O'Malley's risks not over

Fresh from win in legislature, governor faces public

General Assembly -- Special Session

November 20, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN REPORTER

Gov. Martin O'Malley took a huge risk this fall, calling leery legislators back to Annapolis to consider a package of tax increases, spending cuts and expanded gambling.

He won big, securing passage of the most ambitious set of legislation a Maryland governor has attempted in years. He and the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly were all smiles yesterday as he signed bills aimed at closing a projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall, expanding health care and establishing the framework of a slots program, should voters legalize it next year.

"It was hard to ask people to do more, but it would have been irresponsible to not ask the people of our state to choose to make progress," O'Malley said.

The 44-year-old Democratic governor laid to rest all doubt that he could get his way in Annapolis, but the question that will determine his future might be whether his big win is a pyrrhic victory. Republicans are itching to talk to voters about O'Malley's tax increases, and their former governor, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., is already using his public platform to criticize his successor.

O'Malley now must hope he can win a second huge bet - that when voters return to the polls in 2010, they will remember his accomplishments and not their lighter pocketbooks.

"The governor worked very hard and risked a lot of political capital," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Southern Maryland Democrat. "His numbers are going to drop initially, but when people take a harder look ... his numbers will rise again. The state is going to be very well positioned for the next few years."

Some Democratic politicians have never recovered from criticism of their tax records, but O'Malley aides and others have long pointed to the example of former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who campaigned successfully for a huge package of tax increases and spending cuts to fix that state's budget problems. He wound up even more popular than he was before.

Republicans are betting the reaction to O'Malley's plan will be quite different.

"The governor claims a short-term political victory, but I think when he starts going outside State Circle there is going to be an awful lot of negative feedback toward him," said Senate Minority Leader David Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican.

Indeed, it would be difficult to tag anyone else with the credit or the blame for the results of the special legislative session that ended early yesterday morning.

O'Malley developed the plan himself in consultation with top advisers, took it to state residents and called the special session without being certain that lawmakers would pass his proposals.

Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, were crucial in rounding up the votes in their chambers. But O'Malley lobbied extensively behind the scenes.

"He could have failed and failed greatly," said Miller, who characterized the governor's plan as the most ambitious agenda he has seen in a career that spans seven governors. "Instead, he achieved and achieved greatly."

But whether voters will see it that way is another question.

O'Malley said yesterday that action was necessary to maintain Maryland's quality of life and that he tried to cushion the impact on working families.

That doesn't mean people are happy about it. Legislators say they got thousands of calls and e-mails from constituents - some of them quite nasty - complaining about the tax increases and promising electoral retribution.

"Right now there is a significant part of the population that is upset just with taxes in general and second with what seems to be a very awkward process to get to that conclusion," said Greater Baltimore Committee President and Chief Executive Officer Donald C. Fry, a former Democratic legislator from Harford County.

"But the elections are three years off, and the governor and legislators will have a chance to show what they've done."

Del. Christopher B. Shank, the minority whip from Western Maryland, said Republicans will be reminding voters of the tax increases up until the 2010 election. He said it's hard to know whether they will still be a potent issue then - the answer, he said, will depend on the state of the economy, the national political mood and a dozen other factors.

But the constitutional amendment proposal to authorize slot machine gambling on the November 2008 ballot will provide an early test for O'Malley, Shank said.

"Particularly inside the Democratic Party, all sorts of consternation is bubbling to the surface as a result of this," he said. "Clearly, Comptroller [Peter] Franchot is going to be involved in the process, and who knows what role Governor Ehrlich will play."

Indeed, O'Malley could find himself buffeted from both ends of the political spectrum. Ehrlich did not directly criticize O'Malley in an appearance on WMAR-TV last night. But he said Democrats did nothing but tax and spend in this special session and are not likely to stop.

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