Gov. Martin O'Malley urged the General Assembly on Wednesday to approve an unabashedly liberal agenda that includes repeal of the state's death penalty, new curbs on guns and spending for construction projects that create jobs.
Asking Maryland lawmakers to make what he called "better choices," the governor also prodded them to raise new revenue to relieve traffic congestion and to pass his twice-rejected legislation to foster a new industry harnessing the power of offshore wind.
O'Malley used his seventh and next-to-last State of the State address — attended by a half-dozen foreign ambassadors and carried nationally on C-SPAN — to promote a record he apparently is preparing to take to the national political stage as a potential contender for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 2016.
"No other state can say at once that they are No. 1 in education five years in a row, No. 1 in holding down the cost of college tuition, No. 1 in innovation and entrepreneurship, No. 1 in human capital capacity, No. 1 in access to dental care for all children, regardless of income, No. 1 in PhD. scientists and researchers, No. 1 in research and development, No. 1 in businesses owned by women, and No. 1 in median family income," O'Malley told a joint session of the House of Delegates and the Senate.
The governor's speech appeared to have been carefully crafted to work on both a state and national level — combining forceful arguments for his legislative agenda with themes that could resonate with Democrats around the country.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said it was the kind of speech that will circulate among party activists.
"He's done a good job the last six years, and now I think he marches toward completing that legacy," Cummings said. "And I think that legacy will be very appealing to a national audience."
But if O'Malley's message resonated with the political left, it struck a discordant note with Republicans such as House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell of Calvert County.
"They were the most leftist remarks I've heard in the 19 years I've been here," he said. "He's probably one of the most extreme left-wing politicians in America today."
The governor stressed a theme of "choices," using the word repeatedly in his roughly 35-minute address. His point was that Maryland, and his administration, had made the right ones while other states and officials made bad decisions.
Striking a contrast between Maryland's response to the economic downturn and that of other states, O'Malley boasted about the results of what he has called a "balanced approach" of tax increases and $8.3 billion in cuts to projected spending since he took office in 2007.
"When the national recession hit — wiping out jobs and revenues all across our country — other states tried to cut their way to prosperity. Many found this only made things worse," he said. Maryland, he said, found ways to avoid the teacher and police layoffs, cuts to public education and double-digit college tuition increases chosen by other states.
While he touted the ways Maryland had maintained its spending levels in the face of a stagnant economy, O'Malley also stressed a theme of government efficiency.
"We started measuring weekly performance to make government more effective. We constrained budget growth and made government smaller," he said. "We cut more state spending than any administration in modern Maryland history."
In contrast to his previous State of the State speeches, this year O'Malley brought an upbeat message about the state's budget. He said his proposed budget for next year "very nearly eliminates" a long-term revenue shortfall that once amounted to about $2 billion.
The budget, he said, meets the spending affordability guidelines set by the legislature, beefs up the state's cash reserves and protects its AAA bond rating.
The governor laid out plans for a series of capital spending programs that he said would create jobs, which he called "our top priority, always." His proposals include spending $336 million next year on school construction and $25 million to help private developers build affordable rental housing.
O'Malley's list of claimed achievements brought a caustic rejoinder from Republican state Sen. Nancy Jacobs of Harford County.
"You can do that when you consistently raise taxes and give people what they want instead of being fiscally responsible," she said.
It was only toward the end of his speech that the governor mentioned what will likely be one of the most controversial proposals on his agenda: an end to capital punishment in Maryland.
Making a second attempt to win repeal after an earlier effort fell short in 2009, O'Malley told lawmakers that the death penalty is ineffective and expensive.
"It is not a deterrent. It cannot be administered without racial bias. It costs three times as much as locking someone up for life without parole. And it cannot be reversed if an innocent person is executed," he said. "It is time to repeal the death penalty in Maryland and replace it with life without parole."
O'Donnell took particular exception to O'Malley's argument for death penalty repeal, in which the governor listed the countries other than the United States that carry out most of the world's executions, including China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Iraq and Iran, with the implication that Maryland shouldn't be in that company. O'Donnell said it was offensive to say that with foreign diplomats present.
"You can advocate for your policy changes without running the United States of America into the ground," O'Donnell said.
O'Malley also issued a call for the licensing of handgun owners and a ban on assault-type weapons, measures he added to his agenda after the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
"Who can watch the sad images of the last several weeks, who can see the pictures of those young faces, and honestly say we're doing enough?" he asked.
The governor's speech, especially the passages dealing with guns and the death penalty, received a mixed response. Near the front and middle of the House chamber, where the all-Democratic delegations from Baltimore and Montgomery County sit, he drew repeated standing ovations. But at the back, where the mostly Republican contingent from Western Maryland and Harford County sits, most lawmakers remained silent in their seats.
The address was noteworthy for one issue O'Malley did not mention: Baltimore's effort to win approval for a $2.4 billion plan to rebuild dilapidated schools. O'Malley has yet to take a position on the plan promoted by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who was in the audience, and city schools chief executive Andrés Alonso.
More than in past years, what O'Malley said in Annapolis could have political repercussions outside the state. The governor, who cannot run for re-election in 2014 because of term limits, is among a handful of Democrats — along with outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — who is regularly listed by pundits as a likely candidate for president in 2016.
Two observers from opposite ends of the political spectrum — Cummings and Republican state Sen. Richard F. Colburn of the Eastern Shore — had the same view of what would happen if Clinton were to run. Both thought O'Malley would pass on the race but would be on the short list for the No. 2 spot on the ticket.
"He's not running for president," Colburn said. "He's running for vice president."