Senior Regional Correspondent

A governor who aspires to be president ought to be able to persuade a state legislature to deliver a proper budget on time. That’s especially true when no critical issue is in dispute and the governor’s party enjoys sizable majorities in both chambers.

By that modest measure, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s embarrassing setback this week suggests he’s not ready for the White House. In what O’Malley (D) conceded was “a low point,” the General Assembly adjourned in disarray Monday with only half a budget.

O’Malley needs to fix this quickly, by calling a special session to shove through an income tax increase. Everybody, except the minority Republicans, has agreed a tax increase is necessary to avoid dire spending cuts starting July 1 that would threaten education, police staffing and social programs.

Otherwise, the governor can forget any ambitions for national office. After all, how could we elect a President O’Malley to jawbone with Republican House Speaker John Boehner if he can’t do so effectively with a couple of veteran Democratic legislative leaders in Annapolis whom he’s known for years?

“O’Malley wants to be president so bad that he sort of forgot that he needs to finish being governor first,” said Todd Eberly, an assistant professor of political science at St. Mary’s College.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks to reporters April 9, the last day of the state's legislative session, in Annapolis. (Steve Ruark/The Associated Press)

Eberly and some legislators faulted O’Malley for devoting too much attention to national media appearances and other responsibilities in his role as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.

“He needed to be an almost constant presence in Annapolis. He needed to make it clear that all other interests were off the table,” Eberly said.

Admittedly, the infighting among Maryland’s dominant Democrats didn’t make it easy. One battle was over whether income taxes should rise for everybody or only for people with incomes of at least $100,000 (or $150,000 for couples). The other fight was over authorizing the state’s sixth casino, to be built in Prince George’s County.

But it should have been possible to reach a compromise on the details of the tax increase. And although I support building the casino, as described in an earlier column, that’s not an objective that justified blowing a deadline on the whole state budget.

The tensions were aggravated by the personal rivalry between the leaders of the General Assembly’s two chambers, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). Basically, Miller wanted the casino and to raise taxes on everybody. Busch resisted the casino and wanted the tax increase to fall only on the better off. They played chicken for days and then blamed each other when a deal couldn’t be reached by the Monday midnight deadline.

“You have the colossal personality conflict between Miller and Busch that has gone on for 10 years now,” said a Democratic state senator from the Washington suburbs, who, like other legislators, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by party leaders. “I think it’s often a lot about ego and who is seen as the big man in charge.”

It was up to O’Malley to knock heads and make the two compromise. His top staff members were busy encouraging a deal, but legislators said the governor’s personal involvement came too late and with too low a profile.

“He’s the captain of the ship, so it is an embarrassment. The compromise that will be brokered for the special session could have been brokered before,” said a House Democrat from the Baltimore area. “This is something where the chief executive needs to be involved.”

The fiasco at the end spoiled what otherwise was a fairly successful session for O’Malley. His active lobbying helped push through the same-sex marriage bill. He also won approval of several measures to protect the Chesapeake Bay. (He lost on wind power and lifting the gasoline tax.)

Assuming a special session raises the income tax, O’Malley will have preserved education funding at record levels and avoided a double-digit college tuition increase. That would position him to run for president based in part on his record as an “education governor.”

But O’Malley had better get cracking lining up votes for that session or his ambitions for elected office will never make it outside Maryland.

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