Opportunity in Annapolis

October 28, 2007

Tomorrow, as state lawmakers convene for a special session to address Maryland's fiscal woes, they will face the complex and controversial multibillion-dollar plan proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley. In the days that follow, Mr. O'Malley's $2 billion budget-balancing blueprint - as well as a handful of related bills likely to be offered by legislators - will be scrutinized, debated and voted upon.

In the end, their success can be measured by only one result: the adoption of a real and long-term solution to the state's growing structural deficit.

But that's not to suggest state senators and delegates ought to be readying their rubber stamps. There's much in Mr. O'Malley's proposal with which to disagree. To name a few: We'd prefer linking state property taxes to capital spending and not cutting them slightly to earn political points, spending more on transportation projects, and applying a sales tax more broadly to services (and not just tanning salons) before raising it.

In a democracy, debate and disagreement are healthy. But the conversation should not be derailed by those who falsely claim that Maryland can solve this problem without raising taxes. The spending cuts required by such an approach are far worse than any tax proposal we've heard. The governor's "doomsday budget" scenario may have been crafted for effect, but many of its choices (major reductions to land preservation, higher education and public health, to name a few) would likely come to pass.

With the approval of the $1.3 billion Thornton plan to boost state aid to public schools five years ago - a much-needed reform, it should be noted, that has enjoyed broad public support - legislators and the last two governors helped dig the budgetary hole. Mr. O'Malley has assumed the difficult task of actually filling that void rather than setting up another stopgap bridge.

Small wonder that a recent poll of Maryland registered voters suggests the governor has taken a hit in his job approval rating. But the same survey also showed that far more Marylanders think the state is going in the right direction than not, and even the tax increases found significant public support -a healthy majority, in some cases.

In the next two weeks, lawmakers will need to follow the governor's lead and muster the political courage to put state finances in order. Extending health care to the uninsured, making income taxes fairer, addressing the threat of gridlock and closing certain loopholes in the tax code - all deserve to be part of that fix. Accomplish those and what voters will remember is not an extra dollar for a pack of cigarettes or 16 cents more to fill up a gas tank, but a legacy of real progress for the state.

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