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Doomsday for Maryland?

Martin O’Malley’s budget failure.

May 14, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 33 • By KATE HAVARD
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Photo of Maryland’s Martin O’Malley

Maryland’s Martin O’Malley

AP / Steve Ruark

Minutes before midnight on April 9, the last day of Maryland’s 90-day legislative session, the state budget suddenly and unceremoniously collapsed. The next morning, however, Gov. Martin O’Malley and the Democratic leaders of the Maryland house and senate signed a fallback budget that everybody agreed was what nobody wanted. 

O’Malley, whose achievements as mayor of Baltimore have landed him on short-lists for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, indicated his frustration, telling reporters, “I think the people of our state have reason to expect more of our elected officials.”

What the people of Maryland can reasonably expect now are budget cuts. While parts of a budget package passed that night, neither of the bills that included income tax and other revenue increases needed to fund the governor’s budget made it to a vote in both chambers. And once the governor’s proposal was dead, Maryland automatically reverted to a spending plan dubbed the “Doomsday Budget,” which encompasses more than $500 million in cuts, almost $300 million of them from education. It will go into effect July 1 unless the legislature acts to replace it at a special session set for May 14.

O’Malley called the education cuts a “damn shame.” The Doomsday Budget—so called precisely because it slashes the Democrats’ top programs—was never intended to become reality. It was meant to be a prop in a legislative game of chicken that seriously backfired. Now, one question could come back to haunt the ambitious governor, whose aspirations tend toward the city a little south of Baltimore: If O’Malley can’t keep a heavily Democratic state legislature in line, how could he possibly handle the U.S. Congress?

Martin O’Malley first shot to prominence in 1999, when he was elected mayor of Baltimore. O’Malley ran a single-issue campaign: He would fight crime in one of the most dangerous cities in America. To the people of Baltimore, who’d watched for years as bureaucrat after bureaucrat declared the city a lost cause, O’Malley was a bright light. Young, handsome, energetic, and occasionally ruthless, he was part JFK and part Batman.

Two years before Barack Obama’s keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, O’Malley was pushing hope and change. In 2002, with financing from the Baltimore Police Foundation, he launched the “Baltimore Believe” campaign, a massive media effort encouraging residents to take back their city from the drug culture. The message was not all warm and fuzzy. A four-minute television spot that aired on every channel showed prostitutes, drug addicts, and criminals in scenes of decay, interlaced with sad-eyed children and the howl of police sirens. It ended with a little girl going out to buy candy, shot dead in the street. The final voiceover had her brother saying: “I know there’s a fire in me. Please don’t let it go out.” The word “Believe” flashes on the screen. The media went wild, the magazine profiles glowed, and O’Malley was touted in Esquire as “the best young mayor in America.”

In the first summer of the campaign, drug treatment enrollment saw enormous gains. And 10 years later, Baltimore’s murder rate is still lower than it was when O’Malley took office. As he noted himself in a recent Baltimore Sun op-ed, “for the first time in more than three decades, [the city] reduced homicides last year to fewer than 200. Drug overdose deaths have been driven down to all-time lows. Juvenile shootings have been driven down 70 percent since 2007.” 

Yet O’Malley’s history as Balti-more’s reformer is not without its problems. The city’s population has sharply declined, and critics argue the reduction in crime is consistent with the smaller population. They also note that violent crime has dropped nationally, making Baltimore’s improvements merely part of a national trend. According to the most recent FBI numbers, Baltimore had 34.8 murders per 100,000 people, the third-highest rate in the country.

As governor, O’Malley has enacted several laws that make him popular with the Democratic base, but he is nowhere near the iconoclastic figure he once was. As mayor, he didn’t only take on crime. He fought Baltimore’s entrenched, molasses-slow bureaucracy. Now, as a Democratic governor in one of the wealthiest, bluest states in the nation settling into his second and final term, O’Malley is at the top of the food chain, with no one to grapple with. Major reform bills have taken a back seat to legacy legislation.

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