Facing a budget shortfall due in large part to overspending in years past, Gov. Martin O'Malley called a special session of the Maryland General Assembly to consider a package of tax hikes and a referendum on legalizing slot machines. Now that the freshman Democratic governor has proven successful in pushing through both, the Washington Post congratulated O'Malley with a front page article replete with pats on the back and attaboys from O'Malley's fellow Democrats. The icing on the cake: a signing ceremony photograph (shown above*) of O'Malley that appears to show him pumping his fist in victory.
Staff writer John Wagner opened his November 20 article with triumphal language that painted O'Malley as a respected statesman:
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.
Of course, the Post anticipated that its readership, and Maryland voters in general, will not be as quick to laud the tax hikes and slot machine proposal, so Wagner moved quickly to quote a liberal Democratic state senator to remind Post readers that O'Malley is a strong leader willing to make the tough choices about how much more to tax Free State residents:
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.
"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."
It gets worse. Wagner noted that the legislature approved $550 million in budget cuts but quickly breezed by new spending initiatives such as a plan to "expand access to government-subsidized health care and to raise an additional $400 million a year for transportation priorities."
After quoting longtime State Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller gushing about O'Malley -- "This is the boldest move, the boldest action, on the part of any governor I've served with" -- Wagner dispatched with Republican opposition with two short quotes: one by strategist Kevin Igoe, the other by State Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman.
That out of the way, Wagner returned to marveling over O'Malley's legislative wrangling:
In the weeks before its start Oct. 29, Miller and Busch counseled O'Malley against calling such a broad session, saying lawmakers could wait to fix the budget until their regular 90-day session, which begins in January, rather than on a rushed schedule that presented many potential pitfalls.
The divergent views of the two presiding officers on slots alone could have resulted in a quagmire that might have jeopardized other legislation. Miller is among the legislature's most ardent slots supporters. Busch has been the most powerful foe of expanded gambling in recent years.
Of course, for all the personality squabbles in the state legislature, Miller and Busch are both liberal Democrats serving alongside a liberal Democratic governor. It's not rocket science to figure out the political wisdom of pushing through a tax hike in a non-election year that falls well before the next gubernatorial election in 2010 (when all 141 state delegates and 47 state senators will be up for reelection).
Not only did Wagner give Democrats plenty of ink to gush over O'Malley, he worked in a slam or two at the ex-local rock star's immediate predecessor in office, Bob Ehrlich (R).:
"I think the governor showed immense skill in being flexible enough to make changes," said Barbara Hoffman, an Annapolis lobbyist and former Democratic senator from Baltimore. "He didn't draw lines in the sand."
Del. Tom Hucker (D-Montgomery) said O'Malley won points for his openness to lawmakers' ideas and a work ethic that contrasted with that of Ehrlich, whose tenure Hucker derided as "four years of press conferences and golf."
Closing his article, Wagner saw fit to add one accolade for the liberal governor:
"This is a day to move Maryland forward," Busch said. "It puts all the demons behind us."
*AP photo by Gail Burton via Washington Post. Original caption: "Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., left, Gov. Martin O'Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch celebrate at a bill-signing."