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The partisan divide in Annapolis

It was an innocent enough question.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, speaking in front of a room filled with business leaders brought together by the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, wondered aloud if he was about to introduce the operating budget for fiscal year 2013.

What he actually introduced last week was the budget for fiscal 2014, which begins in July 2013. O’Malley said he sometimes confuses fiscal years, comparing that confusion to problems he also has remembering the Jewish New Year and understanding military time.

Those in the room broke into laughter, minus one: the House of Delegates’ minority leader, Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell.

“Come on Tony, that was funny,” O’Malley said, gesturing toward the stone-faced Calvert County Republican. “Smile!”

More laughter came.

“Nobody’s going to write that you smiled at something the governor said,” O’Malley continued, flashing a toothy grin in O’Donnell’s direction.

There didn’t seem to be real tension in the room; O’Malley’s was the kind of tongue-in-cheek jab a governor can get away with less than a week into the Maryland General Assembly’s annual 90-day session.

O’Donnell later returned serve, thanking O’Malley for reminding him he could smile when the governor speaks.

“I often do,” O’Donnell said. “Sometimes, I laugh. It’s good to have fun.”

Again, the ballroom in the Loews Annapolis Hotel filled with laughter. The interaction was mild and good-spirited when measured against some of the partisan bickering that is certain to soon fill the House and Senate chambers in the State House.

But it also emphasized the gulf between Maryland’s ruling Democrats and the Republican contingent that struggles to have its voice heard in the legislature.

A few moments later, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, implied it was a shame politics had to be that way, saying that Democrats and Republicans ought to be able to work together and compromise.

“If we could get rid of the far left and the far right, and get the people in the middle together making policy, it would be a lot better,” Miller said.