Allies press O’Malley to use political capital on liberal initiatives in Md.


Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley greets supporters and members of the House of Delegates after the House passed a gay marriage bill in Annapolis earlier this year on Feb. 17, 2012. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
December 16, 2012

Coming off some high-profile victories on last month’s ballot in Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s clout could hardly be higher heading into the coming legislative session.

The question is: Will he use it?

After hard-fought successes on issues that included same-sex marriage and immigrant tuition rates, liberal allies are pushing O’Malley (D) to try to build on the momentum by making renewed pushes — with the same level of passion — on several of his bills that have fallen short in the past.

Among the causes they’d like him to champion in the session that starts Jan. 9: a major boost in transportation funding, repeal of the death penalty and passage of a measure to jump-start the state’s wind-power industry.

During the run-up to the election, O’Malley put himself on the line for several of the ballot measures, appearing in television ads and raising money to help pay for them in his travels around the country.

How many battles O’Malley chooses to embrace in January could say a lot about whether he intends to rest on his laurels during his remaining two years in office or continue to burnish his credentials for a possible bid for the presidency in 2016.

Aides have said only that O’Malley will probably make another run at a wind bill, which would provide incentives for a renewable energy source off the Atlantic Coast. Sponsorship of the other measures — which seem to face longer odds — remains under discussion. And that has some advocates anxious.

“This is a point when the governor’s political capital is extremely high,” said Glenn F. Ivey, a former state’s attorney in Prince George’s County who is among those pushing for repeal of the death penalty. “There’s always some risk in politics, but this is a time when he can afford to spend the capital.”

As the session approaches, the pressure is growing for O’Malley to put his name on bills that advocates say will be introduced with or without his sponsorship.

Last week, Benjamin T. Jealous, the president of the NAACP, came to the State House to lobby O’Malley on the death penalty. William E. Lori, the archbishop of Baltimore, sent a letter pledging support from the Catholic Church to help “end state executions in Maryland once and for all.”

About 150 advocates for increased transportation funding converged on Annapolis to highlight the dearth of money available for highway construction and mass transit, including the Purple Line. The gathering included the county executives of Montgomery, Prince George’s and Howard counties, three of Maryland’s most populous — and congested — jurisdictions.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D) said O’Malley’s engagement would be “incredibly important” for the prospect of additional funding, which would probably mean some form of tax that would raise prices at the gas pump. To succeed, advocates — including the governor — will need to launch a campaign-style push that targets not only lawmakers but their constituents, Ulman said.

“He’s got to paint a picture for people of what additional investment really means to people’s lives,” he said. “The governor has taken on a lot of tough issues before, and this is another one.”

O’Malley’s stock as an advocate rose significantly on Nov. 6, when Maryland voters passed four high-profile ballot issues he pushed. He was most vocal about measures to allow same-sex marriages and to extend in-state college tuition rates to illegal immigrants. No other state had previously adopted either policy in a public vote.

O’Malley also worked for passage of an expanded gambling measure that will allow a casino in Prince George’s. And he successfully urged voters to uphold the state’s new congressional map, which even some Democrats criticized as severely gerrymandered.

By contrast, O’Malley has been largely mum about his agenda for 2013. That’s in part, aides say, because he is gauging the energy level of legislators to tackle more tough issues after a year that some acknowledge left them a little listless.

And O’Malley also appears to be weighing his odds of success on measures that could fare no better than in previous years, making him look ineffective.

Maryland’s 23.5 cent gas tax, the state’s largest source of transportation funding, was last raised in 1992. Polls have shown it to be among the least popular of the state’s levies.

During the last 90-day legislative session, O’Malley proposed an alternative: applying the state’s 6 percent sales tax to gasoline, a move estimated to raise more than $600 million a year for transportation projects. But that bill did not go anywhere.

Ralph Bennett, a Silver Spring architect who is president of the advocacy group Purple Line NOW, said O’Malley was “preoccupied” with other issues during the previous session and should be better positioned to focus on transportation in January. “It would be absolutely huge for us,” Bennett said.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said almost everyone in Annapolis understands that additional transportation funding is needed. But Busch said he is wary of committing until he sees what happens with the “fiscal cliff” talks in Washington. A failure to reach a deal would mean higher taxes and job losses for Marylanders — not an ideal time to ask motorists to pay more, he said.

The primary roadblocks to repealing the death penalty and passing a wind bill have been Senate committees.

In 2007, his first year in office, O’Malley testified in favor of a bill to end capital punishment. But such appeals have not persuaded the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, whose members have broken 6 to 5 in favor of keeping the existing law.

A repeal bill last reached the Senate floor in 2009, when Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who favors the death penalty, allowed debate as a courtesy to O’Malley. Rather than passing the bill, the Senate amended it to tighten evidentiary standards in capital cases.

Jane Henderson, executive director of Citizens Against State Executions, said that she would be “really disappointed” if O’Malley doesn’t try again. “I don’t think the Martin O’Malley we saw in 2009 has gone away,” she said.

Miller suggested he is willing to be more accommodating on the wind bill. An upcoming change in membership on the Finance Committee could improve the measure’s prospects.

“I think the focus this year is going to be over wind power,” Miller said.

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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