Democrats brush aside low ratings after tax increases

O'Malley says job-approval score of 35% in poll of state's voters doesn't bother him

January 15, 2008|By Laura Smitherman, Gadi Dechter and Timothy B. Wheeler | Laura Smitherman, Gadi Dechter and Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporters

Gov. Martin O'Malley and his fellow Democrats in the state legislature brushed aside any concerns yesterday about his dismal approval ratings and voter discontent over tax increases approved during the November special session, saying that even if they aren't doing what is popular, they are doing what is right.

"Popularity is a nice thing, and I have enjoyed it from time to time as a public servant," O'Malley said yesterday. "But more important to me is making the right decisions for the long-term interests of the people I serve."

O'Malley garnered a 35 percent job-approval rating among Maryland voters in a recent poll conducted for The Sun, one of the lowest figures for any governor in 10 years of surveys by the newspaper. A poll released yesterday by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies had similar results, with O'Malley securing 39 percent approval.

In trying to sell his fiscal plan to the public and to legislators, O'Malley has stressed that he is making the "difficult" choices to put the state on solid financial footing and to close a projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall while also improving health care, transportation and the environment. Political observers say it's a classic strategy to push unpalatable initiatives, such as raising taxes, early in a term.

"You hope that voters have forgotten about it by the time you come up for re-election, and most of the time they do," said James G. Gimpel, a government professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he believes voters will come to appreciate O'Malley's leadership during the session.

"We knew it would not generate a popular reaction," Busch said of the tax increases, adding that in less than a year Marylanders would feel the benefits in improvements to education, public safety and roads.

"In time, people will appreciate the tough decisions the governor made in 2007 and 2008," Busch said.

According to the Sun poll, O'Malley has room to improve his standing because 20 percent of respondents said they were not sure how they felt about how he is handling the position. Forty-five percent said they disapprove. The statewide poll surveyed 904 likely voters from Jan. 6 to Jan. 9 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

But Republicans, who make up small minorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, said they expect voter angst over the special session, including an increase in the sales tax and other levies on top of spending cuts, to linger until the next election. In the Sun poll, 28 percent of voters ranked high taxes as the most important issue facing Maryland.

"I think that voters have long memories," said Sen. David R. Brinkley, the minority leader from Frederick County. "People are realizing that their pockets are getting picked. We can't make promises to everybody and pay for it all."

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, enjoyed 56 percent approval one year into office in this heavily Democratic state, according to a 2004 Sun poll.

Legislative leaders said yesterday that poll numbers won't weaken O'Malley's influence among legislators and that he would be able to accomplish much of his agenda this session, including legislation to address a wave of home foreclosures, improve public safety and reform energy policy.

Del. Kumar P. Barve, the majority leader from Montgomery County, said it is unlikely that O'Malley will ask legislators to vote on anything more politically tricky than he did in the special session.

"All elected officials are judged on their entire term of office," Barve said, "and I think that in the end people are going to find O'Malley to be an effective and compelling leader."

Nonetheless, there were already signs yesterday that voter discontent over the tax increases would affect the debate this year in Annapolis.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, acknowledged the voters' anger yesterday as the Joint Audit Committee heard reports of millions of dollars potentially misspent at the Department of Human Resources.

"People are upset about us raising their taxes, and now they're going to be blasting us again about how we're wasting their money," said McFadden, who at one point jested that he was "one of those `tax-and-spend Democrats'" feeling the voters' ire.

McFadden said he believed voters eventually would accept the increases as necessary to address the state's looming structural budget deficit. But he said the uproar required legislators to be more diligent about ensuring that government is efficient. And he said the public's discontent is likely to affect legislators' views of any money issues this session.

There will be "more concerns raised by all of us when we talk about new expenditures," McFadden said.

laura.smitherman@baltsun.com gadi.dechter@baltsun.com tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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