O'Malley faces his first test in office

Lawmakers say he must reach out for tax plan

October 07, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka and James Drew | Jennifer Skalka and James Drew,Sun reporters

When Gov. Martin O'Malley took his oath in January, he spoke of "One Maryland," celebrating an end to the partisan feuding that had beset Annapolis under his Republican predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. With O'Malley at the helm and strong Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, state business would be less contentious, lawmakers said, even pleasantly efficient.

Those were the days.

Last week, the governor heard the first rumblings of discontent over his proposal for solving the state's $1.7 billion budget crisis and his call for a November special legislative session to consider his plan.

The criticisms aren't coming from Republicans alone. House Speaker Michael E. Busch bucked the governor by questioning the wisdom of a special session, and the Anne Arundel Democrat has also said that legalized slot machine gambling, a core component of O'Malley's proposal, is not the way to go.

The episode marks the first true political test of O'Malley's young administration. Lawmakers are giving the governor relatively solid marks for his ambitious budget proposal but poor reviews for outreach. As a result, O'Malley's special session, and maybe even his budget plan, could be in peril.

O'Malley's quick-fix mentality reveals the pluck that made him appealing to voters during the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, but it is an attitude, some say, that requires that everyone get in lock step behind him.

"The first rule of any governor is:,You have to count votes. And if you can't count votes or you don't have enough votes, you look silly by bringing up an issue and it gets killed," said Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat who joined Comptroller Peter Franchot at an anti-slots news conference Thursday morning at Harborplace. "Maybe this is a lesson that O'Malley had to learn."

Stephen J. Kearney, O'Malley's communications director, said the governor's record this year with the legislature shows that he can count votes. The governor briefed the Senate Democratic caucus last week and has met with lawmakers every day for the past week and a half, Kearney said. Last week, O'Malley spoke with 25 lawmakers and plans to talk with another 30 in the coming week.

"We are full speed ahead. We certainly anticipated that the Republicans would pull this kind of thing," Kearney said. "We knew we would have some convincing to do in the House. And that is what the governor is spending a lot of time doing."

"It's ludicrous to suggest we have not reached out to the Assembly," he said.

The governor has described his proposed budget in recent interviews as a "consensus" proposal that includes initiatives that the majority of members have supported in the past.

Late meetings

But O'Malley waited until late last week, well after he presented the package, to hold face-to-face meetings with lawmakers outside of the top fiscal leadership to seek their support. He and Busch wrangled Thursday in a private meeting, sources say, in an attempt to hash out their differences and count heads in the House of Delegates.

Franchot, too, has been dogging the governor, repeating his opposition to a special session and slots during events in Baltimore and Silver Spring on Thursday.

Franchot, a Democrat, went so far as to release a proposed alternative to slots Friday, a plan to bring in $200 million in tax revenue over four years by auditing individuals and companies failing to comply with the state's tax laws.

Republican leaders, who had showered praise on O'Malley this year for reaching out to them when he took office, hammered him last week for taking their support for slots for granted. Usually reliable and critical votes for slots, the GOP's Senate leaders threatened to sink any gambling proposal brought to a vote during a special session on taxes.

"The whole package has been crafted without our input," said Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican who has voted for slots in the past.

O'Malley can probably count on Democratic majorities in the legislature to pass many elements of his tax plan, but it is widely believed he will need Republicans to get approval for a slots bill.

Past problems

This isn't the first time O'Malley has experienced growing pains. When he took over at Baltimore City Hall, he stunned people with his sometimes brash behavior.

He drew stick figures to show how he thought Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy should run her office. He declined to pay obeisance to William Donald Schaefer, a former mayor and governor who wanted to be O'Malley's liaison to the business community. O'Malley had to negotiate with some City Council members to win support for a convention center hotel, but council members were generally receptive to his ideas.

The Democratic City Hall has proved easier to manage than the State House, where, even with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, bipartisanship is still required.

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