By LIZ FARMER and JONATHAN N. CRAWFORD, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - When he took office on Jan. 17, Gov. Martin O'Malley pledged a new era of compromise and cooperation after four years of contention, a promise lawmakers of both parties say he is fulfilling after six weeks in office. But with divisive issues still to be resolved and a budget deficit looming, it is also clear the real test of the 44-year-old governor is still to come.
"It's been smooth sailing, but it's the lull before the storm," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George's.
Helping O'Malley get off to what most agree is a strong start is the fact that this session of the General Assembly has been fairly quiet. This has allowed the former Baltimore mayor to get his bearings in the strange territory of Annapolis while he has put together his administration.
Significantly, he has staffed key posts with former aides to the last Democrat to occupy the governor's mansion, Parris N. Glendening - adding experienced hands to an administration that otherwise might be prone to rookie mistakes.
Helping also has been the fact that after four years of bitter partisan warfare between the Assembly's Democratic leaders and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, a Republican, everyone seems to be ready for a break.
"He's been responsive when we've gone to him with what we're attempting to do," says Sen. David R. Brinkley, R-Frederick, the senate minority leader. "Communication needs to go across both lines, and I think that's happening."
For his part, O'Malley says he has actually enjoyed working with a species unknown to him from his days in Baltimore's City Hall - Republicans.
"I have tried to work very hard to reach out across the aisle to leaders of both parties and I've enjoyed it," he said.
However, no one argues that O'Malley can rest easy. For one thing, the legislature's two strong-willed leaders, Miller and Delegate Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, the speaker of the House of Delegates, have tended to stake out positions on opposite sides of some fairly divisive issues.
Miller favors slot machines and wants to act this year; Busch does not. Busch wants to raise the cigarette tax to pay for a sweeping health care revision package; Miller is opposed. When Busch stepped forward to support a fee on development for a Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan, Miller called the idea "laudable" but said the legislature needs to focus on the deficit.
O'Malley has agreed with the senate president on some of the issues and with the speaker on others. Or, as in the case of slots, he's walked a fine middle line.
"He (O'Malley) is about to become a full-contact player in the 'Mike and Mike' game," said Brinkely with a smile of anticipation, referring to the president and the speaker. "And there's bound to be some collateral damage all around."
Miller started the ball rolling Wednesday when he introduced his own revenue package - slot machines and a higher gas tax - and roundly predicted that a special session would be necessary this summer to deal with the state's fiscal problems.
If the General Assembly doesn't address the budget problem this year, Miller said, "there's going to be a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth."
But Miller will likely meet resistance from Busch, who said Wednesday that his key issues were the environment, health insurance and public education funding.
Busch says he likes O'Malley's "relaxed yet professional manner," and likened the governor's style to "a duck that looks nice and calm on the top of the water, but at the same time, spinning his little feet underneath."
After the three met, O'Malley said diplomatically that he was "open to discussion" on the revenue debate, but also said that he would prefer to put off any action this year.
Policy issues aside, O'Malley has clearly been a hit in matters of style. He brought a fresh face, charisma and a handsome family to Annapolis. Ehrlich brought the same things four years ago, but the difference between the two has been O'Malley's eagerness, at least so far, to reach out to not only Republicans but other neglected groups.
"As chair of the Black Caucus, the last administration and this administration, the difference has been night and day," said Sen. Verna L. Jones, D-Baltimore.
The governor's "flexibility" and "ability to compromise" will prove invaluable in working with a General Assembly that grew far more independent and assertive during the Ehrlich years, said Herbert C. Smith, a professor of political science at McDaniel College in Westminster.
Brinkley says the governor is still in his honeymoon period and the legislature was granting him a little breathing room.
That room got a little more cramped this week after Miller's proposals pumped up the pressure to deal with fiscal issues.
"Everything is dwarfed by the structural deficit," said Ronald W. Wineholt, vice president of government relations at the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.
O'Malley said he is pleased with the first half of the General Assembly session, and that they were making some progress on issues like education and health care and moving bills that addressed ground rents and clean cars.
"[We have a] consensus already on a host of issues," he said. "But that takes time and patience. And we'll develop a consensus around those issues as quickly as we can, and if any of those leaders get to it quicker they should let me know."
But House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, R-Calvert, said the governor has been too passive in facing the fiscal issues and said he was dismayed that those problems had not been addressed.
"With a super majority in both houses and in the executive branch, I expected [the Democrats] to take the lead. I haven't seen that yet," O'Donnell said, adding that the legislature needs to "quit beating around the bush" on revenue-raising programs like slots.
Fellow Democrats who back the O'Malley administration contend that the governor is well-equipped to handle the rough road ahead.
House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, D-Montgomery, said he likes O'Malley's slow and calculated approach. "He's very deliberative," said Barve. "He wants to get it right and frankly I think that's the way to be."
Smith said he was surprised O'Malley has not stumbled out of the gates as governor, and that his calculated approach seems to be paying off. "The one thing that has really struck me is that O'Malley has not made a mistake," he said. "Which, to me, demonstrates that he has learned from past experiences."