O'Malley May Set Modest Agenda

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By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 7, 2008

For much of his first year in office, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley referred to the state's long-festering budget problems as a "dark cloud" that hovered over all that he and lawmakers contemplated in Annapolis.

As he enters his second year, O'Malley is continuing to bask in praise from fellow Democrats for calling a high-risk special legislative session that resulted in major tax increases and spending reductions to fix the state's finances.

But the skies have not entirely cleared.

With the General Assembly set to return to work Wednesday, analysts are predicting more tight budgets in the years ahead that could be undermined by an uncertain economy. And that, coupled with legislative fatigue from last fall's special session, is likely to curtail what O'Malley will ask of lawmakers in the coming 90 days.

In an interview, O'Malley said he will put forward "a solid and centered legislative agenda" this week that will allow the state to make "continued and steady progress" in areas important to his administration.

That will include initiatives to slow the wave of foreclosures on Maryland homeowners, to significantly expand a DNA database that the state taps for leads on unsolved crimes and to address a nursing shortage confronting the state, as well as a heightened focus on energy policy and the environment.

But O'Malley tacitly acknowledged that he will not be pushing lawmakers to do anything as sweeping as what occurred in the three-week special session: enactment of $1.4 billion in annual tax increases, a directive to cut $550 million from next year's budget and an agreement to let voters decide whether to legalize slot-machine gambling -- as well as major infusions of money for transportation, subsidized health care and cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.

"What's next is more progress for more people," O'Malley said. "I don't know if people are looking for fireworks, dramatic moments and high-wire acts. . . . In terms of the work we've set about to do, it's strengthening and growing our middle class, improving public safety and public education, and expanding opportunity. I find all of those endeavors to be pretty exciting."

Joseph C. Bryce, O'Malley's chief legislative officer, told a gathering of county officials last week that "expectations management" will be one of the administration's greatest challenges in the coming session.

"There is not a ton of money laying around to be spent on people's new ideas," Bryce said.

Legislative analysts say the actions taken by the General Assembly during the special session called by O'Malley should be sufficient to balance a $15 billion budget next year that would otherwise have had a shortfall of at least $1.5 billion.

But under current projections, more modest budget gaps -- of about $200 million -- reappear starting in fiscal 2010. Those shortfalls could grow larger if Maryland's economy, which has been hurt by slumping home sales, does not accelerate or enters a recession.

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