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Ho-hum government

As is their custom each year, Gov. Martin O'Malley and legislative leaders wrapped up their 90 days in Annapolis with a positively glowing assessment of their labors. Among other things, the Democrats noted, this was probably the most cordial legislative session in recent memory.

Of course, it helped that lawmakers avoided a lot of heavy lifting. While it would be unfair to suggest nothing much was accomplished this session, it is clear that beyond balancing the budget (a task mandated by law but genuinely challenging in the current economy), their top legislative priorities did not exactly stretch the envelope of state government or invite partisan outcry.

Some, like the ban on using a handheld cell phone while driving or cracking down on Medicaid fraud, have been gradually gaining favor for years. Others, such as tougher mandatory sentences for child sex offenders, are irresistible in a year when incumbents, Republicans and Democrats alike, will be seeking re-election. So much for the sex offender vote.

A compromise on unemployment insurance? When labor and business agree on something, it certainly ought to pass. Tax credits for job creation? One can practically hear the governor's campaign ad now — although it probably won't mention what a tiny impact the measure is likely to have on Maryland's employment picture.

Left behind were those proposals that might have offended too many voters or powerful interest groups. So when it came time to start requiring local governments to help pay for teacher pensions, the best that could pass was a study. Save dozens of lives each year by forcing all convicted drunk drivers to have ignition interlock systems installed in their cars? The House Judiciary Committee simply wasn't willing to go that far.

That legislators chose not to raise taxes this year — even an overdue increase in the state's 1970s-era alcohol taxes — merely underscores their failure to resolve long-term budget problems. Republicans referred to this as "kicking the can" on billions of dollars in potential budget deficits that may arise over the next several years.

GOP credibility on spending issues was up this year, with the effort by legislators to, for once, go beyond screaming that Democrats are spending too much and say exactly what they would cut from the budget. But that credibility has been strained by the party's likely gubernatorial nominee, who has reversed the foray into the specifics of hard choices and instead pronounced that he would solve the problem by first greatly reducing the amount of money the state collects in sales tax. Perhaps that's an effective strategy in some alternative universe where doughnuts make you thin and watching TV makes you fit, but it's a little dubious from a rational vantage point.

Indeed, if there's one thing Mr. O'Malley and Democratic leaders ought to be bragging about today, it's the extent to which they've protected Maryland's spending on education, both K-12 and higher education, despite the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The fact this has been done in a year when the state's general fund budget has actually shrunk in overall size makes it all the more remarkable. Admittedly, a campaign ad touting a choice "not to cut something" may not sound all that sexy, but in 2010 that will probably prove the most significant accomplishment of an otherwise unremarkable three months.

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