Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Verbal eloquence, missing recently from the White House, is a hallmark of Barack Obama — and he did not disappoint us on Inauguration Day. His message of service and sacrifice, of re-dedication to common values, sets the right tone for what promises to be a different kind of presidency.

Let's hope Gov. Martin O'Malley and state legislators take Obama seriously. His message should prompt them to look at Maryland's massive economic woes differently.

"Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age."

Maryland's budget deficit results from a failure by public leaders to make difficult decisions. It's been easier to pander to special interests than impose harsh fiscal realities. As a result, the state faces deep deficits far into the future because no one has the fortitude to do what is necessary — raise taxes to cover this chronic gap or dramatically lower spending.

There won't be a "new age" in Maryland until the state fixes its fiscal house. Even the much-anticipated federal stimulus package won't change the state's long-term plight: Maryland is woefully short of funds for social programs and mandated spending.

"Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."

Tough choices surround O'Malley & Friends. A permanent rollback of unaffordable education aid programs. A rethinking of Maryland's health care expansion. Placing responsibility for teacher pension costs where they belong — on the local governments that pay the salaries. Eliminating an artificial freeze on college tuition and instead getting higher education to reform its spending habits.

Remaking America, and Maryland, also means persuading citizens that good government comes at a cost — more taxes. If we want first-rate schools and colleges, health care for all and quality services, all of us must pay more — not just the rich. That, as Al Gore might say, is "an inconvenient truth."

"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works … Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end."

When was the last time the governor and legislators ended an ongoing, major state program? That's a trivia question sure to stump Annapolis officials.

Once a program is in place, vested interests lobby hard to keep it going, even if the program is a failure. Politicians happily go along. There's no incentive to fix what's broken or shut it down.

"Those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account — to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government."

Maryland spends far more than it takes in. This nasty habit is catching up to State House leaders. The governor's proposed budget is balanced with $1.3 billion in one-time revenue gimmicks that won't be available in future years. If Maryland is slow to bounce back from the recession, O'Malley will face far larger budget gaps down the road.

Why not follow Obama's lead and take a more responsible approach? Only when there's enough cash in the vault should the state let programs grow. You won't restore trust in government until elected leaders cease their manipulative budget games.

"The world has changed, and we must change with it."

Innovative thinking is lacking. There's massive resistance to change. Inertia rules. The governor's StateStat program is designed to force top officials to implement data-based changes, but broader reforms never become a priority. New ways of approaching problems are very much needed. State House leaders ought to borrow proven techniques from private industry to reinvent government. Where are the champions of change?

"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task."

What drives politicians is getting re-elected. Public service turns into ego gratification rather than sacrifice for the common good. The tough tasks are set aside, the difficult choices finessed. Political survival is what counts, which means offending the fewest number of voters — and not sticking your neck out too far.

Obama's message to governors and legislators is to embrace a "new era of responsibility" and tackle the knotty problems they've let fester.

This, the president said, is the "winter of our hardship" we must brave. Will Maryland's leaders heed Obama's call? State House Democrats have lavished praise on the new president but there are few signs they will implement his inaugural message.