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Tamela Baker: Who's bungling worse in Annapolis?

April 25, 2012|By TAMELA BAKER

Once or twice in my adult life, I have agonized over my personal budget or some major financial decision. But most months, I manage to pay all the bills and still have a little left over for ice cream. Compared to the Maryland General Assembly, I am an absolute fiscal genius.

Our state’s legislators have done a lot of silly things before, but this year’s budget farce was a stunner. In case you missed it: The General Assembly, required to produce a balanced budget every year, managed through a series of unfortunate events to miss the deadline for passing a bill to fund its approved budget (translation: income tax hike), forcing the state government to revert to a so-called “doomsday” budget with $512 million in mandated cuts (from new money, not current budget totals) on July 1. Unless, of course, the governor calls a special session to give legislators another chance to raise taxes.

I suggested a few months ago that there were real fault lines among Democrats that savvy Republicans could use to their advantage, but that observation was met with a little skepticism. Or as one letter-writer put it: “In your dreams, Madam.”

And yet, here was that very scenario playing out, not in my dreams, but in vivid Annapolis reality. Fissures between the Democrats ruptured as Gov. Martin O’Malley took too much for granted, Senate President Mike Miller grossly miscalculated and Democrats let the clock run out without approving another tax increase. Call it a perfect storm or an Easter miracle, the Democratic leadership treated us to a number of revelations:

• O’Malley, the would-be next new face of American Democrats, needed a reminder that he’s still a governor.

• Miller is not omnipotent.

• And most important, divisions among Maryland Democrats are deeper than many imagined.

Here was the best chance GOP legislators have had in ages to actually have some voice in Maryland politics, handed to them on a silver platter by self-destructive Democrats, if they could stop clinging to their purely partisan baggage long enough to reach for it. As O’Malley himself said, “we managed to do something to ourselves that the Republican caucus couldn’t do to us in five or six years.”

Republicans know as well as anyone that a special session almost certainly means a tax increase. If a tax hike is inevitable  — and you can bet Miller’s been trying to circle the wagons since about 12:01 a.m. April 10 to make it so — Republicans would have been in an excellent position to use the Democrats’ difficulties to leverage some concessions had some of them been willing to abandon intractable attitudes.

But instead, they predictably called a news conference to advise O’Malley to let the “doomsday budget” stand.

Yeah, that’ll convince him. That kind of thing has worked so well so often before.

When O’Malley said he wouldn’t call a special session until there’s a “consensus,” it means he’s counting votes to make sure the tax package will pass this time. Democrats will regroup, pass their new taxes and we’ll be back to business as usual.

Republicans, think a little more seriously about your options. The Democrats’ meltdown has been smoldering for a long time. It was bound to boil over sooner or later. But if you don’t handle an advantage well, it will evaporate — and you simply can’t afford that.

Here’s why: Statewide, there are still twice as many Democrats as Republicans, and if current trends continue, eventually there’ll be more independents than Republicans, too — because for four of the past five years, more new Maryland voters have been registering independent than Republican. That is not a matter of my opinion; it’s a matter of public record. Why are they doing that? My guess it’s because neither party seems to have room for moderates anymore. The difference is that in Maryland, Democrats can absorb the loss. Republicans can’t.

Even here in “Republican” Washington County, where there are about 6,500 or so more Republicans than Democrats, there are 15,200 unaffiliated county voters — and if they were to vote with Democrats, that Republican majority would be meaningless.

That’s what makes their strident behavior so astonishing. The condescension with which members of our local delegation have responded to the Chamber of Commerce is symptomatic of the GOP’s biggest problem. Really, guys, the chamber isn’t an active advocate for small business in Annapolis? Not to put too fine of a point on it, but that’s what your constituents elected you for. And you’re doing it so well that a tenth of them are still unemployed. What measure of success of your own in that arena justifies such arrogance?

It’s just another example of precisely why, year after year, we get excuses rather than results: Republicans in this state do nothing better than pick fights. And when you’re the 98-pound weakling on the Annapolis beach, guess where picking fights will get you?

Tamela Baker is a former Herald-Mail reporter and editor.

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