Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Defensive O'Malley Hurts Only Himself

Maryland is unique in that it has two independently elected executive branch offices closely involved with state finances. The Governor has the power under the state constitution to set the state's budget and the General Assembly can do little to alter the Governor's priorities. The Comptroller is the state's tax collector and sits on the Board of Revenue Estimates and more important is an equal voice to the Governor on the Board of Public Works.

Our current Comptroller, Peter Franchot, would like to be governor. Our current Governor, Martin O'Malley, would like to be President - increasingly the career goals of these two men have been on a collision course.

Sporting a very modest record of accomplishments during his time as governor, O'Malley has put forth a very aggressive legislative agenda. His agenda includes significant tax increases during a time of a weak economic recovery. From decreased deductions for middle and upper income Marylanders to incredibly regressive increases in the gas tax and the state's so-called flush tax O'Malley has spared few from the pain of tax increases.

To quote President Obama, raising taxes during a weak economy is not a good idea. Unfortunately for O'Malley, the state's electoral calendar does not mesh well with his needs. The next governor and every member of the General Assembly will be on the ballot in 2014 - 2 short years from now. As such, O'Malley knows that no rational member of the Assembly would be willing to take politically costly votes the closer we get to the next election. Likewise, as each year passes, state term limits make O'Malley more of a lame duck. For O'Malley he must swing for the fences in the current legislative session. Neither the 2013 nor 2014 session will be any more favorable territory.

So O'Malley has put forward an unpopular package of tax increases and he is experiencing significant push back from within his own party. If O'Malley loses and his proposals are defeated or significantly altered he will appear weak - a Democratic governor that cannot get an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature in a solidly Democratic state to approve tax increases. Such a loss would hardly form a solid foundation upon which to launch a national campaign.

Enter Comptroller Franchot. As the state's tax and revenue collector and as an independently elected representative of the people Franchot, like Comptrollers before him, has exercised the power of his office to wade into the fight over taxes and spending. A likely candidate for governor in 2014, Franchot has been vocal in his opposition to tax increases during a weak economy. Not opposition to tax increases, just opposition during a weak economy. For a potential gubernatorial candidate it's not a bad position to take given a recent Washington Post poll that showed significant opposition to O'Malley's agenda. I hasten to add that Ken Ulman, Howard County Executive and another possible contender for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, has been equally critical of other aspects of O'Malley's agenda - especially the Governor's proposal to improve the state's budget shortfalls by simply shifting a significant portion of the costs for teachers' pensions onto the counties (which would of course result in local tax increases).

Likely quite frustrated by all of the in-party push back, O'Malley lashed out at Franchot today calling him "our Mitt Romney." O'Malley explained that he views Franchot as an opportunistic flip-flopper simply voicing opposition for political expediency. Franchot's response was devastating "I’m sorry if I’m getting in the way of his presidential efforts."

For O'Malley the whole episode just looks bad. First, O'Malley has served to make the party divisions over his budget front page news. Instead of railing against tea party extremists, O'Malley is broadcasting the fact that in his own state many Democrats are opposed to his tax plans. Suddenly opposition to O'Malley's tax increases is not simply a partisan affair. Perhaps worse, by bringing Mitt Romney's name into the fight O'Malley plays right into the criticisms that he is too concerned with national politics and not paying sufficient attention to the state he was elected to govern. Why not call Franchot a "Pipkin Democrat" or an "O'Donnell Follower" or "another Jim Brochin"... anything that would demonstrate a connection to state politics?

What's more, O'Malley is the de facto head of the state's Democratic party. But his personal attack on Franchot and the dissension within the ranks that it spotlights suggests a chief executive unable to unify his party. Imagine if O'Malley had instead said of Franchot, "the great, and sometimes frustrating, thing about Democrats is that we do not insist on ideological purity. Unlike our Republican counterparts we embrace diverse perspectives. The Comptroller and I may disagree on this issue, but there are far more issues that unite us as Democrats." Instead, he launched an ill conceived attack.

In one sentence, O'Malley elevated the story of party divisions and opposition to his agenda and furthers the narrative that he is otherwise engaged in matters of national politics during a critical period in Maryland politics. He also gave Franchot a lot of free publicity and highlighted the fact that Franchot shares the opinion of most Marylanders when it comes to tax increases. In short, O'Malley hurt no one but himself.