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A stronger Maryland [Editorial]

Gov. Martin O'Malley's first State of the State address, delivered seven years ago, gave little hint of the sweeping changes that would take place in Maryland by the time he returned to the House of Delegates' rostrum today for his final such speech. The main take-away of that speech in 2007 was the new governor's promise to restore cooperation and civility in a state capital that had seen notable deficits of both during the period of divided government ushered in by his predecessor, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. After watching the legislature give Mr. O'Malley everything he wanted for seven years, and vice versa, that concern seems quaint.

The governor who spoke today was not so tentative as the one from seven years ago. If anything, he verged on the boastful as he recounted the highlights of his term: a No. 1 rating for the state's K-12 education system, a massive expansion of the state's health care rolls, a sharp slowdown in the growth of college tuition and the recovery of all the jobs lost during the recession. Mr. O'Malley didn't offer an ambitious agenda in 2007, and save for a pledge to increase the minimum wage, he didn't in this year's speech either. Then, he said he wanted to take time to get to know the intricacies of state government before proposing big moves. Now, it's because he has already accomplished most everything he set out to do and then some.

Mr. O'Malley said today that what guided him was a commitment to a better future. His opponents question whether he has accomplished that, criticizing him mainly for taxing too much and spending too much. But in ways that could scarcely have been imagined seven years ago, Maryland is a better, more just place. Mr. O'Malley proclaimed the state to be "cleaner, smarter, safer, healthier, more entrepreneurial, more competitive than she was before the recession," and there's a case to be made that he wasn't engaging in hyperbole — or at least not too much.

He has invested heavily in Chesapeake Bay cleanup, in particular through efforts to limit sprawl, polluted wastewater and polluted stormwater. Mr. O'Malley presided over record investments in K-12 education, school construction and higher education. Baltimore's bloody start to the year notwithstanding, violent crime is lower than it was, and nearly a half-million more people have health insurance coverage than they did in 2007. "Entrepreneurial and competitive" are a bit more debatable, but there is no question that the state's economic development strategy is appropriately focused on translating Maryland's research strength into commerce.

Mr. O'Malley indulged in the litanies of statistics of which the father of CitiStat/StateStat/BayStat etc., is so fond, along with some paeans to "goals, deadlines [and] performance measures." But he also highlighted his successes on cherished liberal goals: marriage equality, in-state tuition for some illegal immigrants and the repeal of the death penalty. The only hint that not everything has gone his way was a brief reference to the state's failed rollout of its health insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act, though he didn't directly accept blame or offer an apology.

If the O'Malley who addressed the state in 2007 was wading cautiously into Annapolis, the one who spoke today was clearly looking beyond it. The preview of the O'Malley for president stump speech came in the section when he discussed his administration's commitment to strengthening the middle class. Here, he sounded a progressive note, declaring, "Can we say our economy is booming if our middle class is suffering?" and adding, "the economy we see in Maryland is an economy with a human purpose." It's easy to see how his rhetoric would play with a Democratic primary electorate increasingly concerned about income inequality.

In the immediate term, he connected that idea to his push to raise the minimum wage from the current $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour. More broadly, though, he proffered a liberal version of Ronald Reagan's "morning again in America" trope, saying we are "standing on the threshold of a new era of American progress" that can be made possible through investments in education and technology like those Maryland has made.

Mr. O'Malley is effectively inviting us to judge him on a presidential scale. Are his accomplishments here so great that we should turn to him to replicate them on the national scale? That's a difficult question. Easier to answer is whether the state is better off now than when Mr. O'Malley gave his first state of the state speech. On the whole, and despite some very trying times in the interim, the answer is yes. The next governor will have challenges — in particular, encouraging growth in the private sector and diversifying an economy that is too vulnerable to cutbacks by the federal government. But he or she will unquestionably inherit a state that is stronger than it was before Mr. O'Malley.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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