O'Malley stresses civility

Cooperation on issues urged in State of the State address

State Of The State

February 01, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Gov. Martin O'Malley used his first State of the State address to strike a cooperative tone with Maryland lawmakers, calling for more corrections officers for a beleaguered prison system and for a program to help small businesses find more affordable health coverage, while reiterating his pledge to push for $400 million in school construction funds.

The former Baltimore mayor also used sharp language to call for "an end to the cruel and antiquated practice of using ground rents to evict families from their homes." The issue has leapt to the top of legislators' agendas in the current 90-day General Assembly session after a series of articles in The Sun.

But he urged legislators to hold off on potentially divisive debates over the fiscal challenges facing the state, saying he wants a chance to seek efficiencies in state government before considering tax increases or legalizing slot machines.

O'Malley, a Democrat elected in November, stressed the need for a return to civility in Annapolis after four years of clashes between former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, and the Democratic-controlled legislature.

"We cannot resolve every unsettled issue in just 90 days, nor can we heal in 90 days divisions that were four years in the making," O'Malley said. "But we must do all that we can to maximize the effectiveness of this session and these four years for the people of our state."

Democrats said yesterday that O'Malley hit all the right notes, emphasizing popular initiatives such as expanding mass transit, requiring higher emissions standards for cars, spending $400 million on school construction this year and freezing tuition at Maryland's colleges and universities.

"There was a feeling that there's not going to be confrontation," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "We're not going to be disagreeable. People are going to work together on both sides to get things done. It's the happiest I've seen it in 20 years."

Republicans said they support a number of the initiatives that O'Malley proposed, such as increasing funding for cover crops to reduce runoff from farmers' fields and using advanced technology to track sex offenders. But they said that in his promise to cooperate, O'Malley went too far in his implicit criticism of Ehrlich.

"I wish he wouldn't have done as much on some of the negatives he campaigned on," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican.

O'Malley stood straight-backed on the dais of the House of Delegates chamber, his hands resting on the lectern throughout most of his address. The speech lacked much of the high-flying rhetoric and the historical references that peppered his campaign speeches, and he stuck to a smooth, unaffected delivery.

Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening said O'Malley handled the pressure well during the 35-minute address, delivered to legislators and other dignitaries packed into the chamber.

"I said to him, `Remember, you're going to be a little intimidated,'" Glendening said. "I said, `Just relax and remember to have fun. Remember you're setting the agenda for 5 1/2 million people.' He said, `I was relaxed before you said that.'"

O'Malley used the occasion to unveil a few new ideas. He proposed creating a Cabinet-level Department of Information Technology to better coordinate IT functions, and he endorsed establishing a living wage law, essentially requiring government contractors to pay significantly more than the minimum wage to their workers. Baltimore has such a law.

The governor reiterated his support for initiatives that he says will strengthen Maryland's middle class, such as continuing the record levels of education funding Maryland has spent in recent years and pushing for a plan to add more in jurisdictions where education is more expensive, such as Montgomery and Prince George's counties. He said a new sub-Cabinet on base realignment would help the state handle an influx of thousands of military and private sector workers in counties such as Anne Arundel and Harford.

Legislators gave O'Malley a standing ovation when he asked them to approve $7 million for 155 new corrections officers. The prison system has been shaken by violence against corrections officers and prisoners in the past year. O'Malley also promised to improve the state's anti-terrorism efforts by increasing security at the port of Baltimore and establishing a "security council" to coordinate the work of government agencies.

He devoted much of his speech to environmental matters, such as re-establishing the Office of Smart Growth, a Glendening initiative; spending $138 million to improve water systems to help restore the Chesapeake Bay; and setting more stringent pollution emission standards for cars.

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