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Editorial: Balancing act

Gov. Martin O’Malley said repeatedly on the campaign trail in the fall that his top priority was jobs — creating them, retaining them, saving them and enabling businesses in Maryland to feel confident enough to add them to their payrolls.

He said the same in the beginning days of the General Assembly session, and we applaud him for sticking to that promise for the most part in his $34.2 billion proposed budget.

The governor’s spending plan largely protects economic development programs, which have too often been neglected during tough economic times.

Under O’Malley’s proposal, the Department of Business and Economic Development’s budget would grow by almost $5 million — not a lot, but a positive symbol to state business interests. Many of DBED’s key incentive programs are protected, such as the stem cell research fund (slated for a $2 million bump up to $12.4 million) and the biotechnology tax credit (holding steady at $8 million).

With a $1.6 billion budget deficit, business leaders expected to feel some pain. The questions were, how much, and who else would share in the pain?

Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a former lawmaker who understands the budget process, told The Daily Record’s Nicholas Sohr that “you get pain spread to every category” with the kind of budgetary challenge O’Malley faces as he begins his second term. But in Fry’s estimation, O’Malley’s budget does a good job of minimizing the impact on categories key to economic development.

Those include public schools, with funding essentially staying flat at $5.7 billion, and higher education. Public colleges and universities in Maryland are slated for $5.3 billion, with a 3 percent increase in tuition.

Piggybacking on the spending plan was O’Malley’s legislative agenda, which he unveiled this week, and again business fared well. The governor wants to “make and protect strategic investments for a stronger future” and he sees high-tech investments and alternative energy as two vehicles to accomplish those goals.

As for the budget, it hasn’t drawn universal praise and it still needs some work. Transportation takes a hit, with $60 million transferred from state highway funds. Local highway aid is also reduced, and transit projects are underfunded, advocates say.

There have also already been criticisms that the governor isn’t doing enough to attack the state’s structural deficit, that by proposing to increase spending by more than $2 billion he’s merely kicking the fiscal can down the road again.

That oft-used metaphor permeates the halls of power these days from Annapolis to Washington, as President Barack Obama struggles with many of the same challenges. O’Malley and his fellow Democrat both seem intent on projecting the same image of a centrist leader attuned to the importance of fiscal responsibility while also channeling investments into areas that will help spur economic recovery.

It will be a delicate balance between now and Sine Die.