By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun
6:41 PM EST, January 22, 2012
On Monday, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is set to unfurl the most ambitious legislative agenda of his six years in office. By Thursday evening, he's scheduled to be 200 miles north in a Midtown Manhattan hotel, schmoozing with contributors to the Democratic Governors Association.
The high-profile travel schedule is becoming the new normal for O'Malley, who took on a second year as chairman of the governors group in December. As Maryland's 90-day General Assembly session was ramping up last week, the governor zipped down to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to weigh in on the GOP presidential primaries. Twenty-four hours later, he was back in Annapolis to brief fiscal leaders on his $36 billion spending plan for next year.
How the governor will balance the two roles is a question on the minds of many lawmakers and advocates in Annapolis.
"He's got to devote 24 hours a day to managing the state and trying to get his legislative package through the House and the Senate," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, echoing the comments of other state Democrats.
O'Malley juggled the state and national jobs last year, but this time both positions are likely to be even more demanding. His time away from the state was criticized last session when two of this three top proposals failed.
"He honestly has to be intensely involved" in the session, Miller said, and not presidential politics. "Who the Republican nominee is, right now, has got to be the least of his worries."
O'Malley said Friday that his eyes are focused firmly on Maryland. "I always stay close to home during session," he said. "You always have to keep your priorities clear, and my priority is to the people of our state and the job I have to do as governor as we come out of these tough times."
In Annapolis, O'Malley has proposed an array of new fees and taxes, including higher income taxes for many Marylanders, higher fees on water bills and an expansion of the sales tax to some online purchases.
A gas tax increase is believed to be in the works, and he's also expected to ask ratepayers to accept higher electricity bills to help pay for his offshore wind farm plan.
And he's trying to pass a law allowing same-sex marriage.
"Anytime you bring in a legislative package, you have to sell it," said state Sen. Ed DeGrange, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "Nobody is going to sell it for you."
Democratic leaders are already talking about wholesale changes to the governor's spending plan, which proposes shifting $240 million in teacher pension costs from the state to the counties.
"What he introduced is not what we will end up voting on," predicted Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., a Southern Maryland Democrat who chairs a House Appropriations subcommittee on education. "I think it is fair to say there will be alternatives."
Despite the full plate at home, national events are likely to tug at O'Malley's schedule over the next few weeks, particularly because his DGA role at times makes him a surrogate for President Barack Obama in attacking Republican presidential candidates. In addition, twelve governors are up for re-election this year.
O'Malley noted that he's held a leadership position in the governors association for five years, and said the travel schedule does not feel much different than in the past. What's different, he suggested, is the attention it is getting.
Colm O'Comartun, executive director of the governors association and a former O'Malley aide, said this week's New York event was added at the request of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who famously stays in his home state.
O'Comartun pointed out that O'Malley's political travel during last year's session was limited to day trips. Again this year, he said, the governor's out-of-state dates hew to legislative rhythms and are purposefully set on days that aren't so busy.
It's hardly unusual for state chief executives to take on national roles that require travel. For instance, until last week, Republican Gov. Rick Perry of Texas was on the presidential campaign trail while running his state. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, considered a possible GOP vice presidential pick, was in Baltimore on Friday for a Republican retreat.
State Sen. Brian Frosh of Montgomery County said he doesn't worry about O'Malley's two roles. He argued that O'Malley — a fellow Democrat — has been significantly more engaged than Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was.
"They did not do a good job working with the legislature," Frosh said of Ehrlich's administration. "You heard about a bill when it went in and when it died. This is like night and day."
But to detractors, O'Malley's apparent national ambitions follow a familiar pattern from his days in Baltimore. Before his first term as mayor was up, O'Malley was criticized for putting gubernatorial ambitions in front of city business.
"The current mayor treats us like steppingstones," Carl Stokes said in a 2003 article in The Baltimore Sun as he announced his primary challenge to O'Malley.
O'Malley shot back at the time, "People overestimated my ambition, and they underestimated my dedication to this city. … My feelings for the city are deep, and we're making tremendous progress." (Stokes, now a member of the Baltimore City Council, decided to run instead for Council President that year and lost. O'Malley trounced his Democratic rivals in the primary and easily won re-election.)
In Annapolis last week, O'Malley was getting the benefit of the doubt from an unusual corner. Republican Sen. Bryan Simonaire of Anne Arundel County said a national spotlight can be good for the state.
As for the legislative session, Simonaire said, "the proof is in the pudding."
"At the end of the session, how effective was he?" Simonaire said. "I don't think you have to be in the building." But, he added, if O'Malley is unable to move his agenda because he's seen as absent, "he'll be harshly criticized, not only by Republicans but by the people of Maryland."
O'Malley's staff pointed to a hybrid event Friday in Hanover as an example of how the governor can handle his two roles.
He wore a dark suit as he shared a stage with Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer at a union training center for a governors association event that stressed how state spending can create jobs.
When that event wrapped up, O'Malley traded his suit coat for a Ravens jacket and walked 10 feet to another table. There — before a Maryland-themed backdrop — he accepted thanks from union and company officials for his efforts to help reopen the idled Sparrows Point RG Steel plant.
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