Momentum fails O’Malley as key goals falter

At a dinner last week in New Jersey, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley was introduced to an adoring crowd of several hundred Democrats as a “true rising star” and a “necessary voice on the national stage.”

He returned home to watch the collapse less than 24 hours later of his signature environmental initiative, a bid to spur the development of offshore wind power. Despite heavy lobbying by O’Malley, Maryland lawmakers said that too many questions remained to pass the bill this session.

The markedly different receptions say a lot about what has happened to O’Malley in the months since his strong reelection in a year that favored Republicans elsewhere: His rising national profile has done little to help him pass tough bills in Maryland.

Since his second defeat of former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), O’Malley has ascended to the chairmanship of the Democratic Governors Association, become a draw on the party speaking circuit and traveled to Washington to trade policy ideas with the White House and congressional leaders.

But aside from some victories on the state budget, the governor will have few marquee accomplishments to tout when the heavily Democratic General Assembly adjourns its 90-day session Monday.

Besides shelving the wind bill, lawmakers decided that further study was needed of a proposal to curtail the use of septic systems, which O’Malley championed during his State of the State address. A third high-profile initiative, the creation of a $100 million venture capital fund, stalled, but a scaled-back version could pass on the session’s final day.

Lawmakers say the resistance O’Malley has faced isn’t personal.

“The legislature is not supposed to roll over,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), an O’Malley ally on most issues. “We’ve got a lot of experienced legislators, veterans. Most of them want to work with the governor. . . . If there’s a reason some things haven’t come together, it’s because we don’t have all the answers we need yet.”

What O’Malley has achieved has been hard-fought but did not fully capitalize on the momentum he had coming out of the election.

In a year in which Wisconsin’s budget battle has come to symbolize dysfunction in state governments, Maryland lawmakers passed O’Malley’s spending plan — which closed a $1.6 billion shortfall — with relatively little dissent.

Pension reforms included in O’Malley’s budget were resisted by union leaders in Maryland but enacted by the legislature with minimal drama.

And a majority of the roughly two dozen bills O’Malley backed this session have passed or will pass in some form. But most are modest measures, including those to step up monitoring of prescription drug abuse, as many states have, and to make child neglect a crime, as it is in most other states.

A few other bills proposed or “adopted” by O’Malley during the session remain in jeopardy. A bill, for which he testified, to exempt family farms from the “death tax” went nowhere, with lawmakers citing the tough budget climate. And the fate of an O’Malley bill to subsidize the horse-racing industry won’t be known until Monday.

In an interview, O’Malley said it is easy to overlook what his administration has accomplished.

“We asked the General Assembly to do difficult things on the cuts that were in the budget and on pension reforms, and they did both of those things,” O’Malley said.

He said he had no regrets about asking the legislature to embrace ambitious proposals and stressed that some of those, including the wind bill, could pass next year.

“I didn’t run for a second term to coast or kick back or not do this job,” he said.

Although O’Malley won reelection by a wider margin than any Maryland governor in nearly 20 years, he made few promises during the campaign. Lawmakers returned in January without a clear sense of what he wanted to accomplish.

The governor initially was not heavily involved in the issue that came to dominate the 90-day session — a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. But he later publicly urged lawmakers to pass the bill, which died last month in the House.

When O’Malley delivered his State of the State speech Feb. 3, the only major new initiative in the address, the plan to help the Chesapeake Bay by banning construction of most septic systems, was met with near silence.

By that time, trouble had been brewing on the legislation he would push hardest: the offshore wind bill.

A week before the speech, lawmakers who had backed O’Malley’s reelection openly questioned whether offshore wind might cost residents more and produce fewer jobs than his administration had begun to suggest. Weeks later at a House hearing, O’Malley was faulted for what critics thought was an unimaginative and unsatisfying endorsement of the offshore wind bill, which would have forced utilities to buy wind energy at a premium and then divide the higher cost among ratepayers.

If early March appeared to be a low point, O’Malley soon seemed to be be throwing everything he had at building support for wind and even trying to resurrect the septic system bill.

In a stunt meant to draw attention to the septic legislation, O’Malley waded in a polluted Eastern Shore lake. To rally support for the wind bill, he summoned dozens of lawmakers to his office and the governor’s mansion for meetings.

On a single day in late March, O’Malley was seen not only at an event in the District but also at dinner meetings of the state House and Senate committees considering the wind legislation and at a lawmaker’s birthday party.

By last week, it became clear that O’Malley could not cajole support for the wind project even from typically loyal Baltimore lawmakers or from the Montgomery County delegation, which frequently backs environmental legislation.

O’Malley said he is hopeful that, with more study, lawmakers will take a longer view and recognize the wind bill as an important step in moving to cleaner sources of energy.

“The biggest concern that legislators have, and it’s my concern as well, is the additional costs to homeowners’ electrical bills,” O’Malley said. “But because I suppose I’ve been looking at this a little longer, I take the 30-year view toward that cost. As a nation, we’ve become accustomed to taking . . . the one-month view of that cost.”

It is the larger view of his own political career that took him to the Garden State last week.

O’Malley was embraced by Democratic activists in New Jersey, who have been frustrated by Gov. Chris Christie (R), a conservative darling who has sparred with state workers.

“What Governor O’Malley has shown is you can make those tough decisions, you can live up to the expectations, and pay the bills of your state and be fair to the people of your state,” Assemblyman John Wisniewski, chairman of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, told reporters.

O’Malley’s address to the dinner an hour later included several knocks against Christie and “a new breed of tea-partying Republican governors” — themes O’Malley has also hit in recent addresses in Virginia and elsewhere.

Maryland Republicans have played up the notion that O’Malley’s travels left him AWOL at several key points during the session — something O’Malley vigorously disputes.

During the interview, he recounted a conversation with a Republican senator on the subject. “I said, ‘Look, you can vote against my budget, vote for my budget for whatever reasons, but please, spare me the fiction it’s because I haven’t been as engaged this session. It’s not true.’ ”

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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