A tough session for the governor

Our view: Martin O'Malley finds the General Assembly less than accommodating, but opportunities to reassert his leadership are not far off

April 17, 2011

Only weeks after trouncing his formidable Republican opponent in an otherwise miserable year for Democratic candidates across the country, Gov. Martin O'Malley entered the 2011 legislative session looking strong politically. His 13-point victory in November contrasted so sharply with national trends that it elevated the governor's standing beyond Maryland, and he proudly assumed the chairmanship of the Democratic Governors Association.

Yet 90 days later, it would be difficult to judge his administration's successes in Annapolis as anything but underwhelming. Even given post-recession economic constraints — including a $1.4 billion projected budget deficit that had to be filled — many of the most ambitious elements of Mr. O'Malley's agenda were either tabled or watered down by lawmakers from his own party.

Proposed restrictions on the use of septic tanks in new developments? Perhaps next year. His vision for an offshore wind farm? Lawmakers were willing to study the plan but wouldn't commit to having ratepayers help finance it with a modest surcharge on their monthly bills. Legislation to give Maryland farmers a break on inheritance tax — a bill for which governor testified in person — received similar treatment.

Even the governor's signature economic development proposal during a session that was supposed to be about "jobs, jobs, jobs," a $100 million venture capital fund to attract and expand high-tech and biotech businesses, turned into a $75 million fund — and one with state government having less control in investment decisions than Mr. O'Malley had sought.

Meanwhile, much of the legislation that garnered the most attention in Annapolis belonged to others. The higher sales tax on alcohol and the granting of in-state college tuition rates to undocumented immigrant students may have had the governor's support, but the initiatives originated elsewhere.

Nor could Mr. O'Malley have enjoyed hearing so much sharp criticism from members of his own party over his reluctance to heed parole and commutation recommendations. Under legislation approved by the General Assembly, whenever the state parole commission recommends a prisoner serving a life sentence be set free, Mr. O'Malley will have six months to intervene. If he does not, the inmate will be released. The governor's office has indicated he will likely sign the bill into law.

So, how exactly did this happen? There is no shortage of explanations; the reasons behind the success or failure of each bill vary. The septic tank proposal, for instance, was offered relatively late in the session without the sort of advance lobbying that is often required to educate legislators on controversial measures.

Some lawmakers complained that a governor with one foot on the national political stage was insufficiently engaged in the process until the final few weeks. Others suspect that emotionally charged measures involving same-sex marriage, immigrant tuition and pension reform used up all the proverbial oxygen in the building. Budget constraints overshadowed much of the State House business — and likely gave the governor fewer bargaining chits.

But one intriguing explanation that could greatly influence the remainder of Mr. O'Malley's term is this: He's missing the threat of a Republican governor on the horizon. The possibility that Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. would return to office in 2011 caused Democrats to rally around Mr. O'Malley during his first term, but Mr. O'Malley's KO of Mr. Ehrlich last year has freed lawmakers from such concerns, as no strong GOP candidate for governor can be found on the horizon.

Such logic may be counterintuitive, but it makes some sense. Just ask former governors like William Donald Schaefer, Parris N. Glendening and Harry R. Hughes, all of whom struggled at times to keep fellow Democrats in line during their second terms. By his sixth year in office, a second-term governor is usually regarded as a lame duck.

It's too early to tell whether the past 90 days merely represented a slow start to a second term or will define the next several years in the state capital. Certainly, Mr. O'Malley has some critical opportunities to assert leadership on the horizon, including legislative redistricting and devising a long-term plan to restore the depleted Transportation Trust Fund.

The governor is expected to call a special session this fall to deal with redistricting, and other issues, such as a gas tax increase to pay for highway and mass transit improvements, may be added to the mix. Legislators care passionately about the post-census redrawing of political boundaries, as their political careers are at stake — and that will give Mr. O'Malley a golden opportunity to firm up support for his other causes. Marylanders may recall that the governor's biggest accomplishments of his first term came during the special legislative session called to solve the state's budget crisis, not in his first regular session.

As one aide wryly observed, the good news from the 2011 session is that the administration's agenda for next year is already set — trying to pass leftovers from this year's. If Mr. O'Malley gets what he wants in the fall or in the 2012 session, few will remember that it took an extra six to 12 months to get them enacted.

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