Budget Cuts May Cost O'Malley Support of Key Groups in Reelection Bid

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) testifies before a House committee hearing on preventing waste, fraud and abuse of recovery act funding.
Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) testifies before a House committee hearing on preventing waste, fraud and abuse of recovery act funding. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 23, 2009

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is discovering one significant challenge he might not have anticipated as he positions himself for a reelection bid next year: maintaining the support of the interest groups that helped put him in office.

The approval Wednesday of $280 million in mid-year spending reductions, with no hint of relief on the horizon, has O'Malley facing the unpleasant task of instituting dramatic cuts in ways that could harm allies and eventually wear down his support base.

Republicans have yet to field any big-name opponents. It remains unclear whether any of the groups that rallied behind O'Malley three years ago -- labor unions, environmentalists and educators, among them -- would ever abandon a Democratic incumbent in a heavily Democratic state.

But analysts say O'Malley runs the risk of undercutting the enthusiasm, financial support and willingness to knock on doors that such loyal supporters can provide. And the tough conditions could increase the chance O'Malley will draw a Democratic primary challenger seeking to capitalize on strained relationships.

"A lot of the groups that supported him are likely to be hurt," said Patrick Gonzales of Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies, which conducts periodic polling on O'Malley's performance. "My instinct is if the election were tomorrow, he would get reelected. But he's going to have to make some tough choices between now and November 2010, and it's hard to know how that plays out."

With tax revenues battered by the economy, the Board of Public Works on Wednesday approved O'Malley proposals that included a reduction in higher education funding and rolling back the rates the state pays nursing homes and community care providers through Medicaid.

O'Malley said another round of cuts coming before Labor Day will affect state workers, a still-potent force in Maryland politics. In 2006, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees mobilized its 30,000 Maryland members on behalf of O'Malley, and the union contributed $600,000 to a group that aired radio and television ads seeking to link then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich (R) to President George W. Bush.

Patrick Moran, director of the Maryland chapter of AFSCME, said it is premature to talk about the group's activities next year.

"The members of our union will decide who they support when the time comes," Moran said, adding that AFSCME is focused on making its case to O'Malley that job reductions would hurt state services.

O'Malley said this week that he would like to avoid the "massive layoffs" that have occurred in other states facing similar budget problems. But he left the door open to more furloughs. Last year, state workers were forced take as many as five days of unpaid leave.

"We don't like furloughs," Moran said. "It's a tough thing for anyone to go through, in terms of how it affects your work life."

Among those disappointed with Wednesday's cuts was the League of Conservation Voters, which endorsed O'Malley in 2006 and last year gave him an A-minus on an environmental scorecard. The group was upset that O'Malley cut an additional $2 million from a fund created in 2007 to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

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