O’Malley talks up successes of previous seven years, calls for increase in minimum wage

Gov. Martin O’Malley used his final State of the State address Thursday to lay out a case that he has made Maryland stronger during “difficult and important days” and to press for a final legislative priority: raising the minimum wage.

In a half-hour address to a joint session of the General Assembly, O’Malley (D) also acknowledged that the state had stumbled badly in launching its online health insurance exchange, but he said his administration has “never, ever given up” and remains committed to enrolling as many people as possible before a March 31 deadline.

O’Malley, in his eighth and final year as governor, is trying to shape his legacy as he weighs a 2016 presidential bid.

“Not only is Maryland stronger than before,” O’Malley told an audience that included two former governors and other dignitaries, “Maryland is cleaner, smarter, safer, healthier, more entrepreneurial and more competitive than she was before the recession hit.”

About two-thirds of the remarks were devoted to what O’Malley described as fiscal discipline during challenging economic times and to the accomplishments of his tenure, including legalization of same-sex marriage, repeal of the death penalty and passage of one of the toughest gun-control measures in the nation.

The speech drew plaudits from fellow Democrats. But Republicans questioned some of the governor’s assertions and derided the speech’s tone.

House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) said the speech showed that O’Malley is “out of touch with what the average Marylander is feeling,” and he accused the governor of spending too much time on national politics. Although O’Malley took credit for a rebound in employment since the recession, Kipke said the pace has not been quick enough.

“You can’t just make grand speeches in beautiful buildings,” Kipke said. “You also have to sit down and make things work.”

O’Malley touched on several priorities for his final legislative session, including a proposed expansion of subsidized pre-kindergarten programs and a package of measures intended to better protect victims of domestic violence.

But he dwelt longest on a proposal to raise Maryland’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour by 2016, which he said would help working mothers in particular.

“No person who works full time and plays by the rules should be forced to raise their family in poverty,” O’Malley said. “Not in our state.”

He pointed to automaker Henry Ford’s decision 100 years ago to double the pay of his workers, based on a belief that it would help the economy if the workers could afford the products they were making.

Although Democrats, who control the legislature, generally express interest in raising the minimum wage, they have yet to coalesce around a specific plan, and some have predicted that they will have a hard time doing so.

In his speech, O’Malley argued that his administration had brought a new standard of accountability to state government, citing a decision early in his tenure to advertise ambitious goals in public safety, education and other areas. That commitment forces the administration to acknowledge those times when its efforts fall short, he said.

O’Malley said his administration has learned from the failures of the online health insurance exchange, which crashed on its debut Oct. 1. Enrollment in private plans continues to lag behind expectations because of technological glitches.

“The health-care Web site failed to perform as designed when it was launched — a source of great frustration — especially for those Marylanders who were trying to obtain health care for the very first time,” O’Malley said. “My administration has not succeeded at every first try, but we have never, ever given up.”

He suggested that the administration’s efforts should be judged in a larger context, saying that health-care coverage had been extended to 453,000 people during his tenure — a figure significantly larger than the enrollment goal for the health exchange.

Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley (Frederick), who gave the Republican response to O’Malley’s televised address, was not as forgiving. He called the state’s Web site “the model of governmental and bureaucratic malpractice.”

O’Malley made no mention in his speech of another embarrassment that emerged last year: a scandal at a state-run jail in Baltimore that resulted in the indictment of more than two dozen guards accused of conspiring with a prison gang.

O’Malley’s speech was peppered with numbers purporting to demonstrate progress made under his leadership, including a drop in violent crime to a 30-year low.

House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) and others questioned O’Malley’s use of statistics. They seized on his assertion that he had cut spending by $9.1 billion while in office, a time during which the state budget has grown by about $10 billion, or more than 30 percent.

O’Malley’s budget cuts include instances in which planned spending was scaled back to balance the budget. Spending on many state programs, including education and Medicaid, is largely driven by formulas. Without action by the governor or legislators, year-to-year increases are incorporated in the budget.

Copies of O’Malley’s speech that were distributed Thursday included 88 footnotes to shore up his assertions. But some remained open to interpretation based solely on what he said.

O’Malley, for example, said Maryland has the state’s “smallest executive branch since 1973.” The footnotes make clear that the assertion is on a per-capita basis, not based on raw numbers.

O’Malley also said Maryland is “number one in holding down the cost of college tuition.” Overall, tuition and fees charged by Maryland public colleges and universities rank in the middle of the pack nationally. But the average growth rate of 3.3 percent a year since O’Malley took office is the smallest in the country, according to statistics attributed to the College Board.

Republicans said O’Malley’s true legacy is a series of tax increases, including increases in the income tax on high-earners, the corporate income tax and the sales tax.

Some of those increases, Szeliga said, have been “regressive, and that hurts the middle class [and] working families.”

Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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