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O'Malley trading in goodwill

The Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley has spent much of his first year in office getting his way.

With the support of key lawmakers in November's special legislative session, he dispensed with two issues that had become perennial bogeymen for their ability to deadlock the General Assembly: a budget imbalance that eventually exceeded $1 billion and the question of legalizing slot machine gambling.

But he spent a great deal of political capital in the process. And while supporters and even critics, albeit grudgingly, acknowledge his success, on the eve of another Assembly session, many wonder whether the Democrat can persuade lawmakers to follow his lead this year and beyond.

"If we had not gone through a special session in which so many compromises and deals were virtually extracted from people, there might be more room for [major accomplishments]," said Del. Luiz R. S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat who has clashed with the governor on some issues. "People were pushed and cajoled so much getting through this tax package, I don't see too many further compromises."

In an interview in his State House office, O'Malley conceded that his approval ratings could drop as a result of the $1.3 billion in tax increases passed less than two months ago.

"We knew going in that if we were so-called 'successful,'" he said, chuckling, "that from a political standpoint, that would mean that we would become pretty unpopular."

"But I also know from experience that people are smart and people are fair," O'Malley said. "And that over the longer haul, the public usually makes pretty sound judgments over whether their quality of life is improving or not improving and whether their government's playing the role it's supposed to in that fight."

Over his first year, O'Malley had some losses, including the failure to stop a 72 percent increase in the price of electricity for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers, a signature promise of his campaign. He was also unable to secure a repeal of the death penalty, despite his personal testimony and lobbying.

But he had some successes, too, both inside and outside the legislative process. He closed the long-troubled House of Correction in Jessup; secured funding for transportation projects, a Chesapeake Bay cleanup and an expansion of government health insurance to the working poor; froze tuition at state colleges and universities; and secured a record amount for school construction and renovation.

Some accomplishments point him toward the national stage. When discussing his budget-balancing package, O'Malley aides frequently invoke the example of former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat whose national reputation was cemented by a similar tax reform effort that he spearheaded. O'Malley has also received national praise from labor groups - a key Democratic constituency - for enacting a first-of-its-kind law requiring a "living wage" for state government contracts.

He campaigned yesterday with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in New Hampshire, and as the newly installed finance chair of the Democratic Governors Association, he's poised to make important fundraising contacts all over the country.

"He's making waves nationally in the Democratic Party," said Donald F. Norris, who chairs the public policy department of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "That should be beneficial to the state, regardless of whether he gets any kind of national political mileage out of it."

A key to O'Malley's victories so far is that he has enjoyed nearly unwavering support from House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, fellow Democrats who have said that they are deeply vested in seeing the governor succeed.

Busch said one of the major differences between O'Malley and his predecessor, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., is how much the former Baltimore mayor, 44, has engaged in the process. O'Malley and his staffers were a common presence in Annapolis bars and pubs as they attempted to win over key legislators. The governor also worked to sell his plans across the state, Busch said.

"He took the initiative, and we were successful, because we had an executive that was willing to work with the legislature and compromise," Busch said. "A lot of us that experienced the gridlock of the previous administration were looking forward to having someone we could resolve the issues with."

Miller said he saw the governor's personal touch, a desire to reach out to people, frequently in his first year. At the wedding of Miller's daughter in October, the Senate president said, O'Malley stayed the whole evening with his wife, Katie, and even sang an Irish lullaby with the rock band there.

Despite all that has gone well for O'Malley, allies and naysayers say he has liabilities going forward.

So far his ability to sway legislators - and their willingness to be swayed - has been the magic ingredient to his success, lawmakers said. He did some deal-making to get his tax and slots package passed, they said, but much of his lobbying effort was a personal appeal and an argument that his plans were in Maryland's best interests.

He won some close, hard-fought votes that way. But now those lawmakers who were on the fence must face voters upset about higher sales taxes, cigarette taxes, corporate income taxes, car titling taxes and more.

"He was given a free pass," said Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley, who nonetheless credited O'Malley with reaching out to Republicans at the outset of his administration. "I don't remember anyone campaigning, saying, 'We're going to raise taxes more than a billion dollars.' And now, the taxpayers are going to have to foot the bill."

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who was a key player in O'Malley's election campaign, said that he may have "expended a lot of political capital, but he also gained a lot of political capital. Among my colleagues, people would turn to each other and say, 'Man, he's got guts.'"

Another looming challenge for O'Malley is the campaign over slot machine gambling, which goes before voters in a constitutional amendment referendum this November. Political analysts have compared the fervor that will surround it to a faux gubernatorial election and have said that, if voters reject the measure, O'Malley could come out battered politically.

O'Malley said he isn't worried about the political risk because the referendum was the right step.

"I think people made up their minds on this long ago, and I think they're relieved that we put the issue before them," he said. "I think they'll approve it, and I'm at peace with whatever their decision is."

More immediately, he needs to trim about $250 million more out of next year's budget to put the state's long-term finances in order. He has already had to agree to major reductions in planned aid to local school systems, a concession that could lose him favor among teachers, who backed him heavily in 2006.

In the assembly session that begins Wednesday, he faces a revolt over the new tax on computer services, even as he pursues an agenda that focuses on energy policy, the environment and public safety. And he must manage the influx of new residents expected to accompany a federal military base realignment.

Meanwhile, Ehrlich is still politically active, stoking discontent on radio and television over the direction of the state.

But O'Malley's first year is an impressive one that no one could easily discount, said UMBC's Norris. In both the regular and special sessions, he "got just about everything he wanted. Politically, he comes out smelling like a rose."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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