Gov. Martin O'Malley greets House Majority Leader Kumar… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
Gov. Martin O'Malley promoted his administration's accomplishments and plans to foster jobs and protect homeownership amid a struggling economy, addressing Maryland lawmakers as a group Tuesday for the final time before they all face re-election this fall.
In a State of the State speech that fellow Democrats said struck a measured yet hopeful tone but Republicans decried as a preview of a campaign stump speech, the governor warned of "a dark thing that has penetrated deep into our collective soul ... that somehow we are destined to decline, backslide and fail."
O'Malley said he rejects that mind-set, urging bipartisanship as lawmakers fight through a national recession that has dominated his nearly four years in office and the sour political climate of an election year.
The single line of the speech that drew a near-unanimous standing ovation tapped into the hope that the days of brutal budget cuts are waning.
"The recession will end," O'Malley declared. "Our journey is not over. And our best days are still in front of us if we make it so."
The address lasted 30 minutes and included as many mentions of jobs. Specifically, O'Malley pushed legislation to give businesses a $3,000 tax credit for hiring unemployed Marylanders, to support small businesses through state-backed loans and to cut the unemployment tax rate by tapping federal stimulus money.
O'Malley also asked for support for his plan to curb foreclosures through mandatory mediation, calling national mortgage companies "faceless giants."
"If they can pick up the phone to put a family into a home, shouldn't they be able to pick up the phone before throwing a family out of their home?" he asked.
The governor praised President Barack Obama, saying the federal stimulus money has "allowed us to create or save 19,000 jobs" - a line that drew some applause but also a notable lack of reaction from a number of lawmakers in each party. O'Malley said state-funded construction projects in next year's nearly $1.6 billion capital budget will support more than 20,000 constructions jobs.
Republicans said the address rang hollow and was short on substance. As they seek to tap into a perceived voter backlash against incumbents, minority party leaders peppered their rebuttal address and interviews with reminders that lawmakers raised taxes in O'Malley's first term.
"There seemed to be a disconnect with sincerity and a disconnect with reality," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell of Southern Maryland, the House minority leader. "People have struggled mightily over the past three or four years as he has raised every kind of tax imaginable. And now he wants sympathy and to form some kind of bond with those people?"
Sen. Allan H. Kittleman of Howard County, the Senate minority leader, taped his response to the governor's address before it was delivered, saying the state's Democratic leaders have "grown arrogant and unresponsive."
"Our governor is out of touch, out of ideas and out of money," he said, "but he'll never run out of excuses."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch reacted strongly to the Republican refrain that the governor was "kicking the can down the road" by relying on fund transfers and federal dollars to balance the state's $13 billion operating budget.
"Somewhere along the line, people have to be called out," Busch said, saying that Republicans criticize the budget but offer no solutions while still taking credit for spending programs that benefit the areas they represent.
O'Malley's speech was punctuated by occasional rounds of applause from the 188 state lawmakers who crowded into the House of Delegates chamber. Former Govs. Marvin Mandel and Parris N. Glendening sat among the lawmakers, along with O'Malley's wife, Katie, and father-in-law, former Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.
The leaders of most of Maryland's 23 counties sat in the balcony, as did Baltimore City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who will become mayor on Thursday.
Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat, said she appreciated the governor's message of "collaboration and unity. These are trying times, and we all need to work together."
Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold also said he was struck by the "togetherness" tone.
"We all have a stake," the Republican said. O'Malley's emphasis on "building human infrastructure" through job training and education is crucial to climbing out of the recession, Leopold said.
Using a favorite rhetorical device, O'Malley dedicated an entire section of his address to the idea that the state's accomplishments, including top rankings in education and progress in crime reduction, are "not by chance, but by choice."