Gov. Martin O'Malley charted a course for the state through a national recession yesterday, pledging to protect safety net programs, freeze college tuition and eradicate childhood hunger.
The Democratic governor laid out the vision in his third State of the State address before a joint session of the General Assembly, which must approve many of his plans. In a 30-minute speech, O'Malley said he "never felt more energized" despite bleak economic times, and repeatedly invoked President Barack Obama's name, drawing applause in the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature.
"Our great challenge for this session is to redouble our efforts, doing all we can to stand up for Maryland families and to power through the other side of this recession ahead of every other state," O'Malley said. "The very good news is that we actually have a president and a Congress who, rather than looking at government as the enemy, are committed to moving us forward."
The governor insisted that Maryland remains "strong enough to overcome the very challenging times at hand," and used his platform to reach out directly to worried voters a year before he faces re- election. He ticked off his accomplishments and read letters from two Marylanders in financial straits who sought help from the state.
In a nod to the coming political season, he has announced plans to hold a series of town hall meetings to discuss the state economy and the public education system. O'Malley's campaign committee also used the occasion to send an e-mail to supporters yesterday, calling attention to his redesigned Web site that gives people "better tools" to speak out through posting opinions on the governor's legislative agenda and other issues.
Republicans, who hold a minority of seats in the House and Senate, faulted the tone and content of the speech. Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman described the address as "the most partisan speech I have ever seen from the State of the State." Del. Warren E. Miller, a Howard County Republican, called the address "heavy on partisan rhetoric, light on relief for our taxpayers."
O'Malley came into this legislative session needing to close a $2 billion budget shortfall. He has proposed a budget that would be balanced, in part, by laying off 700 state workers and reducing aid to school districts.
The proposed layoffs are opposed by labor unions and Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who said yesterday: "That's not going to happen on this watch." O'Malley told state employees in a letter this week that he hopes layoffs won't be necessary. "I know this has many of you worried about your families' well-being and your future," he wrote.
The reduced education funding drew the ire of delegations from Baltimore City and Prince George's County, which would receive $23 million and $35 million less, respectively, in school aid under O'Malley's budget for the next fiscal year. At one point, lawmakers had discussed the possibility of walking out of yesterday's speech in protest but were mollified after O'Malley appeared receptive this week to eventually reversing changes in education funding formulas.
In his address, the governor repeated his hope that a federal stimulus package moving through Congress would enable the state to avoid many painful cuts. He told lawmakers that he expects the final budget they consider in April to be better than the one he submitted to them. "Why?" O'Malley said. "Two reasons. Barack ... Obama."
House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell accused the governor of relying on a Washington bailout funded with borrowed money, rather than seizing an opportunity to reform Annapolis spending habits.
By tapping reserves and using other budget gimmicks, O'Malley is "doing the exact opposite of what experts are telling him to do," said O'Donnell, a Southern Maryland Republican, in a response broadcast on public television.
The General Assembly could push for deeper reductions in state spending than O'Malley has proposed. Miller, the Senate president, has said that he plans to ask county governments to share the cost of teacher retirement benefits, an escalating burden on the state.
"Some of us, I believe, are even more fiscally responsible than the governor, and we're going to demonstrate that when we get his budget," Miller said.
Yesterday, Miller circulated a memo to committee chairmen and vice chairmen, telling them to "exercise greater caution" than in recent years when considering bills that require spending increases. He also urged a reduction in the establishment of task forces and commissions, which eat up the time of legislative staff members already laboring under a statewide hiring freeze.
Although O'Malley postponed this week the latest round of cuts to the current year's budget before the Board of Public Works, citing the anticipated federal stimulus, Comptroller Peter Franchot predicted that more cuts would be needed before the fiscal year ends in June as the economy declines further.
"We're going to be right back in the soup at the end of the year if we don't cut back," said Franchot, the state's chief tax collector, who sits on the board.
For much of his address, O'Malley noted milestones reached during his administration, such as a decline in homicides statewide and the implementation of programs aimed at helping homeowners facing foreclosure. He took aim at companies such as Wells Fargo that he said "continue to ignore the crisis."
He also laid out plans that would help residents weather the economic downturn. His budget would direct a record $132 million to energy assistance to help residents pay their heating bills, and he reiterated his proposal to extend unemployment benefits to part-time employees.
But O'Malley saved the most pointed rhetoric to plug his efforts to abolish the death penalty and to become the first state to commit to eradicating child hunger by 2015. He defended his proposal for a fourth year of no tuition increases at state universities as not being motivated by poll-driven electoral politics.
"Is the fight for affordable college about politics?" he asked. "You're darn right it's about politics. ... It's about the politics of opportunity. It's about the politics of posterity."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch praised the address for its "positive, optimistic" tone. Marylanders "need reassurance that people are working to try and resolve their problems," he said.
By custom, a number of politicos attended the speech, including former Govs. Marvin Mandel and Parris N. Glendening and Rep. Donna Edwards. Local leaders such as Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon filled the gallery overlooking the legislative chamber.
Dixon called O'Malley's speech "very upbeat" but wondered whether the governor was "depending too much" on Obama. She said O'Malley seemed to be counting too heavily on federal aid to prop up the state's operating budget.
"I hope he's not being too optimistic," she said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.
The governor's plans for Maryland
Gov. Martin O'Malley says these efforts will help families through tough times and lead to a prosperous future:
Energy assistance: $132 million for 125,000 families
Health care: $15 million for small-business health insurance; $5.5 billion for Medicaid and children's health
Unemployment: Expansion of unemployment benefits to part-time employees; crackdown on businesses that classify staff as independent contractors to avoid unemployment tax
Wages: Guarantee of prevailing wage on 118 state-sponsored projects
Education: Launch survey of every teacher and principal in the state; renewed emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math
Environment: "Redouble our efforts on land, water and air to save the Chesapeake Bay."
Children: Eradicate childhood hunger in Maryland by 2015