A session of mixed results

The Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley has one more day to wrangle legislative victories from a General Assembly session during which he fell short in his campaign to end state executions, struggled to acquire more control over electric utilities and relied on a federal government bailout to protect education and social services programs.

Late Saturday, a House of Delegates committee rejected O'Malley's proposal to re-regulate the electricity market. And in a year when the governor needed to find money wherever he could, he has been rebuffed in efforts to crack down on Medicaid fraud, which could yield millions of dollars for the state's coffers and a major policy victory.

Despite setbacks, the Democratic governor insists that he accomplished much of what he set out to do this year, with help from a Democratically controlled legislature. He points to initiatives designed to make Maryland's roads safer, worker protections stronger, and courts tougher on domestic abusers. And it appears O'Malley will be able to freeze college tuition for a fourth straight year, even during the state's worst fiscal crisis in decades.

"I wouldn't want to trade places with any other governor in terms of riding out the recession," O'Malley said in a wide-ranging interview in his State House office. "I think we made a lot of progress to strengthen the safety net for families, to continue to protect our investments. I think that's what this session was about."

Just days after the 426th meeting of the General Assembly opened in January, O'Malley introduced a lean state budget balanced in part by 700 layoffs and a $69 million cut in direct aid to public schools. Then, as protests grew and state tax collections plunged, major relief came in the form of billions directed to Maryland in President Barack Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The layoffs and some other tough budget decisions were avoided.

The federal stimulus also gave a noticeable boost to O'Malley's national exposure, and there has been in recent weeks some grumbling among lawmakers that the governor spent too much time away from Annapolis promoting Maryland's "shovel-ready" leadership while senators and delegates sweated over how to maintain O'Malley's tuition freeze while cutting local government aid.

"He said, 'Legislature, you need to make the hard decisions,' " said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, the Republican leader in the Senate. "He abdicated his responsibilities as chief executive."

O'Malley bristles at such censure. "I don't think that's a fair criticism," he said. "I am in Annapolis every day."

Rick Abbruzzese, an O'Malley spokesman, said spending time away from the State House this session was by design. "We didn't lock ourselves up in Annapolis," Abbruzzese said. "We went to where people were hurting to bring government services to them through our town hall series."

Those meetings were designed to connect needy Marylanders with social services such as food and foreclosure assistance - but there was also gubernatorial time set aside for high-powered networking.

In late March, O'Malley was in Big Sky, Mont., for the spring policy conference of the Democratic Governors Association. He is vice chairman of the organization.

In mid-March, O'Malley raised eyebrows for delaying testimony on his bill to repeal the death penalty so he could serenade Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen at a St. Patrick's Day luncheon in Washington. And last week, the bandleader of O'Malley's March was introduced on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show as "the only sitting governor who has also been the lead singer in a band this cool."

O'Malley says he's proud of the attention Maryland has received for being among the first states to use federal recovery money and for other stimulus-related initiatives - such as connecting regional businesses with new federal dollars or employing the governor's trademark StateStat approach in tracking on the Web the flow of stimulus money.

"We consciously set out to be a leader among states," he said. "The fact that we were able to do all this ahead of other states is, I hope, beneficial to the whole country."

Among his legislative accomplishments this year, the governor counts stronger evidentiary restrictions on state executions, even though his bid for a death penalty repeal was rebuffed in the Senate.

A Roman Catholic who opposes capital punishment on moral grounds, O'Malley expended political capital by making personal appeals for repeal to lawmakers. Citing the findings of a commission he backed last year, he called the death penalty "utterly ineffective" as a deterrent to crime, costly, and racially and regionally biased.

But on the eve of the first repeal hearing in the supportive House of Delegates, O'Malley settled for a compromise conceived in the closely divided Senate. Some delegates grumbled that the governor and other death penalty opponents gave up too quickly.

"I guess it's a matter of practicality, but practicality is not something you would want to consider when you have an issue as important as the death penalty," Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, said at the time.

O'Malley handed the reins of his domestic violence agenda to Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who had a personal story to share with lawmakers because his cousin was shot to death last summer by an estranged boyfriend. The legislature heartily endorsed administration bills to give judges the authority to confiscate guns from the subjects of temporary protective orders, and to require judges to do so in the case of final protective orders.

O'Malley's supporters pushed in the final days of the session for his proposals to re-regulate the electricity market and give officials greater latitude in pursuing Medicaid fraud - bills that have drawn opposition from the energy industry and medical community.

The Senate approved a re-regulation bill, but it appears to have died in the House, where many lawmakers say they would like more time to study the complicated proposal that would reverse the legislature's decision a decade ago to deregulate. O'Malley acknowledged that he underestimated reluctance in the House, but had held out hope that delegates would still embrace the idea.

The Medicaid bill failed by one vote in the Senate, but delegates could resurrect it. O'Malley's budget reduces funding for hospitals and physicians unless the fraud bill is enacted, which could bring opponents to the table. But some say he should have done more earlier.

"In terms of the hospital bill, he should have been much more engaged," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said. "It was a very important bill."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch gives O'Malley high marks for protecting education spending, "looking out for victims of domestic violence" and taking steps to curb suburban sprawl and protect the Chesapeake Bay from excessive development.

"The governor sets the framework," Busch said, "And I think the legislature has fulfilled the goals."

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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