New governor talks about his measured approach

March 04, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

On the back wall of his new office, painted a deep Democratic blue by his Republican predecessor, Gov. Martin O'Malley has hung photographs of his family: his four children, his wife and his father, Tom, who died before Mr. O'Malley was elected last November.

A World War II pilot and U.S. Department of Justice lawyer, the elder O'Malley worked in his son's campaigns - and was never reluctant to express his views.

"I feel like he's talking to me more in the last year than he did in the last year of his life. I think of him often, and I often hear his voice," the governor said.

A new governor might well be looking for support and guidance as the magnitude of his new responsibilities grows ever clearer. Though enjoying a generous honeymoon, he faces pressure to act quickly against the state's mounting budget deficit - a situation that will almost certainly demand tax increases.

In an interview Thursday, Mr. O'Malley offered impressions of his first heady days in what the State House crowd calls "the Second Floor" - where the governor's offices are. He listed a few welcome surprises and several trouble spots, and talked expansively about his goals.

Sometimes called a political rock star, the new governor suggested he will follow a largely undramatic course as governor, at least in the beginning. Mr. O'Malley said he thinks politics and prudence demand a measured approach to erasing the $1.3 billion structural deficit and moving ahead on various pressing problems that will also be expensive to solve.

"There are some who would like us to rush forward right now, bite the bullet, do the really tough things, pass a package of revenue reforms or new taxes to get it over with as quickly as possible, make sure we have plenty of cushion so whatever happens, we're OK," he said.

He wants to wait.

"I don't know enough now that I could look anyone in the eye and tell them, `I know what the size of the problem is, and this is what we need to fix it,'" Mr. O'Malley said.

There are a number of issues to be dealt with before Maryland government can proceed successfully, he said. The state is suffering a bad political hangover, Mr. O'Malley said.

"We need some breathing space from the vitriol and the dishonesty and the coded language that held up Baltimore's children to ridicule when we should have all been proud of the progress that not only city children but all of Maryland's children were making," he said, referring to charges that the city's public schools were failing.

He said that perception was drilled into the consciousness of the state by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. during last year's campaign. "That's a complicating poison that's in the broader public well," he said. Some measure of renewed trust is needed, he said, before people can be asked to "write a bigger check."

Mr. O'Malley said he's also reluctant to push forward on any new initiative, including taxes, until his team is fully in place. On Thursday, he held only his second full Cabinet meeting. Some of the secretaries are still hiring staff.

The honeymoon period, he said, offers opportunities.

"This is that time frame where you uncover a lot of things you weren't aware of and maybe the public wasn't aware of," he said. A "window of time that offers an opportunity to find and expose what has deteriorated. The public will be understanding of it. After a few months it doesn't matter who was responsible. We own it all."

In the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, he said, "We never really recovered from the big [budget] cuts during the early 1990s when it comes to the program and other things inside the prisons. Any time we tried to do anything, it came at the expense of adequate staffing, and you can't do it that way. You have to do both."

He had some indirect criticism of his party. "We have invested a lot in education without the revenue stream to support it - and that, along with the huge tax cut done for purely political purposes," he said, referring to a 10 percent income tax reduction during the Parris N. Glendening administration and the passage of the expensive Thornton Commission funding formula for public schools.

Mr. O'Malley said he believes the Public Service Commission will become a more diligent protector of the consumer under its newly constituted membership. He said that various reforms, including the appointment of consumer-oriented commissioners, will offer protections even if the commission is not able to substantially reduce a large rate increase scheduled to kick in this summer.

The governor said he had decided to make public statements opposing the death penalty because he felt "an obligation as governor to speak up and make my opinion known on it." There was no political calculation, he insisted.

"My sister said Dad would have been proud of you standing up on the death penalty the way you did," he said.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR. His column appears Sundays in the Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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