Capital reservations

Our view : Gov. Martin O'Malley sees reason for optimism despite a gloomy economy, but balancing the state budget on a federal bailout carries some real dangers as well

January 30, 2009

First, ladies and gentlemen and distinguished guests, let us pause for a moment of sympathy for the 50 or so speechwriters across the country crafting annual state of the state messages to their respective legislatures these days. Such a tradition, with its customary promises of ambitious plans to come, is a lot easier to do when there's enough money in the state treasury to underwrite them.

Gov. Martin O'Malley faced precisely this challenge yesterday, and his presentation probably surprised few in the State House. He reminded lawmakers of their accomplishments of the last several years, expressed concern about the economy - along with hope that President Barack Obama and the Congress might soon provide some relief - and outlined his somewhat modest legislative agenda.

But what he did not address, and deserves considerably more attention, is exactly how the governor intends to steer the state budget through the rocky shoals ahead without relying too greatly on the siren's song of federal bailout.

As helpful as Mr. Obama's $800 billion-plus stimulus plan will likely prove, there's a real danger that the portion doled out to states will, at least to some degree, underwrite an unsustainable amount of government.

This is a moving target, of course. Only the House has so far voted on the stimulus proposal. But whatever emerges out of Washington, the question will remain: Are states about to become too dependent on federal largesse?

There is never a shortage of good and worthy programs for government to support. As past Maryland governors have often observed, the hardest word for anyone in Annapolis to say is: No. The challenge is to know where to draw the line when all around you - key supporters, legislators and interest groups - are pushing you to spend, spend, spend.

There's a difference between investing in one-time expenses such as roads, bridges, rail lines and schools and putting money into a $100 million program that will likely cost $110 million next year and $120 million the year after and on.

Make no mistake: Helping states manage their budget crises in the short term is sound policy. But not if it deters Maryland and other states from making the cuts necessary to maintain a balanced budget - not just this year but for future years when bailout funds are not available.

We don't begrudge Mr. O'Malley his upbeat speech. But let's recognize that sacrifices have to be made - if not today, then in the not-so-distant future. Marylanders are going to have to expect less from government; that may not make for stirring words, but it's a reality check that needs to be voiced by someone.

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