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Government for Grown-Ups

What Washington Can Learn from Maryland

Imagine the same politician saying: "Not one of us wants to pay more in taxes. But you know what we want even less? What we want even less is to leave our country to our kids in a worsened condition."

The place in question is clearly not Washington, D.C. Facing a $1.7 billion budget deficit, Gov. Martin O'Malley -- who offered the above observations in an interview -- led the Maryland Legislature this week to approve $1.4 billion in taxes and $550 million in spending cuts. It's been a long time since we've seen that kind of balance from the federal government.

You'd be laughed out of the state if you ever claimed that Annapolis, the capital, was home to model behavior, political purity or Solomonic wisdom.

Worse, long-term fiscal balance depends, in part, on $700 million in revenue that would pour in if voters approve a referendum next year placing 15,000 slot machines around the state.   

But there's a larger problem with the habit among Democrats in many states to pay for programs with one form of gambling or another. It shows they lack faith in their capacity to make the case for what government does. Politicians thus resort to gimmicks rather than face the full cost of services voters contend they want.

Nonetheless, the sound you are hearing not only in Maryland but in state capitals across the nation is the crashing and crumbling of ideology, specifically a right-wing ideology that demonizes taxes and government while preaching that the public interest depends upon solicitude toward the comfortable and the privileged.

In sorting out his state's budget mess, O'Malley turned for advice to Sebelius and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat who once persuaded a Republican Legislature to raise taxes.

This sounds like textbook stuff, but that's the point: Liberals and moderates aren't proposing exotic programs cooked up in social science laboratories far removed from real life. They're simply suggesting that government sometimes has to do more to deal with basic problems.

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.