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Maryland Assembly to weigh budget

O’Malley hobbles through session

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2011

ANNAPOLIS | Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley faces a critical point in his second term as the General Assembly prepares this week to vote on his $34.2 billion budget — the centerpiece of a 2011 legislative agenda already being knocked for focusing on environmental concerns rather than fiscal issues.

Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, has yet to score a major legislative victory in the soon-to-end legislative session, which has been largely defined by failed legislation to legalize same-sex marriage. The governor vowed to sign the bill if it reached his desk.

Republicans in the Democrat-controlled Assembly have been quick to say that Mr. O'Malley has failed to curb spending and focus on economic issues.

"Mr. O'Malley is having a very difficult time getting success, even in a very friendly legislature," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, Calvert Republican. "I think hes concerned about his own political future, as opposed to doing the tough things that leadership requires in the state."

But members of his own political party also have been critical — suggesting that the governor might be tone-deaf to the collective voice of voters in the 2010 midterm elections who said more jobs and less government spending are their major concerns.

"I don't think that my party yet appreciates the nature of the ditch that the country and the state have driven into," said Delegate Luiz R.S. Simmons, Montgomery Democrat. "We're caught in this rut because we continue to do what we've done in the past."

Even Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George's Democrat, took a swipe last week at Mr. O'Malley when he said the governor's proposed budget failed to rein in spending or address the state's failing pension system.

Democratic lawmakers from Baltimore and Prince George's County have complained that Mr. O'Malley's spending plan cuts too deeply into public education, while Republicans say more cuts are needed.

House Democrats introduced a bill to limit the governor's role in granting parole to convicts on life sentences because Mr. O'Malley has declined to act on all 50 recommendations sent to him by the Maryland Parole Commission.

After heavy criticism that he was trying to distance himself from the issue because of the political implications of freeing prisoners serving life sentences, Mr. O'Malley this month denied seven of the recommendations.

Mr. O'Malley's support was noticeably absent this year from a bill to ban the death penalty, despite being a staunch opponent of capital punishment and having pushed heavily for a ban in 2007 and in 2009. That year, the Assembly settled on legislation to raise the burden of proof needed to pursue the death penalty.

Others say Mr. O'Malley was silent during debates on gay marriage and has remained silent on other pressing issues in the 90-day session — including education cuts, pension reform and the question of whether illegal immigrants should receive in-state college tuition rates.

"The fact that the governor isn't holding press conferences on every issue, every third hour, doesn't mean he's not engaged," O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec said.

He said the governor worked tirelessly on the marriage vote, which passed in the Senate then unexpectedly died in the House this month when Democratic leaders failed to wrangle key votes from party members concerned about constituent complaints and their own religious beliefs.

"He made I don't even know how many phone calls to legislators throughout the process," Mr. Adamec said.

Mr. Adamec insists the governor is as active as ever this session, but critics say his environmental priorities show an attempt to boost his national profile while keeping him a safe distance from such politically dangerous issues as gay marriage and illegal immigration.

Maryland residents and businesses have criticized Mr. O'Malley's plan for the state to harness offshore wind power because it would increase their utility bills. The money would pay for incentives to alternative-energy groups and require utility companies to enter into long-term contracts with them.

Estimates show the monthly increases would range from about $1.40 to $9, and Democrats have kept the bill in the House Economic Matters Committee as they analyze its impact.

"It's natural, and it's welcome frankly, that these issues be met with questions and answers and investigation," Mr. Adamec said. "These are long-term things that help secure our future and help create jobs in the near term and far term."

Meanwhile, Mr. O'Malley's plan to ban septic systems in larger residential developments appears headed for defeat or at least significant change, despite his appearances before House and Senate committees.

Committee leaders acknowledged that the plan will help reduce sewage runoff in the Chesapeake Bay but said it fails to consider much of the Eastern Shore and other rural areas that lack access to public sewer systems. In addition, developers are arguing that the change would increase building costs and home prices.

Delegate Maggie McIntosh, Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the Environmental Matters Committee, has suggested further study. But Mr. O'Malley has not given up on passage before the Assembly session is scheduled to end April 11.

Mr. Simmons said the governor's proposals have lost some credibility because of criticism from legislators and economists, but that he is unlikely to change his approach.

"I think his agenda is going to be a little more elevated than the day-to-day, hardscrabble fighting for dollars," he said. "He's got to be involved in it, but this is his last bite of the apple."

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