Governor's not twisting arms, so far

The Baltimore Sun

Del. Jon S. Cardin was having misgivings about elements of Gov. Martin O'Malley's tax and slot-machine plan when the governor invited him to his office on the second floor of the State House.

O'Malley sat on the sofa late one afternoon last week and offered Cardin water or soda -- he declined -- and they talked about the distribution of funds from a proposed change in the transfer tax, among other details.

There was no LBJ-style browbeating, the delegate said. Cardin said the governor, in shirtsleeves, seemed to want to reach a compromise, not just get his way.

Though the stakes are high for O'Malley as he tries to persuade Maryland lawmakers to vote for his plan for dealing with a projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall, Cardin and others who have received personal attention from the governor say that so far, he hasn't leaned on them.

"It was not meant to be an arm-twisting type of meeting," Cardin said. "The intention was more, 'Jon's not there yet; let's see if we can figure out what we need to do.'"

O'Malley's low-key lobbying has had mixed success. He won a Senate committee's support for increases in the sales and tobacco tax and a 2008 referendum on slot machine gambling. But he has watched as senators watered down his plan to make Maryland's income tax structure more progressive, rejected his proposed reduction of the state property tax and indexing of the gas tax, and resisted a measure designed to keep companies from avoiding state income taxes.

Before long, O'Malley might have to turn up the heat. Those who have been through tough debates in Annapolis say friendly persuasion can go a long way but that the last few votes will almost inevitably require a hard sell by the governor, even in a legislature controlled by his party.

"O'Malley knows how to use the power," said former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a fellow Democrat. "He is going to prevail."

After weeks of trying to sell his tax and slots plan to the public, O'Malley is working his way through the General Assembly, meeting one on one with delegates and senators to round up the votes that could determine his political future.

"I'm certainly talking to all of them," O'Malley said. "I wouldn't call it arm-twisting."

One Republican lawmaker criticized a letter by the state's general services secretary to contractors asking them to support the plan, saying the official was pressuring those who do business with the state. The attorney general's office said the secretary had done nothing wrong.

Democratic lawmakers say O'Malley has seemed more interested in an exchange of ideas in their private meetings.

"They kind of left us alone to do our work," said Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel Democrat who voted against the governor's tax bill in committee. "I think he realizes it's a difficult package for everybody."

Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he has had plenty of access to the governor and his aides but has "not gotten strong-armed."

Republican lawmakers say they have seen no evidence that O'Malley is courting members of their party. GOP leaders came out early against his plan, though some are keeping an open mind on slots.

"It's certainly disappointing because, in public, the governor maintains that he's looking for a consensus and he's seeking bipartisan support, but in private, that's just not what's happening," said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, the minority whip from Howard County.

Most of the lobbying seems to be focused on Democrats from conservative districts, particularly in Baltimore County.

Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. said O'Malley and his legislative director, Joseph Bryce, met with him recently to gain input, not support. The Southern Maryland Democrat said the governor told him, "I am putting a lot out there, but I am not wedded to it. If you have better alternatives, let's hear it."

Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a conservative Democrat who shares Bohanan's district, got even more personal treatment. As he was driving to a meeting last month, his cell phone rang. It was Peter O'Malley, the governor's brother, offering to drive to St. Mary's County to take Dyson to dinner.

Peter O'Malley and one of the governor's aides, Sean Malone, ate with Dyson at Sandgates Inn, a local crab house.

"We talked about it, and they asked me what I wanted to do," Dyson said. "I said, 'I think you need to do cuts and taxes together.' Ninety-nine percent of Marylanders think government is bloated."

Former state Sen. Michael J. Collins said most of the effective lobbying he saw from governors was subtle.

"You knew that if you helped Governor [Parris N.] Glendening on some policy that he cared about, that when you wanted help, it would be there," said Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Glendening said that in many cases, all it took was a discussion of the merits of a proposal. But there were times when more direct persuasion was necessary.

For example, he said he helped persuade Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to support his proposed tobacco tax increase by asking him to think of the good of the Democratic Party. In other cases, he might promise to move the construction of a school in a legislator's district up the list.

"I remember a meeting I had with [former Del.] Pete Rawlings when he was holding up the collective bargaining bill," Glendening said. "He came in the office -- it was just the two of us -- and I remember him saying he knew he was in trouble when I didn't get up from behind the desk and come sit next to him."

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. said O'Malley has experience in this kind of situation from his days as Baltimore mayor: His first budget after taking charge was a struggle, as was his plan to build a convention center hotel.

Mitchell said that before the hotel vote, O'Malley called in all the council members for one-on-one meetings, lining them up in the hall outside his office.

"It was more of a conversation between two individuals -- here are the facts, this is the right thing to do -- and he always ended it with, 'I really need your vote,'" Mitchell said. "I voted against the stuff anyway, but it was a good meeting."

Miller said O'Malley is taking the right approach: He is completely accessible to the legislative leadership and to rank-and-file members, and his staff has been tireless in lobbying lawmakers.

"He's met with a lot of key votes, and he's ferreted out where the opposition is going to be on his bills," Miller said.

O'Malley said the fact that the alternative to his proposals would be major spending cuts makes lobbying easier.

"We're all adults," O'Malley said yesterday. "I think we all for the most part understand what's at stake."

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