OCEAN CITY — — Gov. Martin O'Malley stuck to his campaign themes in his speech to county leaders Saturday morning, stressing recent job growth numbers, "tough" budget choices over the past four years and a promise to restore local aid when the economy improves.
The address was the finale to a four-day conference of county leaders, who gather annually on the Eastern Shore to network and trade information. Governors often use the keynote conference speech to make news, but the Democratic governor made few concrete policy announcements in this year's address.
O'Malley pledged to restore local road maintenance funds, a point of contention for local leaders, and curtail state worker furloughs "as we come out of the recession."
As he does at campaign events, O'Malley stuck to his re-election slogan, "moving Maryland forward." Republicans in attendance were prepared to counter that line.
"If I was Martin O'Malley, I wouldn't want to talk about the past either," said Senate Minority Leader Allan Kittleman of Howard County.
Though O'Malley did not mention his likely November challenger by name, he made a not-so-subtle dig at Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, who arrived Friday in Ocean City with a promise to give the counties an extra $60 million next year in road maintenance money.
"We all know that this is an election year," O'Malley said. "There will be candidates making all sorts of promises, telling people they can eat cake and lose weight." O'Malley told the county leaders he would "level" with them and "be honest" about what the state can afford.
The governor led the audience in a chant meant to emphasize his spin on job growth numbers released Friday that showed 500 new positions were added in July.
"Repeat after me," O'Malley said. "Five months. In a row. Of positive. Job growth."
O'Malley linked the bump in new jobs to higher-than-expected tax revenues, saying that the state will have an extra $300 million this year, up from an earlier estimate.
Though the report showed job gains, they were the state's smallest since March, when Maryland began to reverse losses incurred during the recession. The figures released Friday showed that the state's private sector added 3,400 jobs, but those gains were largely offset by layoffs and losses from temporary census workers finishing out their positions. The report itself led to a political controversy, as Republicans accused the O'Malley administration of putting a rosy spin on the state's jobs picture.
A downbeat version of the jobs report — which said Maryland's economic recovery "faltered in July" — was posted on the state's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation website and then quickly removed. It was replaced with a report that cited the same numbers but used more positive language to describe them.
The Maryland Republican Party called attention to the removal in a news release Friday, which accused O'Malley of "muzzling a taxpayer-funded state agency for being honest about our fragile economy."
Labor Secretary Alexander M. Sanchez, an O'Malley appointee, said the governor had no involvement in the removal.
"At the time it was happening, I don't think he knew anything about it," Sanchez said.
Sanchez said the original report, prepared by an agency data analyst, was "completely internal" and not meant for public consumption. It was replaced with the correct version, he said.
Sanchez stressed that the data was unchanged. "Only the narrative was different," he said.
Maryland Association of Counties officials said about 500 people attended the summer conference this year, down from previous years. By Saturday, attendance had thinned more, and O'Malley said he realized he was the only thing standing between the audience and a day at the beach or the car ride home.
The governor got a laugh from the audience when he poked fun of his own campaign slogan. Touting increases to the state's crab population, he said, "Even the blue crabs know that in Maryland we move forward and not back."
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