democratic City Hall has proved easier to manage than the State House, where, even with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, bipartisanship is still required.

Baltimore City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. said that when O'Malley pushed for tax increases and other major initiatives at City Hall, he used his "staff as a shield." At the State House, members, in exchange for their votes, want to be courted and want their political and policy needs met.

"What I found with Martin in city government is, he tended to use his staff to work from afar," Harris said. "He gave them the charge of what needs to be done. He would stay the distance, and when it came close to crunch time, you would get a call from the mayor to try to get your support."

Harris -- who lost his bid last month for City Council president to a candidate backed by O'Malley -- said that approach wouldn't work with state lawmakers.

"He has to go one-on-one," Harris said of the governor. "He has to get more involved. It's a whole new creature in the legislature. You have different personalities. You have Democrats who are moderate. You have a Republican Party. With the council, you have pretty much the same approach to government."

Looking to Virginia

O'Malley has only to look back a few years and across the border to Virginia to see a model for bipartisan compromise in a similar budget crunch. Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, faced a $3 billion budget deficit and a Republican-ruled legislature at the time.

John H. Chichester, a Northumberland, Va., Republican who is chairman of the Virginia Senate's Finance Committee, recalled that the state's financial problems had been brewing for a long time and that in 2002, when Warner was sworn in, he quickly began identifying possible cuts. State agencies were combined. Boards and commissions were eliminated. Medicaid was trimmed. Public education wasn't cut, but it wasn't funded adequately, Chichester said.

"There was no corner of the state budget that Mark Warner did not look at and scrutinize carefully and cut if it was possible to do so," said Chichester, who is also president pro tempore of the state Senate.

In 2004, Warner and Chichester crafted a $1.4 billion budget compromise proposal that saved the state's bond rating. Warner, Chichester said, worked tirelessly to make sure that the GOP and the business community were on board. The plan included a sweeping overhaul of the state's tax code.

For their bipartisan efforts, Governing magazine named them public officials of the year. They were, Chichester said, "two folks in different canoes paddling the same river."

Warner and O'Malley met earlier this year and discussed how the ex-Virginia governor handled his budget issues, Kearney said. O'Malley administration officials have tried to model their efforts on what worked for Warner.

Cuts, criticism

O'Malley directed his Cabinet secretaries to identify $200 million in spending cuts and later proposed freezing an inflation index built into the Thornton education plan. Republicans have argued that the cuts don't go nearly far enough.

By summer, O'Malley and his aides were floating different tax proposals. They settled on a plan and subsequently unveiled it, piece by piece, during campaign-style events at places including a Baltimore County family's kitchen table.

The package includes an increase in the state sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent, extending the tax to cover more services, changing the income tax structure so that high earners pay more and low- and middle-income filers pay less, an increase in the corporate income tax rate from 7 percent to 8 percent, closing corporate loopholes and a property tax reduction.

O'Malley faces two challenges: getting a complicated budget plan passed and quelling some of the rancor he has created by trying to push through a complicated package.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a slots proponent who has aligned himself with O'Malley, said the governor deserves members' patience.

"I think in terms of the strategy here, it could've been done in a different matter," said Miller, a Southern Maryland Democrat. "But you've got to remember he's only been in office for nine months. He took his time in naming his Cabinet secretaries. It wasn't until July that he began fashioning his budget. It took longer than I would've liked to come up with a solution in terms of cuts, but there was an awful lot of thought process that went into it."

Anderson said the governor "is an ingenue at this. He will learn to look before you leap."

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

james.drew@baltsun.com

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