Political rhetoric revs up Democrats for session

The Baltimore Sun

The Maryland General Assembly session that opens today is sure to be dominated by a budgetary morass, but Democrats say they sense an opportunity to demonstrate their party's mettle.

At a Democratic Party luncheon in Annapolis yesterday, an annual affair on the eve of the 90-day session, party leaders from Washington and the State House vowed to fulfill promises of change made by President-elect Barack Obama.

While some made overtures to Republicans, others reveled in Election Day gains over an opposition party that is near its nadir in Maryland.

"There's a tremendous optimism in the air," Gov. Martin O'Malley told the crowd of lawmakers and lobbyists gathered in a ballroom at the Marriott Waterfront before leaving early to address Republican caucuses. "I'm looking forward to this next session. The best days in life are not the easy days."

O'Malley and Democrats, who hold solid majorities in the House of Delegates and Senate, face considerable challenges in the months ahead. The state must close a $1.9 billion shortfall that will force painful operating budget cuts and leave little or no money for new programs. The recession is expected to put increased pressure on state welfare and health care programs.

The Democratic governor said yesterday that education is one of a few areas that would get increased funding under the budget proposal he will submit to the legislature next week. He pointed to Maryland's first-in-the-nation schools ranking in a recent Education Week survey as a reason to maintain a heavy investment.

The governor also said he hoped to continue tuition freezes for a fourth year at public colleges and universities.

State Budget Secretary T. Eloise Foster indicated that the proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 will eliminate some programs and vacant job positions, while reducing the number of contractual employees.

Foster also said the O'Malley administration plans to submit additional cuts to the current budget - already reduced by hundreds of millions of dollars - to the Board of Public Works by the end of the month. One possible cut would be to an education funding formula that benefits many of the state's largest school systems.

A group of 16 state senators asked O'Malley yesterday to preserve education funding, suggesting in a letter that he use anticipated federal stimulus aid from the Obama administration to avoid cutting education spending.

But Democrats focused less on the budget and more on politics yesterday, feasting on the red meat of partisan rhetoric as they lunched on salmon.

While state officials weren't on the ballot in November, Democrats did pick up a seat in the House of Representatives with the election of former Queen Anne's County prosecutor Frank M. Kratovil Jr. over state Sen. Andy Harris in the 1st District.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a crowd-pleaser at Democratic events, roused attendees by recalling the time when Republicans held sway in Washington and the governor's mansion.

Just a few years ago, he said, Republican aides kept black notebooks of Democrats they were targeting, and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was more interested in lowering his golf handicap than raising education test scores.

"I said, 'You know they are riding high right now, but what's going to happen is we're going to come together and we're going to shoot them down,' " Miller said, recalling his comments from several years ago. "We're going to shoot them down and we're going to bury them face down, deep and far."

And, Miller said, his prediction of Democratic redemption came true: "It's going to take 40 years for them to recover from what we did to them in 2008."

In contrast, Republican lawmakers pledged bipartisanship at an event across town. "If we are invited to the table," House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell told O'Malley at the briefing attended by about two dozen GOP legislators, "we will work with you."

O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown left the Democratic luncheon early to attend the Republican event, pledging to work with the minority party. O'Malley quoted Ronald Reagan on the need to work across party lines, as new Senate Republican leader Allan H. Kittleman of Howard County nodded approvingly.

The Republican gathering belied political stereotypes, with GOP lawmakers urging Democratic officials, including Foster, to spare needy residents from cuts.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, a Washington County Republican, asked Foster in a mournful tone whether O'Malley was considering layoffs of state workers, "thousands" of whom reside in his district.

"Quite frankly, everything is on the table," Foster replied.

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