His record complete, O’Malley goes before voters

April 17, 2010|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

Martin O'Malley stood outside the Annapolis capital on a chilly January more than three years ago, telling a jubilant crowd gathered for his inauguration that his priorities of boosting education and reducing crime "will require sacrifice."

As he now seeks the privilege of continuing to lead, the governor must convince voters that sacrifices made during his term — many unforeseeable in early 2007 — were worth the effort.

O'Malley, a Democrat, finished the fourth and final regular General Assembly session of his term last week, meaning his record as governor is nearly complete. For the next few months, he'll be on a sales mission, trying to convince Marylanders that decisions he made during the worst economic downturn in generations put the state on solid footing.

At the same time, his political foes will try to define his time in office differently. "A disaster," as former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., trying to get his old job back, has put it.

Less than a year after his inaugural speech, O'Malley steered through a sales tax increase and slots package in an effort to fix Maryland's finances for good. Then the economy tanked, and the stubborn downturn, which many think might finally be ending, "forced us, in pursuit of our goal, to play a lot of defense," O'Malley said in an interview last week.

An incumbent running in a year when voters seem angry at politicians in office, O'Malley could spend as much energy talking about the past as what he'd like to do over the next four years.

Still, said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, "I think he runs with his record" rather than away from it, and willingly fields the brickbats from Ehrlich.

"Ehrlich is going to claim O'Malley is Satan incarnate, and O'Malley will claim the same thing about Ehrlich," Norris said. "It's going to be absolutely great theater."

Arguably the defining moment of the O'Malley administration came early on, during a frenzy of legislative activity in November 2007.

In a risky move, the new governor summoned the legislature for a rare special session. The goal was to make sure the state was collecting enough money to fix permanently an imbalance between spending and tax receipts.

Asking lawmakers to swallow a bitter pill that would clear the way for an ambitious agenda, O'Malley pushed through a sales tax increase from 5 percent to 6 percent, along with higher income taxes on the rich and on corporations.

O'Malley also cut income taxes for those on the middle and lower economic rungs, set the stage for legalizing slots, brought tens of thousands more onto Medicaid roles and set up dedicated funds for the Chesapeake Bay restoration and transportation.

"That was the crucible, wasn't it?" O'Malley said. "We had in that crucible of a special session not only the tough and unpopular choices but we also had the seeds of some nation-leading progress."

The decisions made during that three-week period are sure to be debated vigorously in the months ahead.

Neil Bergsman, a budget director under former Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening, says the taxes O'Malley raised put the state in a stronger fiscal position than most going into the recession.

"It is what made the difference between our difficult circumstance and the kinds of other catastrophes that they've had in other states," he said.

Nevada's governor, for example, has proposed cutting health care funding for the poor, including not paying for dentures, eyeglasses or adult diapers. California considered borrowing $5.5 billion to balance its budget and is ending programs that provided health care to nearly a million children.

But detractors say taxes raised during the 2007 special session set the state on a downward spiral. "We just make it more expensive to live and work here," said Christopher B. Summers, president of the conservative Maryland Public Policy Institute.

He and others point to a higher tax rate on Marylanders who earn more than a million dollars annually, a levy enacted in 2008 that critics say caused some wealthy people to flee the state. An analysis by the comptroller's office showed that the number of people making $1 million a year dipped by 30 percent from 2007 to 2008.

The special session also yielded the framework for Maryland's slot-machine gambling plan. Voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing the gambling program in November 2008, expecting the rapid arrival of $600 million in new revenue and an end to years of intractable debate on the subject in Annapolis.

But the complexity and specifics of the plan have been a burden. Slots parlors can only go in five locations spelled out in the constitution, and Maryland's tax rate on gambling proceeds is high. In part because of those factors, only three of five available slots licenses have been granted. No facilities are open. No annual revenues are arriving.

"Very flawed," is how Ehrlich describes the program.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.