Democratic high-fiving before the storm

April 15, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

Maryland's political leaders, virtually all of them Democrats, spent the recently concluded General Assembly session whistling past the graveyard. They had their reasons. It was their graveyard. And they know the ghosts are real.

They're determined to find the bright side because they know the voters and the corporate interests that help finance their campaigns would like to whistle along with them.

The graveyard in question is Maryland's unsupportable financial situation. The cost of government has gone up, boosted by altogether worthy state initiatives. Almost everybody wants what the Democrats want: a better public education system, bigger and better roads and affordable higher education.

But then comes the politically difficult part.

This is the part that demands what in Annapolis is euphemistically called a revenue source, a flow of taxes or fees or savings to cover what the political leadership has already bought.

Next year's budget is thought to be $1.3 billion shy of balanced. Clearly, the euphemism part of the legislative drama is about to end.

At a bill-signing ceremony last week, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller found himself warming up to the word. First, he said decisions will have to be made about revenue.

Then, as if no one took his meaning, he added, "That's a nice word for taxes."

Perhaps he did not have this in mind when he announced before the legislative session that he would step down after this term. But he is freer to speak candidly now. He can point to the need to raise money without fear of suffering at the polling place.

The legislative session is over now, danced toward its conclusion on light spring airs of one-party harmony - mercifully spared any real confronting of the problem. Democrats instead hailed a new atmosphere of good feeling. Mr. Miller said it was all a product of Gov. Martin O'Malley's winning personality.

But this is the point at which the graveyard begins to look better than its surroundings.

Mr. O'Malley may need more than personality to craft a solution to the deficit problem. Perhaps the economy will generate more revenue, as it has in the past. But it's likely that estimates of the economy's growth are already included in the projections that foresee a $1.3 billion shortfall.

The new governor's winning personality persuaded his fellow Democrats to eschew any revenue-raising measure this year. Better, he said, to take a careful look at possible remedies and choose the best ones available. Better also to cast about for potential savings.

One of the bills the Assembly passed this year allows the governor to implement a program of computer-driven analyses - a new look at efficiencies, as it were. No one really thinks that effort, worthy as it may be, will produce enough savings to close the gap. It's showing your conservative bona fides before you state the obvious conclusion: Taxes must be raised.

The governor's decision to wait a year is hard to criticize. As a Democrat, he knows he is perceived as a tax-and-spender, happily wearing the cape of profligacy even before he has established his own profile.

Of course, he might have thrown together a package of bills this year. He might have argued, as Senator Miller has been arguing, that the budget hole left unattended will only get deeper. A year's collection of new revenues might have made next year's deficit less ominous. But he would have needed the votes - from senators and delegates who are even less willing to support new taxes than a governor.

So Mr. O'Malley has chosen to wait.

Perhaps we are seeing his campaign last year - all about projecting maturity and the measured approach - carrying over into his first term. His advisers have suggested that he will get one real shot at fixing the broken revenue system - bringing it into alignment with the current service-based marketplace, hooking it to work that produces the needed revenue. Done right, it's an enormous undertaking. When he sets out a plan, it ought to be a bold one.

There's an obvious downside - but an upside as well. If he can find a reasonable way to proceed and sell it, he will be a leader - and the graveyard will be a less-fearsome place.

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

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