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.
The governor has proposed raising the sales tax, the corporate income tax, the tobacco tax, the titling tax on vehicles and income taxes on upper-end earners. He is also pushing a modest income tax cut for most other people as well as a reduction in the state property tax rate.
He has also asked lawmakers to pass a health-care plan during the special session as well as approve his proposal to hold a public referendum next year on legalizing slot-machine gambling at five locations.
O'Malley's slots proposal, which threatened to bog down the session, got a boost Friday with the endorsement of House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who has been the legislature's most powerful foe of expanded gambling.
Still, there is no guarantee of a harmonious session, given past rancor between the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, who harbor a mutual distrust and have different policy priorities. Both Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) cautioned O'Malley on the pitfalls of a special session, suggesting that the legislature hold off until the regular session in January to address the budget.
If O'Malley is unable to orchestrate a successful session, "it could really hurt his future dealings with legislators," said Republican consultant Kevin Igoe. "They would question his understanding of Annapolis."
Igoe and other Republicans hope that O'Malley's championing of tax increases will result in lasting political damage, regardless of the session's outcome. "If the taxes are passed and people are paying them, I think it becomes more of a burden to him," Igoe said.
He said O'Malley beat Ehrlich last year by improving on the party's 2002 performance in several counties ringing Baltimore that are home to sizable numbers of conservative Democrats. If those voters feel alienated on taxes, Igoe said, they may well be willing to vote Republican again in 2010.
O'Malley aides counter that the governor's plan would help most of those families, reducing their income and property taxes.
But his tax plans appear to be a drag on his approval ratings. Of those who disapprove of O'Malley's performance, 61 percent cited his proposals to raise taxes as the No. 1 reason in a poll released last week by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies. In that poll, 46 percent said they approved of O'Malley's job performance, and 31 percent said they disapproved.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) predicted that O'Malley's approval ratings will increase significantly if he wins approval of most of his proposals during the special session.
"You're in the midst of a budget crisis, and that's not the best time to be judged for a first-time governor," Leggett said. "People don't understand what he inherited."
Leggett said the public is likely to credit or blame O'Malley for the outcome of the session, whether or not that is fair. Leggett, a former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, said he is urging fellow Democrats to rally around the governor for the good of the party, as well as the good of the state. Having defeated Ehrlich last year, Democrats must show they can work together to get things done, he said.
One argument O'Malley has made for quick action on his tax proposals is that doing so would allow three more legislative sessions devoted to other priorities before he or state lawmakers stand for reelection.
Although lawmakers will be asked to cast tough votes on some proposals, no one is suggesting that control of the General Assembly is at stake. Democrats hold 104 of 141 seats in the House and 33 of 47 seats in the Senate.
But lawmakers say they realize the importance of what is ahead.
"I think there is a lot on the line, not only for the executive branch but for the legislature," said Peter A. Hammen (D-Baltimore), chairman of the House committee that handles health-care legislation. "We're going to be expected to produce. If we can't work together, there are going to be draconian cuts that will affect health care, transportation, local governments and other priorities."
Still, most analysts say the spotlight will shine most brightly on O'Malley.
"Having pushed for the special session, it's going to be very clearly viewed as a test of his leadership," said Mike Morrill, a longtime Democratic operative. "This will redefine the governor's relationship, for better or for worse, with the General Assembly."
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.