Governor presents a modest wish list

The Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley laid out a modest legislative agenda yesterday in his second State of the State address, urging lawmakers to help him fight violent crime, protect homeowners from foreclosure, ease the state's energy woes and protect the Chesapeake Bay.

The 29-minute speech to a joint session of the General Assembly and invited dignitaries in the House of Delegates chamber included no proposals for sweeping, big-ticket programs, nor did it stake out positions on hot-button issues that lawmakers are likely to face, such as the death penalty or gay marriage - though the governor did signal a willingness to tangle with powerful utilities over soaring electricity rates.

His remarks, broadcast live on radio and public television, represented O'Malley's first major opportunity to rebuild public support, badly weakened by voter anger over the tax increases he pushed through the legislature in last fall's special session.

"The most important days in life are not always the easy days," he said three times in his address, acknowledging the pain many Marylanders are feeling from a slowing economy and the state's efforts to balance its budget.

However, his effort to mollify unrest over his budget-balancing package was oblique. O'Malley never mentioned the words "tax" or "special session" - the issues chiefly responsible for the substantial drop in his job-approval rating in recent public opinion polls.

Instead, ticking off the higher prices that Marylanders are paying these days for everything from bread to health care, O'Malley acknowledged that the public is frustrated and has a right to be concerned about the future. The economic woes extend beyond Maryland, he noted, and he suggested that the state is likely to weather hard times better than others, as it has in past downturns.

He defended his efforts in the past year to "restore fiscal responsibility," recounting hundreds of millions in spending cuts made over the past year while making a glancing reference to "the other difficult choices on revenues," meaning $1.3 billion in tax increases.

As a result, he said, the state is stronger now, and he pledged to apply that strength to helping improve Marylanders' quality of life.

"The people of our state deserve a state government that works as hard as they do," he said.

Response to the speech fell largely along party lines, with the governor's fellow Democrats praising his effort and Republicans panning it.

"He hit the right buttons from the farmers to the returning veterans from overseas to the police, education, health care, the environment," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said. In O'Malley's vow to do something about electricity costs, Miller saw a "major battle" brewing between the governor and utilities.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, a Western Maryland Republican and the minority whip, said O'Malley was right to say Marylanders are hurting.

"But what he failed to do is recognize that one of the reasons for the hurt is that he pushed one of the largest tax increases in Maryland's history through the General Assembly," Shank said.

O'Malley used most of his speech to urge legislators to support his policy agenda, which he unveiled over the past two weeks.

In response to the state's "unprecedented" rise in foreclosures, he promoted his proposal to reform the mortgage industry. He also reiterated his vow to freeze state university tuition for another year and to strengthen enforcement of the Critical Area Law, which limits development along the Chesapeake Bay.

The governor touched on a variety of themes, from building new schools and transit to promoting technology and making health care more affordable. But a major portion of his remarks returned to a theme that had launched his political career in Baltimore - fighting crime.

Calling public safety "the most fundamental priority and responsibility of any government," he said state officials have the opportunity to make Maryland one of the safest states in the country, rather than the one with the fifth-highest violent crime rate.

"This problem of ours, this problem of Maryland's, is not the concern of one race or one city or one county," O'Malley said. "It is everyone's problem."

In addition to the expanded DNA testing of criminal suspects that he has previously proposed, O'Malley called for adding 50 more parole and probation officers, building "a minimal number" of juvenile justice facilities to replace the ones recently closed and expanding electronic tracking, drug treatment and intervention programs for troubled youths.

The governor also vowed to press on with developing a "long-term plan" for energy generation, distribution and conservation, while continuing to work to reduce electricity rates - another issue for which voters have faulted him.

He pledged to pursue legislative, regulatory "and legal if need be" efforts to curb rates and ensure adequate supply - indicating more clashes looming with Constellation Energy Group Inc. and other utilities and businesses over undoing the 1999 energy deregulation law.

"Deregulation has failed us in Maryland," O'Malley said, "And we cannot allow our future to be determined by that mistake."

O'Malley delivered the speech in an unemotional tone, reading frequently from a text on a lectern and deviating little from the script. It lacked the oratorical flourishes the governor often uses in major speeches, though O'Malley did incorporate a lengthy quote from Robert F. Kennedy, whom the governor has frequently mentioned as an inspiration, about society's collective responsibility to eliminate violence.

"It was a good speech," said Comptroller Peter Franchot. "The governor always gives a good speech."

But Franchot, who has publicly sparred with O'Malley over the wisdom of pushing through major tax cuts during a special session, said Maryland "is not immune" from a weakening national economic outlook, and said he believes that O'Malley's tax cuts have further weakened Maryland's economy.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Gadi Dechter contributed to this article.

Excerpts from Gov. Martin O'Malley's address:

The future of our state is very much determined by the strength and the security of the families of Maryland - the hard-working and loving families that we have the honor and responsibility to represent. And today, the vast majority of Maryland's families, like families throughout our country, are finding it harder and harder just to pay their bills and maintain the quality of life that they have worked so hard to achieve....

Our families are struggling to get ahead, our parents working harder and harder as national economic forces and policy trends keep pulling us back. Our dollar is being devalued by huge national debt; unemployment nationally is up; and home foreclosures are at levels unprecedented in modern times....

No wonder many of us are frustrated when - in the midst of this national economic downturn - we were also forced to confront a long neglected and huge structural deficit....

The budget now before you comes in under spending affordability limits for the second year in a row.

Because of the $1.2 billion in cuts and spending reductions, and because of the other difficult choices on revenues, we are able to protect the priorities of our people - the priority of public education and school construction; the priority of public safety; the priority of ... affordable health care.

And because you had the courage to restrain spending and restore fiscal responsibility, we can stand up this year to end the fast track to foreclosure in Maryland and help thousands of families that are already slipping into foreclosure....

This problem of ours, this problem of Maryland's, is not the concern of one race or one city or one county. It is everyone's problem. ... In the year ahead, I ask for your support to:

Add 50 additional officers to more closely and intensely supervise those in communities who are on parole or probation

To embark on a long overdue rebuilding of a minimal number of modern regional facilities for our long-ignored juvenile justice system

To expand the utilization of modern GPS technology to track very at-risk young offenders in some of our most violence-plagued neighborhoods in order to save their lives and rescue them from the clutches of hit-men and drug dealers

And to increase the availability of drug treatment programs as well as community based programs like Operation Safe Kids, so that we can better partner with local governments and their health departments to save young lives.

But most importantly, I urge your support for legislation that is supported by virtually every prosecutor and police chief in our state - and that is an expansion of our state's DNA-fingerprinting efforts so that we can solve more violent crimes more quickly and put murderers and rapists behind bars before they murder or rape again. ... Given the level of violent crime in our state, there is no justifiable reason that Maryland should not be in the forefront of using this modern crime-solving tool, rather than lagging behind.

...

For the health of the bay, we must continue searching for ways to make farming more profitable, to upgrade water and waste-water treatment plants, and to fulfill our obligations in the bay watershed....

In the coming weeks, months and years ahead, we will be undertaking a number of efforts - legislative, regulatory - and legal if need be - to secure fair and reasonable energy rates while also ensuring an adequate supply for our future. Deregulation has failed us, ... , and we cannot allow our future to be determined by that mistake.

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