State of denial

Our view: The governor's address and the Republican response both failed to acknowledge the difficult decisions we must face to restore the state's fiscal health

February 03, 2010

Tuesday's address by Gov. Martin O'Malley to a joint session of the legislature, and the GOP response by Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, revealed less about the state of the state than it did about the state of Annapolis. Governor O'Malley was on defense, proposing few concrete ideas but emphasizing the successes he has had and the hard choices he has made. Senator Kittleman was on offense, seeking to portray Democrats as arrogant, reckless spenders who are out of touch with Maryland voters. In this election year exchange, Governor O'Malley played down the profundity of the problems we face, and Senator Kittleman ignored their complexity.

"The state of our state," Governor O'Malley said, "is stronger than most." If this speech was a dry run for his re-election effort, that ringing endorsement of our status might be the central message of his campaign. If he had not pushed through controversial measures such as tax increases, spending cuts and slot machine gambling, if the state had not kept up its record-breaking investments in public education, if it had not frozen tuition at colleges and universities, if it had not continued preserving land and cleaning up tributaries, Governor O'Malley said, Maryland would be in much worse shape than it's in.

The governor noted accurately in his speech that he has submitted a balanced budget every year (which is required by law) at a rate of spending growth lower than what a panel of lawmakers and outside experts deems to be fiscally sustainable (which is not required). He said state general fund spending is lower than it was four years ago (true, though not the whole picture) and that Maryland remains one of only seven states with a AAA bond rating. But he failed to mention that his budget office projects $8.4 billion in budget shortfalls over the next four years - even if the economy grows at a healthy annual clip.

It has been widely observed that Mr. O'Malley lacks the joie de vivre as governor that he displayed as Baltimore's mayor, and the grim determination he conveyed in his speech - as if the virtue of governance lies in the extent of its unpleasantness - reflects the philosophical underpinnings of his administration. Mr. O'Malley wears the tough decisions he has made to balance the budget like a badge of honor. But that doesn't extend to describing what he'll have to do to solve our new problems.

The policies the governor advanced in his speech were almost exclusively focused on economic recovery, including mandatory mediation during the foreclosure process and a temporary $3,000 tax credit for businesses that hire unemployed workers. But they won't come close to fixing our budget woes.

Senator Kittleman was right to call attention to that fact. But his speech, a much more nakedly partisan exercise than the governor's, offered overly simplistic solutions to the problem. He suggested that had Governor O'Malley not raised taxes in 2007, we would not be in such dire straits as we are now, as if Maryland might have been exempted from the nation's worst recession in decades if only our sales tax were still 5 cents instead of 6. And he championed the virtues of spending cuts without specifying what, exactly, Maryland should cut.

The Republican line is that the state should simply cut spending across the board. But that approach cuts the important just as much as the wasteful, and it's not nearly so appealing in practice as in theory. Last week, the Democrats who head the budget committees in the House and Senate sent a letter to the Republican lawmakers inviting them to propose specific ideas for spending cuts. The extent to which they take advantage of that invitation should give a good indication of how much of their rhetoric is real and how much is just campaign sound bites.

Governor O'Malley was right that Maryland is in a stronger position than its peers and that our continued prosperity depends on our commitment to acting with a unity of purpose. In that spirit, we need lawmakers from all across the political spectrum to be forthright about the problems we face and to acknowledge that the solutions will not be simple or painless. The governor predicted that Maryland's best days are ahead. They can be, if our leaders muster the political courage to make it so.

Readers respond
The failure of Annapolis to balance its books and to live within its means falls at the feet of the Democrats.

Jay

The Republicans always want to gloss over the damage Bush did to this country and all of its states.

Jack


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