O'Malley Increases Influence With Wins on Taxes and Slots

Md. Legislators Praise Effort, Flexibility

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 20, 2007; Page A01

Gov. Martin O'Malley emerged from a grueling special session of the Maryland General Assembly with big wins on tax and slot machine legislation, praise from lawmakers for his willingness to tackle the state's most vexing issues -- and greatly increased clout in Annapolis.

Less clear, as O'Malley (D) and bleary-eyed legislators celebrated at a bill-signing ceremony yesterday, were the wider political ramifications of pushing through $1.4 billion a year in tax increases during a frantic three-week session called to solve the state's chronic budget problems.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., left, Gov. Martin O'Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch celebrate at a bill-signing.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., left, Gov. Martin O'Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch celebrate at a bill-signing. (By Gail Burton -- Associated Press)

"How it plays politically is still up in the air," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery). "Will people recognize it as hard choices that had to be made or as government run amok? But by any measure, the governor did an incredible job pulling it together. He was buttonholing people. He was schmoozing people. I don't know if he was threatening people. At points, it was ugly, but it was certainly an impressive effort overall."

By the time they adjourned shortly after 2:30 a.m. yesterday, lawmakers had raised the state's sales, corporate income, tobacco and vehicle titling taxes. And they had overhauled the personal income tax system, which will result in high-end earners paying more.

The legislature also embraced O'Malley's proposal to hold a referendum on legalizing 15,000 slot machines, a truce on an issue that had poisoned the relationship of the legislature's two Democratic presiding officers and had ended in stalemates when Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) was governor.

Lawmakers voted to direct O'Malley to make $550 million in cuts in next year's budget, to expand access to government-subsidized health care and to raise an additional $400 million a year for transportation priorities.

"This is the boldest move, the boldest action, on the part of any governor I've served with," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who has served with six other governors, said as he sat with O'Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) at the afternoon bill-signing.

O'Malley shared the credit yesterday. "We have overcome a tremendous challenge, and it would not have been possible without everyone working together," the governor said.

Miller told reporters that the tax increases could do short-term damage to O'Malley's standing in the polls. But he predicted that the governor, who is nearing the end of his first year in office, would bounce back once voters realized more fully that he had fixed fiscal problems that he inherited.

Republican observers predicted the damage would be deeper and last longer, with voters seeing the Democratic governor as a tax-and-spender until O'Malley stands for reelection in 2010.

"If there's a negative stereotype and you take action to prove the stereotype, it's a problem," said Republican strategist Kevin Igoe.

"We'll see how people react when they start paying these taxes," said Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman (R-Howard). "There's no question people will remember this."

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