In economic crisis, governor must find his voice

December 21, 2008|By C. Fraser Smith

No one - let alone a governor, like Martin O'Malley, who hopes to win a second term - finds joy in a time of economic distress. At the moment, voters are probably cutting him some slack; he's not the big-bonus Wall Street master of the universe. He's just dealing with the mess they are partially responsible for making.

But he has to act as if the responsibility was his alone. You get the feeling that governors in general are waiting for Washington - specifically, President-elect Barack Obama - to bail them out.

Even a crisis like this one could bring opportunity. You wouldn't call it a political windfall, of course, because there's plenty of potential for political damage in a situation - like this one - where financial tools of government have been dulled. The state's resources are diminishing.

It could almost make a governor long for a good old-fashioned natural disaster. At least, they can be more manageable than a man-made, worldwide financial collapse.

President Bush famously failed to see the political benefits (not to mention governmental responsibility) of riding to the rescue of people when nature overwhelmed local capacity to respond. When Hurricane Katrina hit, the president was almost a no-show. That's the enduring perception, at least.

The president should have spoken with his father's friend, William Donald Schaefer, who made disaster relief into an art form. Mr. Schaefer enjoyed nothing more than an opportunity to put on his Gen. Douglas MacArthur sunglasses, his military fatigues and take command - very publicly.

When there was a big snowstorm early in his first term, Mr. Schaefer asked to see the disaster plan. He wasn't happy with what he saw and ordered an overhaul. He wanted all the bases covered, including a plan to save snowed-in cows.

The current disaster perversely undermines the ability of government to respond. So far, fortunately, people are not in panic mode.

But a political/governmental response is needed before the damage is widespread and visible. Such visibility may not be far away. Food banks, for example, are reporting much more pressure on their supplies. There's been a significant increase in homelessness in Baltimore, according to Jeff Singer of Health Care for the Homeless. The state's Spending Affordability Committee recently suggested the lowest level of budget growth ever and the abolition of 1,000 state jobs. Fifteen hundred unfilled jobs have already been axed.

Around Thanksgiving, the O'Malley administration announced a new Web site, Problemsolver.md.gov. It directs Marylanders to a panoply of services ranging from help finding a job to emergency heating assistance. More than $100 million in additional federal cash assistance arrived recently, just in time for the colder weather. The Web page includes an eligibility calculator.

People may start asking whether the O'Malley administration has moved as quickly as it should have to ease the pain. If so, it may be that much of his effort so far has been low profile. People are suffering, and he has responded. But - oddly enough for a man once called a political rock star - he needs to add some sizzle. He may have to explain once again that that the state, itself, has taken an enormous hit. Tax receipts have fallen sharply. A governor may wish to ease the pain, but the resources are not there - even in one of the wealthiest states in the nation.

The governor needs to sharpen his rhetoric.

"This hasn't been an easy year, and far too many Maryland families are struggling to make ends meet," Mr. O'Malley said.

Not an "easy year"? As Gov. Sarah Palin might say, you betcha.

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

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