Mr. O'Malley's challenge

December 10, 2006

Some Maryland voters disappointed with how the gubernatorial election turned out are wagging their fingers in a smug I-warned-you gesture, convinced of their own preternatural abilities to predict that taxpayers are destined to suffer under an O'Malley administration. Guess what? Given that the anemic state budget - which by law cannot exceed revenues - practically sets itself because of spending mandates, it doesn't really matter who will hang his hat in the governor's mansion next January. With $1 billion deficits predicted for the foreseeable future, the choices are few and all are painful.

Buoyed by temporary surpluses that occurred serendipitously for lawmakers seeking re-election, neither Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. nor the legislature mustered the nerve this past year to address a budget on the brink of fatigue. The election is over and it's time for the winners to get serious.

Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley's biggest challenge may be to adopt a pragmatic approach toward resolving the budget dilemma, even if he must expend his personal political capital. On the surface it may seem insignificant, but his recent informal appearance at a House Appropriations Committee meeting is a good sign that he wants to start off on a friendly footing with legislators who, in the coming sessions, can help make or break his budget decisions.

Mr. O'Malley's first budget proposal will set the tone for the rest of his term. He and his staff are poring over the numbers now and it is too early for him to offer details. But if he has the political will we expect of him, he's likely considering a combination of options that will make many people unhappy but which may be necessary.

Here is the array of possibilities, including some that we would have serious reservations about pursuing:

Reinstating the two-cent state property tax foolishly cut by the Board of Public Works this past April; postponing capital and highway projects, even the $2.4 billion Intercounty Connector; freezing state hiring at current levels, excluding public safety and juvenile services; closing tax loopholes on commercial property held in limited liability partnerships or corporations; raising tobacco and gasoline taxes, or increasing the state sales tax by a penny.

On the spending side, Mr. O'Malley and the legislature could take on aid to local governments. Much less palatable would be cuts in the mandated Thornton education plan.

As we have said before, balancing the state budget is going to be a very painful process in the next few years. The current bleak fiscal picture is sure to improve and not all the cuts and hikes need be permanent. Until then, Maryland's lawmakers have a lot of distasteful work on their hands. They might as well get started.

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