O'Malley presents centrist agenda

Environment, health care figure in governor's plan

General Assembly

January 23, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Gov. Martin O'Malley called yesterday for stricter auto emissions standards, the prohibition of new ground rents and a requirement that health insurance companies allow parents to keep children on their policies up to age 25 - priorities he said he wants the General Assembly to adopt by the time it adjourns in April.

The governor announced last night that he will submit 13 bills to the legislature this year, putting the considerable weight of the office he assumed last week behind some of the major issues of the 90-day Assembly session.

The clean cars bill, which would require stricter tailpipe emissions standards for passenger vehicles sold in the state, and the ground rent prohibition both had widespread support among legislative leaders, but the governor's backing further improves their odds of passage.

Legislative leaders of both parties said the governor's package is likely to win broad support.

"These initiatives are things we can come to agreement on," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

The education, health care, environment and labor bills that will bear the governor's imprint appear devoid of the contentiousness that former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. sparked four years ago, when he pushed for slot machine gambling in the first year of his term. O'Malley's package does not include a slots initiative.

"Our legislative agenda is focused on improving our quality of life in Maryland - improving education and health care in our state, improving the health of our environment and the [Chesapeake] Bay and making government work again for the people of our state," O'Malley said in a statement.

The agenda includes the creation of StateStat, a program modeled after the nationally renowned government efficiency initiative the governor created while mayor of Baltimore. As a candidate for governor, O'Malley repeatedly pledged to bring CitiStat to the state.

In another move to increase efficiency, administration officials said yesterday that O'Malley will tighten controls on state hiring, a move expected to save $5 million over the next few months. O'Malley has said he intends to seek savings in government to help eliminate the long-term budget shortfalls Maryland faces, and aides said this is one of his first steps in that direction.

"As the governor has said, structural deficits require structural reforms, and that includes tighter control of state spending," O'Malley spokesman Steve Kearney said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said O'Malley's agenda is a solid, "middle of the road" plan. "My name is on each and every piece of his legislation," Miller said. "I think this governor is going to govern from the center, and I hope to see his agenda passed."

Del. Christopher B. Shank, the Republican whip from Washington County, said there is much to like in O'Malley's incremental approach to health care reform and other weighty issues. "It seems like a modest package, and a smart move not to go after too much in the first session," Shank said.

O'Malley previewed some of his initiatives when he unveiled his budget last week, notably a plan to freeze tuition in the University System of Maryland and at Morgan State University. O'Malley also said then that he would push for legislation requiring the phased-in funding of a program to give more money to school districts where it costs more to educate students, a major issue in last year's election.

O'Malley said he will propose legislation to replenish native oysters to the Chesapeake by allowing the state to lease parcels of land on the bay floor for restoration projects and by enhancing penalties for oyster poaching.

Many of the governor's proposals center on health care. O'Malley is calling for an expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program to cover more affluent families, establishing an insurance exchange to allow small businesses to offer their employees more affordable policies and creating a 2 percent tax on large nursing homes as part of a plan to improve reimbursements for Medicare provider facilities.

Del. Keith E. Haynes, a Baltimore Democrat who has sponsored similar legislation in the past, said that because Medicaid matches the assessments, nursing homes get back more than they put in. "We want to increase the number of beds available to Medicaid clients, and this program does so without increasing state dollars," Haynes said.

With thousands of jobs expected to flow into Maryland as the result of a federal military base realignment, O'Malley is proposing the creation of a sub-Cabinet to manage planning and economic development. Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown would chair the group.

Organized labor heavily supported O'Malley in the election, and he included a top union priority in his legislative package. State employee organizations are now prohibited from receiving fees from nonmembers to compensate the unions for negotiating contracts that affect members and nonmembers alike. The bill would overturn that prohibition.

The restrictions O'Malley is instituting on hiring strengthen a state hiring freeze that has been in place since 2002, but that grew lax.

The freeze is not total, but O'Malley proposes a return to strict scrutiny of each request to fill a vacancy for at least the remainder of this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

andy.green@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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