Mr. O'Malley's challenge

Thursday, November 4, 2010

MARYLAND GOV. Martin O'Malley (D) ran a shrewd, steady, disciplined reelection campaign, avoiding missteps and leaving little to chance in his rematch against his arch-rival and predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). His win, well deserved, is one of the relatively few bright spots for Democrats nationally in the 2010 cycle.

Mr. O'Malley's strategy included studiously avoiding any explanation of how he will resolve Maryland's most daunting problems - namely, closing structural deficits in the state budget, along with a staggering $33 billion in IOUs for retired teachers and state government workers. Little wonder that Mr. O'Malley didn't want to talk about such a grim future in the course of the campaign; now that the race is over, though, he owes Marylanders a fuller picture.

Annual deficits are forecast at upward of $1.5 billion, the equivalent of 11 percent of the state's current, tax-supported spending. Add to that the imminent end of federal stimulus dollars; tighter federal rules governing state Medicaid spending; and pressure for more spending on the Chesapeake Bay, transportation and those pension obligations, and the problem swells to jarring proportions.

Mr. O'Malley will have to tip his hand sooner rather than later. He will have to decide if it's possible to continue muddling through with furloughs and cutbacks in state programs, or whether also to seek higher taxes. He will have to reconcile his competing commitments to build the Purple Line, a rail transit link through Montgomery and Prince George's counties, as well as a similarly ambitious project through Baltimore.

He will have to offer a vision for meeting the state's pension and health-care liabilities for current and future retirees, though in a way that does not cripple local governments by offloading the burden of teacher pensions entirely to them. And he will have to address tough new federal strictures governing runoff pollution in a way that protects both the Chesapeake Bay and the livelihoods of Maryland farmers affected by tighter limits.

Mr. O'Malley's first term was marked by generally sound decision-making and competent, scandal-free leadership. He had and will continue to have the luxury of dealing with a friendly state legislature dominated by fellow Democrats. All that offers hope that Mr. O'Malley will find a way through the shoals facing Maryland.

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