Gov. Martin O'Malley used his first State of the State address to strike a cooperative tone with Maryland lawmakers, calling for more corrections officers for a beleaguered prison system and for a program to help small businesses find more affordable health coverage, while reiterating his pledge to push for $400 million in school construction funds.
The former Baltimore mayor also used sharp language to call for "an end to the cruel and antiquated practice of using ground rents to evict families from their homes." The issue has leapt to the top of legislators' agendas in the current 90-day General Assembly session after a series of articles in The Sun.
But he urged legislators to hold off on potentially divisive debates over the fiscal challenges facing the state, saying he wants a chance to seek efficiencies in state government before considering tax increases or legalizing slot machines.
O'Malley, a Democrat elected in November, stressed the need for a return to civility in Annapolis after four years of clashes between former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, and the Democratic-controlled legislature.
"We cannot resolve every unsettled issue in just 90 days, nor can we heal in 90 days divisions that were four years in the making," O'Malley said. "But we must do all that we can to maximize the effectiveness of this session and these four years for the people of our state."
Democrats said yesterday that O'Malley hit all the right notes, emphasizing popular initiatives such as expanding mass transit, requiring higher emissions standards for cars, spending $400 million on school construction this year and freezing tuition at Maryland's colleges and universities.
"There was a feeling that there's not going to be confrontation," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "We're not going to be disagreeable. People are going to work together on both sides to get things done. It's the happiest I've seen it in 20 years."
Republicans said they support a number of the initiatives that O'Malley proposed, such as increasing funding for cover crops to reduce runoff from farmers' fields and using advanced technology to track sex offenders. But they said that in his promise to cooperate, O'Malley went too far in his implicit criticism of Ehrlich.
"I wish he wouldn't have done as much on some of the negatives he campaigned on," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican.
O'Malley stood straight-backed on the dais of the House of Delegates chamber, his hands resting on the lectern throughout most of his address. The speech lacked much of the high-flying rhetoric and the historical references that peppered his campaign speeches, and he stuck to a smooth, unaffected delivery.
Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening said O'Malley handled the pressure well during the 35-minute address, delivered to legislators and other dignitaries packed into the chamber.
"I said to him, 'Remember, you're going to be a little intimidated,'" Glendening said. "I said, 'Just relax and remember to have fun. Remember you're setting the agenda for 5 1/2 million people.' He said, 'I was relaxed before you said that.'"
O'Malley used the occasion to unveil a few new ideas. He proposed creating a Cabinet-level Department of Information Technology to better coordinate IT functions, and he endorsed establishing a living wage law, essentially requiring government contractors to pay significantly more than the minimum wage to their workers. Baltimore has such a law.
The governor reiterated his support for initiatives that he says will strengthen Maryland's middle class, such as continuing the record levels of education funding Maryland has spent in recent years and pushing for a plan to add more in jurisdictions where education is more expensive, such as Montgomery and Prince George's counties. He said a new sub-Cabinet on base realignment would help the state handle an influx of thousands of military and private sector workers in counties such as Anne Arundel and Harford.
Legislators gave O'Malley a standing ovation when he asked them to approve $7 million for 155 new corrections officers. The prison system has been shaken by violence against corrections officers and prisoners in the past year. O'Malley also promised to improve the state's anti-terrorism efforts by increasing security at the port of Baltimore and establishing a "security council" to coordinate the work of government agencies.
He devoted much of his speech to environmental matters, such as re-establishing the Office of Smart Growth, a Glendening initiative; spending $138 million to improve water systems to help restore the Chesapeake Bay; and setting more stringent pollution emission standards for cars.
O'Malley said he would push for the creation of a health insurance exchange to allow small businesses to pool together to buy more affordable policies for their workers, and for expansion of the state's insurance program for children. He wants to require insurance companies to allow children to remain on their parents' policies until they are age 25.
Few of the initiatives O'Malley highlighted today were new. Most were in his budget proposal or in his legislative agenda, and a number of the phrases he used were borrowed from his stump speeches.
"I could have given parts of it myself from how many times I heard it," said Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who campaigned closely with O'Malley last fall. "But the difference is now he's backed it up with his budget, and he does have consensus support."
Although many of the new proposals will cost the government more money, O'Malley was quick to claim in his speech that his budget is fiscally responsible. He said it calls for "a rate of growth ... that is just 2.5 percent. Now, that is lower than the rate of inflation, lower than last year's 12 percent growth in government spending, and lower than nine of the last 10 state budgets."
The overall budget grew by 2.5 percent this year, but that's because Ehrlich put more than $700 million into state reserves last year. An apples-to-apples comparison of spending pegs this year's growth rate at slightly more than 5.5 percent, well above the 2.5 percent rate of inflation.
Republicans questioned how committed O'Malley is to controlling government growth, given that he proposed a new Cabinet department in his speech, as well as a bevy of new programs.
The governor did not provide specifics for how he intends to deal with Maryland's structural deficit - a projected gap of $1 billion or more a year between spending and revenues. He repeated his pledge to use a performance management system called "StateStat" to find greater efficiencies in state government, but he hinted that he will seek more revenue later in his term.
"We will never be able to multiply bread and fishes to cover the multitude of needs in our state without new dollars," O'Malley said, apparently using a biblical reference to refer to the state's transportation budget.
Del. Christopher B. Shank, the House minority whip from Washington County, said O'Malley has taken no real steps to close the projected budget shortfall this year, and that will only make the problem worse next year.
"It's setting the stage for a massive tax increase next session," Shank said. "I didn't follow the metaphor about bread and fishes, but it sounded like taxes to me."
O'Malley concluded his speech by trying to put the issues facing Maryland in context. He told legislators that at the same time he spoke, a family in Cambridge was burying Command Sgt. Maj. Roger W. Haller, the 73rd Marylander killed in action in Iraq.
"What that family is going through right now and in the days ahead is ... deeply, deeply painful," O'Malley said. "By comparison, what we have to go through in the days ahead is merely a challenge and an honor. So let's get to work for a better and stronger future. For the people of our one Maryland, let's get to it."
For full text of the address and video, go to baltimoresun.com/state.
In his speech, Gov. Martin O'Malley called for:
School construction spending of $400 million next year
Money for 155 new corrections officers to ease problems at Maryland prisons
Creation of a health insurance exchange to help small businesses provide affordable policies to workers
An end to the seizure of homes from families who fall behind on ground rent
Stricter emissions standards for cars sold in Maryland
A freeze on tuition next year at Maryland colleges and universities