- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley says he did not propose tax increases or slot-machine legislation during his first General Assembly session because lawmakers were unwilling to make hard decisions to reduce a $1.5 billion budget shortfall.

“How do I say this in a diplomatic way?” said Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat. “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.”

The statement is the first public comment by Mr. O’Malley that reveals the occasionally strained relationship between him and the leaders of the Democratic-controlled Assembly.

“The idea that somehow even under the [direst] of circumstances that the Maryland House of Delegates did not have the political will to resolve the problem, as far as I’m concerned, is inaccurate,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat in response to Mr. O’Malley’s comment.

Though Mr. O’Malley appears to be shifting some of the blame to Assembly leaders for failing to make aggressive plans to reduce the deficit, critics still say he has shown little of the swagger that made him an up-and-coming star of the Democratic Party.

Mr. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. have visibly battled over how and when to fix the budget, stalling meetings of the important and secretive Fiscal Leaders Committee, but the comment from Mr. O’Malley is the first sign of trouble that he may have in trying to pull together the “Two Mikes.”

He has only brought together Mr. Busch and Mr. Miller for one meeting so far this year — although he meets separately with them routinely.

But as his first General Assembly session comes to an end, Mr. O’Malley has run the state government with a light touch, lining up easy legislative wins and waiting an entire year to fix the state’s biggest problem — a $1.5 billion budget shortfall.

Supporters say Mr. O’Malley has approached his first year smartly, like the boxer who marks his opponents early and refrains from swinging wildly.

However, critics, including those in his own party, say Mr. O’Malley should 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 who served two terms.

Mr. O’Malley defeated incumbent Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, in November. Since his inauguration, he has secured easy victories by promising to tighten car-emissions standards and push the state’s presidential primary date forward to Feb. 12.

But he has yet to plug the state’s growing structural deficit and he 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 eventually must initiate action on taxes, slots or a combination, Mr. Miller said.

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

Former state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, Baltimore Democrat, said it is too early to define Mr. O’Malley’s success. “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 improve the management of the city.

But other Baltimore Democrats say that he should have led more and that he left Baltimore after two terms as mayor in worse shape because of “benign neglect.”

Delegate Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat running to replace Mr. O’Malley as 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 statistics-based management 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.

Mr. Busch 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 agencies “have been pretty much cleansed by the last two administrations [to] where there’s not a whole lot of unnecessary positions or programs.”

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