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Marta Mossburg: What O'Malley's 'State of the State' should say

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Marta Mossburg

Two leitmotifs of Gov. Martin O'Malley's speeches this year are: Things are not as bad in Maryland as they are in other states; and Maryland needs more help from Washington.

If he draws from that rhetorical playbook at his "State of the State" speech today, he will come off as uninspiring and rudderless. Who wants to follow a leader who defines himself only by how others perform?

And who will believe a man whose budget largely depends not on what Maryland can afford, but what federal taxpayers may bestow and on slots levers yet to be pulled?

Residents of other reliably Democratic states rejected the idea in recent elections that more government will revive the economy. If O'Malley is smart, he will learn from those results and define a path for the state that helps it to thrive on its own.

He would tell Marylanders that the slate of new taxes passed in 2007 bombed. According to a fiscal analysis last week by the Department of Legislative Services, general fund expenditures for fiscal 2011 are $500 million more than current revenues.

O'Malley would say we've transferred money to plug the hole, but we can't keep doing that in coming years, when the funding gap is estimated to be $1.5 billion in 2012 and more than $2 billion in 2013.

He would tell Marylanders that the situation was not inevitable, but created by design and can be undone by design, too. Key to digging from the hole is rejecting new legislation that requires increases in spending without a way to pay for the increases.

O'Malley would also recommend reversing the higher teacher pension benefits passed in 2006, which will cost the state $919 million next year. He would do so not just for economic reasons but out of fairness to the vast majority of Marylanders who work in the private sector who receive no such benefit. And he would recommend undoing a law requiring counties to spend just as much on education as they had the previous year, regardless of performance.

He would tell Marylanders that checking spending is not just a matter of balancing the budget, but of attracting highly educated workers necessary for the state to survive. He would reveal that about 20,632 more people moved out of Maryland than came to the state from 2007 to 2008, according to Internal Revenue Service data.

Worse, the data shows that the average household income of those waving goodbye during that time frame was $56,453; those who waved hello had an average household income of $49,927, a trend of the last five years.

O'Malley would say, "Do the math." Even if we keep raising taxes, we won't be able to squeeze enough out of those lower salaries to pay for our spending. But this would be no Jimmy Carter "malaise" speech. It would use the truth to energize a legislature unaccustomed to living in a world where their actions have consequences.

And it would rally Marylanders to consider an alternative to a constant cycle of higher spending and taxes: a competitive state where talent will choose Maryland on its merits, not because of government fiat in the form of military relocations and ever expanding federal facilities.

Examiner Columnist Marta Mossburg is a senior fellow with the Maryland Public Policy Institute and lives in Baltimore.

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