Senior Regional Correspondent

It’s tough being a promising, up-and-coming governor with national aspirations in a slow economy. There’s not enough money to pay for signature achievements to make your name.

But Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell are making a go of it anyway as both states’ legislatures opened their annual sessions Wednesday. The contrast in the two governors’ strategies offers a textbook example of differences between Democrats and Republicans in a national election year.

Given the economic climate, both politicians are stressing the need to create jobs. Democrat O’Malley proposes that government do so directly by rebuilding decaying public infrastructure such as roads, mass transit and sewage plants. To finance it, he’s willing to pay a political price by pushing to raise the gasoline or sales tax and add other fees. Republicans are saying Maryland family budgets can’t afford the hit.

Republican McDonnell has promised not to raise taxes so as to keep government small, saying that’s the best way to promote job growth in the future. With no extra funds to play with, he’s trying to make a political splash by shuffling money within the state budget to do more for priorities such as economic development, pension reform and transportation. Democrats are dismissing the changes as token gestures and saying they shortchange school budgets.

Does all this sound familiar? It closely parallels the budget debate at the national level. With the additional twist that O’Malley and McDonnell each chair his party’s governors association, the Potomac is a dividing line between the United States’ two competing visions of government.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell participates in the 47th Annual Commonwealth Prayer Breakfast Jan. 11 at the Richmond Convention Center. (Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST)

“Basically, McDonnell’s approach is one that says: ‘Tell me how much the tax system is generating this year, and that’s what we have to allocate.’ O’Malley’s approach is: ‘What are the needs, what are the priorities, and how do we fund them?’ ” said Michael Cassidy, president of the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis in Richmond.

The stakes for the two politicians are unusually high. Both have attracted national attention: McDonnell, 57, as a possible vice presidential candidate this year, and O’Malley, 48, as a prospective presidential hopeful in 2016.

Moreover, for both governors, the political calendar makes these General Assembly sessions important not to miss.

Because Virginia has one-term governors and two-year budget cycles, this is the only full budget that McDonnell will write from scratch and then fully implement. Expectations are up also because he benefits from GOP gains in November’s legislative elections.

O’Malley, in the second year of his second and final term, is running out of time to establish a legacy.

As the sessions begin, O’Malley seems to be offering a more ambitious agenda, with more potentially far-reaching initiatives, than McDonnell.

But it’s also a riskier one, because O’Malley might be asking the legislature to swallow more in one session that it can comfortably digest. Although the governor’s fellow Democrats dominate the General Assembly, they’ve been plenty willing in the past to rebuff his initiatives.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, left, and other Democrats enjoy a luncheon hosted Jan. 10 by the Maryland Democratic Party at the Westin Hotel. (Amy Davis/BALTIMORE SUN)

It’s always hard to increase taxes, plus O’Malley is putting his personal credibility on the line by publicly backing a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland. The measure failed last year, and liberals criticized O’Malley for not doing enough to help it. Cynics say he’s only stepped in now because a potential future presidential rival, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, shepherded a similar bill to success.

Over in Virginia, McDonnell is playing what in baseball jargon would be called “small ball” regarding the budget. The $38 million in extra money that he’s seeking to spur job creation is less than the $50 million recently allocated for that purpose by just one Maryland county, Prince George’s. His proposed rerouting of some sales tax revenue to transportation would fall well short of the $1 billion a year needed to do right by Virginia’s roads.

To his credit, McDonnell has made a serious proposal to start restoring the fiscal health of the state employee pension system. He’s also proposed significant changes in K-12 education, such as abolishing teacher tenure. Cynics say he’s just jumping on that GOP bandwagon to polish his vice presidential credentials.

A couple of sound bites from the governors illustrate the gap that divides them and the nation.

When I asked O’Malley in a brief telephone interview about the wisdom of seeking a tax increase, he said: “In order to create jobs, a modern economy requires modern investments. . . . What was true for our grandparents and our parents is also true for us. We get what we pay for.”

In Virginia, in a prepared statement for his State of the Commonwealth Address on Wednesday evening, McDonnell said that the proposed “budget does not raise taxes. Rather it forces state government to set priorities, live within its means and plan for the future, something I wish our federal government would do.”

Two states. Two governors. Two philosophies. Take your pick and see which succeeds.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to