The perils of responsible governing

The Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley wrote the story of his administration in three weeks last November.

It was then, during a special session of the General Assembly, that he declared an end to the temporizing that left Maryland with a drawer full of unpaid bills - more than $1 billion worth.

Democratic and Republican leaders had finessed the problem year after year. Eventually, though, the bills had to be paid. There were no more state accounts to raid. So Mr. O'Malley asked for and got $1.4 billion in new revenue.

That decision is likely to be unrivaled as a moment of truth for his young administration. It was not long before he began to pay the price for decisive but inevitably unpopular action. His approval rating, high enough to win the office handily a year earlier, dipped sharply.

It didn't matter that he hadn't created the problem. And since his explanations couldn't be relayed in a sound bite, he had to accept the flak as the price of doing business responsibly.

As his Republican opponents are fond of saying, Maryland had a spending problem. It was not, on the other hand, a drunken-sailor, tax-and-spend problem. It was worse than that. The General Assembly bought a hugely expensive (even if necessary) public education program without providing a way to pay for it. That fact, unfortunately, has been used to batter the stewards of state government as if everything they do can be written off as wild excess.

In truth, Maryland governors and lawmakers have operated conservatively. Wall Street endorses their success with the best possible credit rating. The one major exception to their usual behavior, coupled with a 10 percent income tax reduction, left the big deficit.

Mr. O'Malley's solution has his personal stamp on it. For better or worse, the deficit reduction plan is the O'Malley plan. And it barely passed after being reduced and reshaped during difficult negotiation with legislators who voted with him at the risk of losing their own seats.

"He knew the risks were the same if he failed or if he succeeded," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "He would be the guy who couldn't get the job done - or the one who raised taxes."

He chose Option No. 2. With the help of the Democratic-controlled Assembly, he raised that $1.4 billion. The size of the increase is remarkable for several reasons. It was a big step for a world that likes to move forward inch by inch. And he accomplished something many administrations recognized as necessary but chose to ignore, rather than tell people the truth about what government costs.

Mr. O'Malley had hoped to make the pain bearable for working families - and less politically difficult for himself - by offering a plan that held most of them harmless while shifting the burden to wealthier taxpayers. That hope splintered with the need to find votes for the package in counties where many deep-pocketed Marylanders live. Their senators refused to vote for it until their constituents were off the hook. The plan to protect middle-income voters fell victim to the need for compromise.

Mr. O'Malley had pushed all his political chips to the center of the table in November, finally persuading a paper-thin majority to accept his plan. There were moments when the outcome was very much in doubt - when only a governor with favor-granting power could find a way to win.

It worked well, ultimately, in Annapolis. That closely held fraternity gave him credit for taking the big risk and winning. Outside Route 50, beyond the outskirts of the capitol, not so much.

A recent Sun poll shows this Democratic governor in one of the most Democratic states with job approval matching the low ratings accorded President Bush.

He could have acted last year soon after he arrived. But House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, disagrees. "You have to give any governor a chance to get his sea legs," he said. Then, he added with a touch of admiration, "He led with his chin."

Some Republican lawmakers have conceded that Mr. O'Malley is more actively involved in solving the state's problems than his Republican predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. But few, if any, endorse his solutions. The governor's current low standing in the polls suggests many Maryland citizens don't buy them, either.

"I don't think he did a good enough job [of demonstrating] that he was committed to financial and budget austerity," said Del. Christopher B. Shank of Washington County. The economizing he has done, the delegate said, amounts to "smoke and mirror tricks," noting that the governor's plan calls for creating jobs.

Mr. O'Malley's polls numbers are likely to fluctuate. The special tax-raising session will stand as the moment when his fortunes fell irretrievably - or when he demonstrated his willingness to lead, prescribing bitter but necessary medicine.

The comeback campaign started with a flurry last week. He dumped 500 unfilled state jobs. There was a proposal to help homeowners threatened with foreclosure in the mortgage implosion. Some relief was promised to gas and electric ratepayers by the Public Service Commission. Crime-fighting measures - improving the DNA database and monitoring juvenile offenders with global positioning systems - were also proposed.

To a considerable degree, Governor O'Malley is counting on people to see the necessity of what he and the Assembly did. There was hopeful language in the budget message, certain to be echoed in Wednesday's State of the State address.

"Maryland's budget is one of the clearest reflections of the values we share to build a stronger, healthier Maryland for the next generation, and to make progress on our shared goals," he said.

Time will tell how clear.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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