Gov. Martin O'Malley appears before the House Economic… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
High hurdles remain for the most ambitious pieces of Gov. Martin O'Malley's legislative agenda, setting up a frantic sprint in the final week of the 2011 General Assembly session if the Democrat hopes to score major victories in the first year of his second term.
It has been more than two months since O'Malley rolled out his signature proposals, including legislation to limit septic systems, build an offshore wind farm and create a $100 million investment fund, to a legislature controlled by his party.
Yet none of the initiatives has made it out of committee, the first step to passage. The 90-day session ends April 11. With time running out, lawmakers have set back-to-back meetings to salvage, or rewrite, the bills.
O'Malley says he aimed high.
"Those are big, difficult issues that require a lot of understanding and a lot of outreach within the General Assembly and within the public," he said in an interview last week. "I didn't run for a second term to do easy things."
Critics say there's another reason his agenda has foundered: his new role in Washington as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. He has spent sizable chunks of the 90-day state legislative session in the nation's capital.
Balancing the budget
Even as lawmakers work through O'Malley's agenda — not to mention the hundreds of other bills at various stages of the legislative process — they continue to tinker with his $14.6 billion spending plan for next year. The legislature is required by law to pass a balanced budget.
That effort ran into a logjam late last week when Democratic leaders of the House of Delegates and Senate found themselves at odds over proposed pension and retirement benefit changes. They now are unlikely to meet Monday's deadline to pass a budget, and the debate could consume precious hours this week.
The governor is on track to score some wins: Bills to criminalize child neglect, boost oversight of prescription drug use, establish a framework for the federal health care overhaul, extend help to the horse racing industry and toughen gun laws are moving through the legislature.
But even those measures have been subject to change. O'Malley's move to criminalize child neglect downshifted from a felony to a misdemeanor. His effort to keep gun offenders in prison longer has been transformed into a task force to examine the broader issue of so-called good time credits.
That 30 of 141 delegates and 10 of 47 senators are new to the process has contributed to the amount of work still left undone. Bills were slow to be introduced in both chambers, and then an emotionally charged debate over same-sex marriage dominated the first two-thirds of the session.
"It's been a difficult session in terms of a work rhythm," O'Malley said. The effort to legalize gay marriage "took up a lot of energy and time," he said, and when it died in the House, lawmakers realized, "Oh, my goodness, we still have all this work to do that's still on the runway," the governor said.
Senate Minority Whip E.J. Pipkin described the session as "rudderless."
"It's been a lot of stuff off the cuff," the Eastern Shore Republican said. He said O'Malley dumped the budget on the legislature and then moved on to other issues.
"He said 'Here is my budget. Come back when you're done,'" Pipkin said.
Going into the session, policymakers' highest priority was closing a deficit of about $1.5 billion and reforming the state workers' retirement and health systems. Although the House and Senate have reached agreement in some areas, unexpected disputes emerged Friday.
Republicans, meanwhile, are criticizing O'Malley for not cutting spending deeply enough. And they say a fine he proposed for bad driving violated his campaign pledge to balance this year's budget without raising taxes.
During the 2010 campaign, an O'Malley advertisement ridiculed his challenger, Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., for trying to make a distinction between fees and taxes. Ehrlich raised both as governor.
The spot featured an O'Malley supporter saying there was no difference: "If it comes from my pocket, it's a tax."
O'Malley said in the interview last week that GOP lawmakers are trying to "confuse the promise." He said "there is no difference" between taxes and fees. He said he balanced the budget "entirely with cuts" — though his proposal did contain new fees and a hospital assessment that is likely to be passed on to patients.
Another item still outstanding on O'Malley's to-do list: pension reform.
O'Malley said the plan he proposed, which won an initial blessing from both the House and Senate, was a "heavy and hard lift that very few would have predicted two years ago that this body could pull off."
He acknowledged it is not a done deal. After the breakdown on Friday, weekend talks were canceled to allow tempers to cool. Lawmakers return to the issue on Monday but wide gaps exist between the House and Senate plans.