ANNAPOLIS – In his State of the State address Gov. Martin O’Malley said Thursday he is optimistic because Maryland is better positioned than other states to weather the recession, and will get a much needed lifeline from the Obama administration’s stimulus package.
“It is my hope, and it is my belief, and it is my expectation that the balanced budget we … submit this month will be a better budget by the time it’s up for final consideration in April. Why do I have hope and belief in that expectation? I give you two reasons: Barack Obama,” he said, as the General Assembly applauded and rose to its feet.
In a hopeful address, O’Malley made little reference to a state budget shortfall of $346 million in fiscal 2009 and a projected $2 billion shortfall in 2010. Instead, he focused on his legislative goals.
But considering the bleak fiscal outlook, it is likely no accident that many of O’Malley’s top priorities are virtually cost-free, like repealing the death penalty and allowing guns to be taken from domestic abusers.
O’Malley asked for “a fair up-or-down vote in both houses” of the legislature on the death penalty, calling the practice “outdated, expensive and utterly ineffective.”
O’Malley also asked for “support to take firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers, “a reference to legislation he is championing which would allow judges to force those under a Temporary Protective Order to surrender their firearms.
He said he would further protect Maryland families by pushing for legislation requiring employers to pay unemployment tax for part-time workers.
Even though O’Malley admitted there are more cuts in the proposed budget “than in any prior budget in our state’s history,” he committed to continue to fund education at record high levels and end childhood hunger.
He vowed to continue his partnership with the national nonprofit Share Our Strength to help families enroll in federal food programs.
“We know, for example, that a child who goes to bed hungry, who wakes up hungry, and who goes to school hungry is a child that is not likely to reach his or her full potential in God’s eyes or ours,” he said.
O’Malley said he would invest $5.4 billion in public schools and touted University of Maryland, College Park seniors Jessica Rindos and Tad Greenleaf, who were in the audience, as beneficiaries of a four-year freeze of in-state college tuition.
Inextricably linked are the health of children and the health of the environment O’Malley said.
“There’s a Native American proverb that holds, the way we treat the earth is a reflection of how we treat one another,” he said.
It was a sentiment that ran throughout a speech in which O’Malley frequently asked the General Assembly to “help Maryland families” and to back environmental programs like BayStat and Program Open Space, which he said are measures of the state’s progress.
But not everyone was inspired. Several legislators viewed the speech as a missed opportunity, while others likened it to a half-hour-long wish list that relied too much on funds from the federal stimulus.
“I think it was a missed opportunity. I think the governor had a chance to address structural issues in the budget — mandates, automatic increases in state programs, how we deal with teachers’ pensions — and they were left out,” said Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Caroline.
Sen. Barry Glassman, R-Harford, said the governor’s “visions are correct,” but questioned how he plans to accomplish his goals.
“The one concern I have is that the state of Maryland doesn’t become so enamored with the federal bailout funds that we fail to correct … systemic problems that we have with our budget,” he said.
Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R- Cecil, agreed.
“Gov.O’Malley’s hope is in Barack Obama. My hope is in the future generations. And we shouldn’t be saddling our children and our children’s children with the mistakes and the debt that he has put this state in,” she said.
Delegate Nathaniel Oaks, D-Baltimore, said he could relate to the governor’s optimism, but still had some concerns.
“Most of our optimism is the same as the whole country and that is Barack Obama,” Oaks said. “That’s what we’re hanging our hat on … but the problem in that is we should prepare for what we have and not necessarily what we anticipate getting.”