Josh Kurtz: Seinfeld in Maryland

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With “crossover day” in Annapolis now behind us – the day in which a bill has to pass one chamber of the legislature to merit consideration in the other chamber without going through multiple hoops – the State House is about to fall into a desultory period.

It’s counterintuitive. You’d think with less than two weeks left in the General Assembly session, things would be pretty frantic.

But you’ll suddenly find that most legislators don’t have much to do. Much of the legislative work now is left to the “three men in a room” who run state government – Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and the legislature’s presiding officers, Senate President Mike Miller (D) and House Speaker Mike Busch (D).

In ordinary years, they’d have plenty to talk about – and deals to cut. But you have to wonder: what is there to talk about this time? This has been a “Seinfeld” year in Maryland government, a “meh” legislative session in which, unless you want to order wine on-line or bring your dog to a restaurant, almost nothing has happened.

Sure, things could change in the next 13 days. O’Malley, according to recent accounts, is personally lobbying lawmakers to advance his agenda. But it may be too little, too late.

A new legislative (and gubernatorial) term is supposed to bring renewed energy and ambition. The first year of a legislative term usually isn’t the most productive, because many legislators (and sometimes the governor) are new and inexperienced. Yet there should at least be markers laid down, and a sense of enthusiasm, and a glimpse into the weighty legislative battles of the future.

There hasn’t been very much of that this year. The lousy economy and the devastated state budget are largely to blame. But with a few exceptions, O’Malley and legislators haven’t been particularly bold, either. It’s like the limitations of the economy become a self-fulfilling prophecy, an excuse to do nothing.

O’Malley has talked poetically about governing in tough times. But the prose of governing hasn’t been much in evidence.

In an interview with the Associated Press Friday, O’Malley acknowledged that the session got off to a slow start than he had anticipated. He attributed it to the hangover from the tough fall campaign and the early fights over explosive social issues like gay marriage and in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants.

But many of O’Malley’s predecessors have started each legislative session laying out their agendas. O’Malley didn’t really do that, so there wasn’t any kind of crescendo leading up to the final days.

O’Malley didn’t adequately make the case for his two ambitious environmental proposals, a development policy to limit the installation of new septic systems and his plan to promote wind farms on the Eastern Shore. He told legislators they ought to consider raising taxes to meet budget shortfalls or preserve favored programs but didn’t offer specifics. He said he’d sign the gay marriage bill if it passed, even though he preferred civil unions, and did nothing to fight for the bill when it encountered unexpected opposition from some of his strongest allies in the House.

Some pundits have chalked up O’Malley’s performance to boredom on the job and/or presidential ambitions. That seems overly simplistic. Yet you can’t help but feel that an opportunity has been lost.

When President Obama took office, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel (now mayor-elect of Chicago), said the financial crisis the administration was inheriting presented an opportunity to accomplish great things, that they needed to do far more than just try to plug the holes in the dike. You can debate whether Obama has taken full political and policy advantage of the crisis, but there’s no denying that as soon as he took office, he moved swiftly and aggressively on a variety of fronts.

Maryland faces a variety of long-term problems: structural budget deficits, a crumbling infrastructure, and the escalating cost of providing pensions and benefits to public workers, to name just a few. It’s looking increasingly – and distressingly – likely that none of these issues will have been adequately addressed when the legislature goes home on April 11.

Yes, O’Malley and legislators will come up with a one-year budget that delivers a minimum of pain. They’ll have tweaked the pension system in a way that doesn’t overly upset the powerful government employee unions. As for transportation and infrastructure – well, O’Malley raided the transportation trust fund to balance the budget.

Politics is all about self-preservation. Lawmakers will feel lucky to get out of Annapolis alive – and without outraging most of their constituents. But wouldn’t it be nice if they had displayed real leadership instead?

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

The First 107 Days

Team of Rivals?

Rob Garagiola’s Political Highway

Blame the Teachers!

The Nine Lives of the ICC

The Incredible Shrinking City

Paying the Fare

Republican Rising Stars

Only 2,114 Days Till Election Day 2016

An Old Timer Holds Forth on Annapolis

Maryland's Moment?

Happy New War

Nobody Asked Me, but…

To the Mooney...

Can Baker Cook Up Real Change?

Preppies at the Gate

Marylanders (Still) on the National Stage

We Don’t Know Jack: Fallout from Johnson Arrest Could be Far-reaching

After Ehrlich

Tomorrow Never Knows

To Be Frank (Part 2)

The More Things Change....

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Polls Apart

Van Hollen's Burden

Not Rhee-a-listic

Tomorrow’s Headlines Today!

20th Century Comes to Baltimore County

Primary Colors

Murphy the Smurf

A Gene for Public Service

No Agnew Here

The Full Montgomery

Shock and Tawes

Uly's Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes ... Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.