Session Has High Stakes for O'Malley

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 29, 2007

In meetings with Democratic legislative leaders, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has invoked the final scene from the 1990s movie "Thelma and Louise" to suggest their shared fate if they fail to close the state's estimated $1.7 billion shortfall.

The film ends with the two friends-turned-outlaws kissing and then plunging off a cliff to their certain deaths rather than taking responsibility for their actions.

It is a powerful image, and lawmakers certainly have much at stake in the special legislative session that O'Malley (D) has called starting today to fix the budget. But no one has more riding on the outcome than the governor.

If the General Assembly passes his plan to close the shortfall by raising taxes and legalizing slot-machine gambling, O'Malley undoubtedly will be given most of the credit for tackling a long-festering problem that his predecessors largely avoided, analysts and lawmakers said. That, in time, could bolster his lackluster job-approval rating, if experiences of governors elsewhere are any guide.

But if the session ends in stalemate, it will be a major embarrassment for the governor, who is summoning lawmakers to Annapolis against the advice of their leaders. And the failure could hobble his relationship with the General Assembly for the remainder of his term, curtailing what he is able to accomplish heading into a potential 2010 reelection bid.

"If he succeeds, he solves a very big problem in state government which no one has been willing to touch for years," said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "If he is not able to get this through, he loses face and he loses a lot of political capital. It will not augur well for being able to succeed in future sessions of the General Assembly."

O'Malley is in a politically sensitive position. A Washington Post poll last week found that after nine months in office, 53 percent of Marylanders approve of the job he is doing, and 36 percent say they disapprove.

That is similar to approval ratings for former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) before his loss to O'Malley last year. A year into Ehrlich's term, 62 percent of Marylanders approved of his job performance, in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1.

Aides to O'Malley say they are heartened by the experiences of other governors who have emerged stronger from similar budget challenges. Former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner (D), who pushed a high-profile tax package through a Republican-controlled legislature, left office with 75 percent of voters viewing him favorably, according to a 2005 Post poll.

More recently, New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) rebounded in the polls after championing a sales tax increase that abruptly ended his honeymoon with voters. Corzine's approval rating plunged to 35 percent shortly after he made the proposal last year. A Quinnipiac University poll last month found that he had largely rebounded, with 49 percent approving of his performance and 40 percent disapproving.

"People elect governors and rely on their governors to bring people together to do difficult things," O'Malley said last week. "The ones that have been successful are the ones who've been able to do that."

The magnitude of what O'Malley is attempting to accomplish in the next few weeks makes the political calculus in Maryland trickier, analysts say.

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