Maryland's new leader

January 18, 2007

In his inaugural address yesterday, Gov. Martin O'Malley demonstrated the political skills that won him election in November. His call for "One Maryland," for unity and mutual respect, struck the right chord. His list of the perils facing the state, from rising energy costs to "poorly planned sprawl," was indisputable. And even his talk of values - of individual responsibility and caring for families and neighborhoods - would be difficult for anyone to criticize.

If optimism were snow, the chilly streets around the State House would have been impassable by mid-afternoon. Surely Mr. O'Malley's notion that Maryland could have the best public education in the country or that the state must find ways to make health care affordable are worthy, if familiar, goals that have echoed from the State House steps many times before. "I take responsibility," the new governor said repeatedly in his address. His audience was glad to hear it.

But now what? For all the lofty ideals and noble pledges, Mr. O'Malley faces a difficult course ahead. The partisan rancor of the past four years may lessen, but it could easily be replaced by Democratic infighting over divisive issues such as slot machines and the death penalty. Perhaps the most pressing of these, the threat of a growing multibillion-dollar structural budget deficit, could prove the most confounding. The governor has signaled a go-slow approach on any major tax increase or overhaul.

How much can be gleaned from an inaugural address is debatable, of course. But near the end of his speech, Mr. O'Malley offered an intriguing clue: "The decisions we make for the greater good sometimes will require sacrifice," he said. "For too long, the capitals of our nation and states have acted as if our people had somehow lost the capacity to sacrifice and to make difficult choices. But to govern is to choose."

We say amen to that. That's certainly true in Washington, where a costly war has been conducted off the books and without adequate scrutiny. But it's also true in Annapolis, where an antiquated state tax code can no longer support the cost of government spending on such fundamental needs as education, health and public safety. The public needs a rational, reasoned conversation about state government finances instead of the rhetoric and prevarications that marked last year's campaign.

Some lawmakers are already pressing Mr. O'Malley to make his choices now. That's to be expected. Better to make the right decisions than to move rashly (although governance should also be approached with a sense of urgency - the State House tends to slip into its customary inertia without it).

Mr. O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown acquitted themselves well yesterday. Surrounded by their photogenic families, they certainly looked the part and offered an upbeat, thoughtful message. But that was Day One, the easy stuff. The real challenge lies ahead as words are translated into action.

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