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Hard times in the Old Line State

Gov. Martin O’Malley says he’s ready to make the 2010 election a referendum on government.

He rejected the idea, popular in some quarters, that government should stand aside.

“If you want to do nothing and you think that things will automatically solve themselves, God bless your belief in the tooth fairy. If you believe that we actually have a government for a reason, that we can do things to spur hiring for small businesses, let’s put our backs into the oars and row,” he said in a recent one-on-one interview.

A political leader who says he puts “working families” at the center of his governmental policy-making agenda, O’Malley faces a restrictive gap of $1.8 billion for the budget his administration is preparing to send to the legislature in January.

Still, he’s proposing a $10 million fund he believes will leverage another $50 million “to get credit circulating again, get more dollars flowing into small businesses that would like to expand and add employment but are unable currently to get the credit.”

He said he would find the money through more cuts and more adjustment of priorities. A good small-business program, he said, might help Maryland emerge more quickly from the recession.

“Depending on what the federal government does, we might be able to speed it further and make it more impactful for small businesses,” he said.

Some encouraging signs

Maryland remains one of the fiscally healthiest states in the union, retaining its Triple A bond rating, which permits lower-cost borrowing. It also has seen some job growth in the last few months.

Ironically, the state’s good fiscal management has become something of a problem — particularly since so many people believe government is bloated and wasteful. The size of Maryland’s government work force is well below that of many other states’, O’Malley said, citing a ranking in the 2007 U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data based on state population vs. number of public employees.

“Efficiency leaves us very little room to squeeze the imagined fat out,” he said.

As for skepticism about the cutting, he said: “That’s a perception that, as Americans, we always have — I mean, since the time of Jefferson, who oftentimes railed about the size of federal government when he had, I think, all of about 200 federal employees.”

People ask him occasionally, O’Malley said, if he’s having any fun these days. He knows why they ask.

“When you see my face and hear my voice for the last couple of years, I’m announcing cuts and reductions and other painful things. I don’t enjoy that and I can’t put a smiley face on that says, ‘This is great,’” he said.

“` He said his spirits were raised by a recent conversation with former Gov. William Donald Schaefer — not always an O’Malley fan.

“He said, ‘I know it feels to you like you’re not doing a good job because of all these painful cuts. But you know what — there’s nobody else who can do these things for us,’” O’Malley recalled.

Painful lessons

O’Malley believes he has cut more than the last 20 governors combined. The state’s budget is smaller than it was four years ago. Still, the numbers are mind-numbing for the public.

The lessons become painfully easier to learn.

After Baltimore firehouses were closed on a rolling schedule by Mayor Sheila Dixon, there was a fatal fire. That story is being repeated “in smaller ways all across our state,” the governor said.

“Without more help from Washington … we’re going to see our revenues continue to shrink. And the amount of people we have to put in unemployment lines continue to rise,” he said.

As for fun, he said he’s been collaborating with folk singer Tom Wisner, the bard of the Chesapeake, on a song about the Maryland 400 and the Old Line State.

It commemorates Marylanders who came to Gen. George Washington’s aid in the early years of the Revolutionary War. More than half the 400 died in a battle that gave the Continental Army time to regroup.

The song goes like this: “General Washington was moved to say/What fine brave men I lose this day …”

Those times demanded sacrifice as they do today. There’s real pain and suffering in joblessness.

But there’s a measure of opportunity as well.

“It’s in times of adversity that the greatness of a people is defined,” O’Malley said.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.