- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Martin O’Malley arrived at here in January as the bold, up-and-coming star of the Democratic Party. But as the first General Assembly session of his term ends, the new governor has yet to put his stamp on the state.

Supporters say Mr. O’Malley has approached his first year smartly, like the boxer who marks his opponents early in the bout and refrains from swinging wildly to avoid exposing himself to attacks and a quick, bitter defeat.

However, critics, including those in his own party, say Mr. O’Malley needs to govern with more authority. “You try not to get into a deficit situation, and if you get in one you immediately take action,” said former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat.

Since his inauguration, Mr. O’Malley, 44, has lined up the easy legislative victories by promising to sign bills to tighten car-emissions standards, establish a sub-Cabinet to address an influx of military jobs and to push the state’s presidential primary date forward to February 12.

But he has yet to plug the state’s growing structural deficit, and wants one year before addressing the problem.

“There are those who think maybe we should have written the prescription for solving our fiscal problem before we had a handle on the management side,” Mr. O’Malley told The Washington Times. “I liken that to an employee turning around to his boss, a day or two on the job, and saying ‘I need more money to get this thing done.’ ”

The structural deficit — a condition in which the state spends $1.10 for every $1 it collects — amounts to a $1.5 billion shortfall in next year’s budget.

Mr. O’Malley took $1.2 billion from state reserves to defer efforts to increase state revenue by raising taxes or legalizing slot-machine gambling.

However, Mr. O’Malley must eventually initiate action on taxes, slots or a combination, said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Southern Maryland Democrat.

“He’s going to have to have political capital to spend,” Mr. Miller said. “He’s going to have to use his popularity in making decisions to help the legislature balance the budget.”

The national spotlight began focusing on Mr. O’Malley during his run as mayor of Baltimore, when in 2002 “Esquire” magazine named him “Best Young Mayor in the Country,” then “Time” magazine three years later named him one of the “Top Five Big City Mayors”

Former state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, said one term is too early to define Mr. O’Malley’s success — after defeating incumbent Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, in November — but that he is confidently climbing the political ladder.

“Your success on one step of the ladder leads to the next rung,” she said.

Much of Mr. O’Malley’s support comes from his efforts to reduce violent crime and improving the management of the city.

But other Baltimore Democrats say he should have led more and that he left the Baltimore in worse shape because of “benign neglect.”

Delegate Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat running for mayor, was especially critical of the public school system under Mr. O’Malley, which led to the state trying to take over 11 underperforming city schools last year.

She also said Mr. O’Malley ignored problems with his Zero Tolerance program in the Baltimore City Police Department, which had seven commissioners during Mr. O’Malley’s leadership, from 1999 to 2007.

“The intention was good, but the strategy was misguided and it failed,” Mrs. Carter said.

State leaders are similarly skeptical that Mr. O’Malley’s signature program — StateStat — will deliver savings comparable to the $350 million he cut from the Baltimore budget over six years.

“He’s going to have a very difficult time finding the efficiencies he’s looking for,” Mr. Miller said.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat who has become a closer ally with Mr. O’Malley than Mr. Miller, concurred.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a whole lot that you’re going to find in savings in state government,” he said. State departments and agencies “have been pretty much cleansed by the last two administrations [to] where there’s not a whole lot of unnecessary positions or programs.”

Mr. Miller, Mr. Busch and Mr. O’Malley agree the governor must make the political case for a budget solution, but they do not agree on how or when.

“How do I say this in a diplomatic way,” Mr. O’Malley said. “There’s not the will in this body, either in the Senate or the House, to do the tough things that we need to do. The majority of both bodies want to give this administration a chance to reduce the magnitude of the mountain ahead of us before they have to cast tough votes.”

To build that case and assure a smooth legislative victory he will have to bring together the “Two Mikes” — Mr. Miller and Mr. Busch — a monumental task by his measure.

“It’s going to be very, very hard,” Mr. O’Malley said.

Mr. O’Malley also must decide when to submit his revenue package — during a monthlong special session before next year or during a three-month-long regular session.

Mr. Miller has pushed hard for a special session this year, but Mr. Busch has said a special session, after the regular General Assembly session ends Monday, is not necessary.

Mr. O’Malley has not decided whether he will call for a special session, but his political future weighs heavily on how he closes the budget deficit.

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