Stuck With the Reality Check

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is warning of painful budget cuts.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is warning of painful budget cuts. (Katherine Frey - Twp)
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By Tim Craig and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine both entered office with ambitious goals to boost spending on public education, transportation, the environment and health care.

But timing is a critical ingredient in any political career, and the collapse of the housing market and the national recession mean that the two up-and-coming Democratic Party leaders will begin their General Assembly sessions today with spending priorities in tatters.

Hampered by projected shortfalls that top a $1 billion in both states, O'Malley and Kaine are being forced to retool their agendas and slash spending for many of the programs they have championed throughout their professional lives.

"It can be enormously frustrating because you can't blame anybody," said former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder, another Democrat, who was forced to scrap many of his spending priorities when a recession hit in the early 1990s. "But it can be a wake-up call, and it does present opportunities to do things in a different way."

The election of Kaine in 2005 and O'Malley's the next year ushered in what was supposed to be a progressive era in the Washington region, one in which residents would shoulder more taxes to help ease congestion and improve the quality of life. Kaine and O'Malley took office with a great deal in common. Both are Catholics who built political careers as big-city mayors. They sounded common themes as they campaigned and governed. They even shared political slogans, pledging to "move" their respective states "forward."

Now, Kaine and O'Malley will be together at the forefront of efforts by governors across the country to navigate the worst economic crisis in modern times. Aides to both men said the economic downturn has forced them to reconsider how they govern and to contemplate fresh ways to shape their legacies.

"It bothers him, but he takes it very seriously," said Jody L. Wagner, who served as Kaine's finance secretary from 2006 to last year. "He knows every cut that is being made and is aware of the impacts."

Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) called the financial strain "tremendously hard" on O'Malley.

"The economy has basically plummeted to the point where he's trying to maintain programs rather than grow policy initiatives," Busch said. "It's challenging and, I'm sure, disappointing."

In Virginia, an estimated two-year, $3 billion budget shortfall will force cuts to education, compromise highway and transit spending, and lead to a reduction in the state workforce.

Kaine, who could not win legislative approval for earlier plans to raise taxes to pay for new roads, has already endured two previous rounds of budget reductions.

When the housing slump emerged in 2007, Kaine had to reduce spending by $641 million and scale back his promise to expand access to health care. Last year, he had to dramatically scale back his plan to provide access to pre-kindergarten statewide. But Kaine said he has left a framework for other governors to build on.

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