By Jonathan N. Crawford and Megan Hartley
ANNAPOLIS – Promising Marylanders “I will not squander the year ahead,” Gov. Martin O’Malley on Wednesday asked the General Assembly to “end the drift of recent years” and approve a legislative agenda addressing what he called critical needs in education, the environment, public safety and health care.
Acknowledging few positive aspects of the administration of his predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich, O’Malley, in his 15th day in office, pointed out that his administration has much work to do to put Maryland in the right direction.
“Yes, we are a strong state today. But not as strong as we should be – or as strong as our country needs us to be,” he said.
In the House of Delegates chamber for O’Malley’s 32-minute speech were three former Maryland governors, his wife, Baltimore District Judge Catherine Curran O’Malley, and father-in-law and former Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.
“I am glad to report that thanks to the hard work of citizens in decades past – and despite the drift of recent years – the state of our state, today, is strong,” he said.
That and other references implicitly critical of the former Ehrlich administration drew the ire of some GOP leaders.
“He didn’t need to take some cheap shots at the previous administration,” said Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley, R-Frederick. “The previous administration inherited a tremendous mess. Frankly the previous administration’s legacy to [O’Malley] has been a $1.4 billion surplus that he’s using to buy time.”
Republicans also said the governor was long on ambitious ideas but short on suggestions of how to pay for them.
“There is a structural deficit, and this year we have taken the savings account, broke the piggy bank, and spent all the money to stop the gap with no new real initiatives or visions on how to the solve the problems,” said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Calvert.
Topping his agenda, O’Malley outlined his plan to improve Maryland’s public education system. He called on the legislature to cap any further increase in tuition this year for in-state students, fund the Thornton education program and approve $400 million for school construction.
“I ask that, together, we start to get our children out of the temporary learning shacks that have been popping up behind every school in our state,” he said.
O’Malley also sought approval for programs to improve the environment. He made a commitment to fully fund the Open Space project. Ehrlich was criticized for diverting Open Space funding to other programs.
Other environmental initiatives include his pledge to pass legislation requiring cleaner auto emissions and increase funding for the development of clean and renewable energy.
He also vowed, to great applause, to re-establish the Office of Smart Growth, an initiative that had been largely regarded as the key achievement of the last Democratic governor, Parris N. Glendening.
Not surprisingly, Glendening said, “I thought it was an excellent speech in not only substance but also delivery. I talked to him recently about this and I said go out there and have fun. I hope you noticed he did.”
O’Malley placed public safety high on his list of priorities, pointing out that Maryland is the fifth most violent state in the nation. He outlined plans to revamp a “deeply troubled” Department of Corrections and Department of Juvenile Services. O’Malley asked the General Assembly to approve $7 million in funding for an additional 155 correctional officers and $2 million to protect families from sexual predators.
“I think coming out of Baltimore he has a greater understanding of the impact of public safety and the counties around the state of Maryland. I think that he is probably more in tune with that than any of the other previous governors I have served with,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel.
To improve homeland security, O’Malley said he plans on creating a new Maryland Security Council to evaluate as well as beef up security and emergency preparedness in the state. He also said he aims to make the port of Baltimore “the best inspected and most secure port in the United States.”
O’Malley asked that the General Assembly back his goal to provide $100 million in funding for the state’s Medicaid program and to restore Medicaid health care benefits to legal immigrant families, including 3,000 Maryland children. And O’Malley said he hopes to pass the Health Insurance Exchange, which would help small businesses find more affordable coverage for their employees.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, said he was pleased with O’Malley’s speech and what he saw by the governor as an attempt to bring the Democratic and Republican parties together. “People felt there’s not going to be confrontation, not going to be conflict, not going to be animosity. This man is reaching out to both sides of the isle,” Miller said.