State employees' loss may be the governor's gain

December 07, 2008|By C. FRASER SMITH

Gov. Martin O'Malley's decision to furlough most of the state's work force was surely not the happiest moment of his tenure. But in a slack economy, it was probably a necessity - and it might have an upside for him politically.

Faced with a widening pothole in the state's operating budget - and a statewide aversion to increasing taxes - Mr. O'Malley's budget-balancing options are limited. Thus, he plans to ask 67,000 state employees to take some days off, unpaid. The numbers had "significant" and "major" and "painful" stamped all over them.

The anticipated savings of $34.4 million was important, but the governor may find another advantage flowing his way as a result: political capital.

Furloughs, at least, are what many voters want. Some will be asking: Why does the state need that many employees anyway?

It's not that Marylanders want financial pain inflicted on anyone, but this action signals seriousness. After all, everyone knows what forgoing several days of wages means for a family budget. The announcement from Annapolis of "cuts" in spending will continue, no doubt, but compared with furloughs or firings, those measures aren't seen or felt.

When he was mayor of Baltimore Mr. O'Malley was advised by former Mayor William Donald Schaefer that furloughs get people's attention more than anything else you can do to solve financial problems. Mr. O'Malley didn't have to test that theory as mayor, but apparently he didn't forget the advice.

As governor, Mr. Schaefer also occasionally bemoaned the difficulty of showing voters who was in charge. He never had that problem in Baltimore.

Mr. O'Malley, too, has been frustrated by the inevitable distancing from voters. Like him or not, when he was mayor of Baltimore, there was no doubt about who was in charge. The proposed furloughing makes him look decisive - willing to ask for sacrifice from his political allies, the public employee unions.

The unions, meanwhile, seem willing to cooperate as long as it's done fairly; they are hoping to forestall worse remedies. As a result, an important part of his base is on board with his decision.

And there are other potential benefits. His response to the financial mess may strengthen him against potential challengers who have been hit by their own crises. Comptroller Peter Franchot, a possible challenger to Mr. O'Malley in 2010, was weakened by the voters' approval of slot machine gambling, which he very publicly opposed. At the same time, former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s political power dropped back a notch or two when his candidate for Congress from the First District, state Sen. Andy Harris, lost.

Of course, any gains achieved from managing a crisis may fade if the economic downturn sharpens and lengthens. What if more than furloughs are needed? What if the problem of mortgage foreclosure worsens, overwhelming remedies enacted by the governor and the General Assembly this year? The foreclosure rate has fallen, but housing authorities say the upward trend could resume.

Moreover, governors have limited ability to influence the macro economy. They're left to react, for the most part. But they're not likely to escape the blame if job loss accelerates in the private sector - and if layoffs follow furloughs in Annapolis.

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

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