The state of leadership

A State of the State speech can either delve deeply into the issues the legislature is grappling with or seek to chart a new direction, as President Barack Obama sought to do in his State of the Union address. Gov. Martin O'Malley attempted both today and accomplished neither, substituting mindless repetition of the word "jobs" — 29 times in the prepared text — for anything resembling a cohesive vision.

The governor summarized his speech by saying, "We cannot kid ourselves into thinking that by failing to invest in our future, we're somehow saving resources. Everything has a cost. Inaction has a cost. Consumption has a cost. Failing to make decisions that are consistent with the best interests of the next generation, this too has a cost. But I believe in the better future that our children deserve. And I believe in the goodness of a Maryland that is willing to make it so."

That might have made sense for Governor O'Malley to say four years ago, when he was trying to build support for a plan to solve the state's budget woes through a combination of tax increases, spending cuts and new revenue from legalizing gambling. It flows less well from a speech in which the governor identified education as the key to our future and summarized his approach to it this year thusly: "The best option for our most important priorities is to defend them by level-funding them."

The governor's actual position on education funding is defensible — as he noted, it simply means that most school systems "will now have to make the same tough choices the rest of government and business have had to make." But his policy of austerity doesn't match his rhetoric of investment, and his speech failed to deliver a clear message about how he will engage the legislature in the debate to come over his spending plan. As Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio noted in the Republican response, leaders in both parties are concerned that the governor's budget doesn't do enough to bring the state's long-term finances into balance. But the governor offered no hint that he would take a leadership role in the fight to come over whether to cut more deeply or to raise taxes on gasoline or alcohol.

The only new initiatives Mr. O'Malley mentioned that could be construed as investments to (in a phrase the governor borrowed from President Obama) "win the future" were an unspecified plan for helping students finish college on time and a proposal for the state to invest $20 million a year in start-up companies through a new venture capital fund.

As for other new initiatives, the speech was a grab bag. The governor mentioned legislation he will support to ban the use of septic systems in major new housing developments, which makes sense as an avenue to explore in the effort to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. But his complaint about the effect of deregulation on the recent widespread power outages was less coherent.

At this point in the address, Governor O'Malley turned suddenly stern, as if the word "angry" was written in the margin of his text. He said he would introduce a bill to set reliability standards for electric companies, and he blamed the need to do so on the deregulation of the utility market. That makes no sense. Companies like Pepco and BGE, which are responsible for maintaining the power lines, are regulated. In fact, the Public Service Commission on Wednesday issued a notice that it would look into concerns about Pepco's billing in the wake of the outages.

If there is any policy change that has made utilities slower to respond to outages — and the point is debatable — it's the decision to decouple regulated utilities' profits from the amount of power they deliver, and that was an initiative of the O'Malley administration. The idea is that under decoupling, utilities would then be more inclined to support energy-efficiency programs, but critics now say it has removed any incentive for utilities to turn the lights back on quickly.

One thing the governor did get right in his speech was to say that Maryland is well positioned to compete in an increasingly high-tech global economy but that it won't succeed without a strong, collective effort. In his conclusion, he suggested that the stakes couldn't be higher: "Moving forward is not just about today's budget math, it's about tomorrow's better Maryland. There are costs and there are values. Some values are so very, very important that they are even worth dying for." But Mr. O'Malley didn't even offer a hint as to what values he considers important enough to spend some political capital for. As an article of leadership, this address deserves the same grade the governor gave for the state of the state: not good enough.

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