Forecast for Annapolis - gloomy, with a likelihood of painful cuts

January 13, 2008|By C. Fraser Smith

When he was mayor of Baltimore, Gov. Martin O'Malley occasionally asked former Gov. Parris N. Glendening for money to help with demolition work.

Mr. Glendening responded with a quick political lesson. You can't cut a ribbon for a demolition project, he said, according to Mr. O'Malley.

Translation: Don't ask for money that won't help you or me. We don't get headlines for knocking things down. Ribbons are reserved for the visionaries, the political builders who create new profiles for cities - and themselves.

That conversation, recalled last week, helps to crystallize government's dilemma this year as the General Assembly convenes. There's little, if any, money for building.

Worse still, more budget cuts are demanded to balance the state's budget. The governor and the Assembly are likely to find themselves presiding over some pretty dismal stuff during these 90 days.

What passes for uplift doesn't offer much cheer either.

During a discussion of this year's agenda last Tuesday, Mr. O'Malley said he was "tired" of hearing about slot machines. Marylanders will decide in a referendum this fall if they want slots legalized in their state. Mr. O'Malley declined to offer any enthusiasm, either pro- or anti-, for the coming slots campaigning. He's always been a bit ambivalent on the subject. There was no similar reluctance in Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a longtime slots advocate. Mr. Miller says slots money is needed to fill the persistent budget gap and to expand other important programs.

And not just in Annapolis. Local governments want the gambling money too. At least one county government has seen signs of the widely predicted recession: falling tax revenue from the sale of property.

But even if voters say yes in November, slots aren't likely to produce much relief soon. It takes time to get new gambling operations up and running.

Notwithstanding the various uncertainties, a panel convened by Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon has already started pushing for casinos - a step beyond slots that many predict is inevitable. Casino money could allow Ms. Dixon to cut the city's property taxes. Mr. O'Malley, studiously ambivalent on slots, was clear on casinos: Not happening on his watch, he said during the discussion of his agenda.

As always, there are personal and political issues to deal with in Annapolis. Mr. O'Malley and most legislators will not find their mood elevated if they must cut jobs - or worse, actual employees. Until now, many of the jobs jettisoned for economy's sake were vacant. The next step could be more painful, perhaps signaling a shift in the relationship between politics and people.

Jobs have been part of the spoils system, the process by which, in the old days, political leaders served people - and stayed in office. Now, it appears, the opposite may be true: Many believe there is more political advantage in taking jobs away from people to demonstrate your fiscal bona fides.

Then there is the issue of state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. The governor wants her replaced. Mrs. Grasmick wants to stay in the worst way. The Democratic-controlled Assembly and the governor seem determined to have her out - in the worst way. Worse, that is, than her voluntary departure.

The governor's effort to oust her became a bit awkward last week when a national rating organization said Maryland schools are some of the best in the nation under Mrs. Grasmick. Meanwhile, she was urging everyone to realize that politics are not a tonic for education. She made this declaration after meeting with Republican legislators to state her case and after her job was saved by the votes of school board members appointed by former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Speaking of the GOP, it is working diligently to make certain everyone knows how much it opposes the tax package approved by the Democrats in November. Senator Miller observed repeatedly last week that Republicans played no role in the special session problem solving. They voted no on almost everything, including slots, he said.

Then, after the special session, GOP lawmakers sought to roll back the tax increases on procedural grounds. A Circuit Court judge called parts of the process "reprehensible" but not nearly reprehensible enough to warrant a do-over.

Senate President Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch responded to this news by putting their best feet forward in the future. They repaired to the first floor of the Statue House to meet Donald "Dino" Wright, the Assembly's new maestro of brush and polish. Mr. Wright shines shoes in suit and tie, suspenders and pocket puff.

Finally, a bright spot amid the gloom.

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

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