O'Malley makes fast start as governor

March 24, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,sun reporter

Gov. Martin O'Malley's move to close the Maryland House of Correction just two weeks after a guard was stabbed there surprised many who had been pushing for the prison's closure for years. But corrections isn't the only troubled state agency on which the administration is moving quickly.

A month after a Baltimore youth died at Bowling Brook Preparatory School in what authorities later ruled a homicide, pressure from the O'Malley administration helped force the 50-year-old reformatory to close. Less than a week after that, O'Malley proposed $21 million in funding to build the state's first new residential program for youth offenders in more than a decade.

Two weeks into office, the O'Malley administration pressured Public Service Commission Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler, who was widely criticized for the state's response to last year's BGE electricity rate increase, into resigning. Now, with O'Malley appointee Steven B. Larsen in charge, the legislature has ceded virtually all initiative on energy policy to the administration.

O'Malley has taken a slow, deliberative approach to working with the General Assembly on contentious issues such as taxes and slot machine gambling. But when it has come to things he can control administratively, he has wasted no time.

"Even while the legislative session is going on, there are a lot of things in motion now that are the nuts and bolts of the administration of government," said O'Malley, a Democrat. "It's not as if we've been waiting on the difficult things we need to do in order to make government work."

Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University, said O'Malley's early actions aren't surprising, given that the state constitution provides tremendous power for Maryland's governor.

"I don't think this reflects a daring gesture on the part of the governor," Crenson said. "I think it just reflects the extent of his powers and his sense of what he can do without arousing the legislature."

O'Malley's predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., also had a penchant for bold gestures when it came to the state's biggest problems.

In the summer of 2005, Ehrlich announced at a surprise news conference at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County that he would close the long-troubled facility for youth offenders. And at the beginning of public outcry over BGE rates last year, he publicly declared the 72 percent increase "will not stand."

But when he announced the Hickey closure, he did so without a plan for what to do with all the children who were there. The facility is still open. And after promising to fight the BGE increase, Ehrlich later declared himself a "neutral arbiter" on the issue and amended his promise to "72 percent overnight will not stand."

Ehrlich pushed for the biggest initiative of his term, legalizing slot machine gambling, in his first legislative session only to see the measure die in the Democratic-controlled legislature. Though O'Malley's party affiliation gives him an advantage, he appears intent not to repeat Ehrlich's early failures.

Rather than pushing his own ideas, he has mostly signed on to others' initiatives, such as clean car legislation, ground rent reforms and a death penalty repeal.

For now, he's operating much the same way he did as mayor of Baltimore, where a strong system of executive government enabled him to enact much of his agenda without having to win over the City Council. Although he now has a much larger and more autonomous legislative body to contend with, O'Malley aides say, much work is being done at the administrative level, even during the General Assembly session.

O'Malley said he wants his administration to aggressively tackle the state's biggest problems. For too long, Americans have been told that the government doesn't and can't work, O'Malley said. But he said he believes government can succeed at difficult tasks and intends to make it try.

"Big things done well make even bigger things possible," O'Malley said.

Sue Esty, the interim executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92, said that one of those big things, closing the 19th-century House of Correction, came as "a real shot in the arm" to correctional officers. Before the recent nonfatal stabbing of a corrections officer there, another officer and three inmates were killed there last year.

"If this is what's to come, these real strong moves ... it's a good thing," she said. "I just hope it doesn't go the other way, real strong moves in the wrong direction."

In the two weeks before the closure, the state quietly transferred more than 800 inmates to other Maryland prisons as well as to federal and state facilities as far away as Kentucky.

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