O'Malley's State of the State a Fiscal Reality Check
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Saddled with a slumping economy and a lingering budget pinch, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley delivered a State of the State address yesterday that acknowledged "totally understandable" frustration over recently passed tax increases but defended them as necessary to "protect our priorities."
In an often somber half-hour address, O'Malley (D) also asked for the General Assembly's help in holding down university tuition, further restricting development in environmentally sensitive areas and developing a long-term plan for energy generation and conservation. And he pledged to place heightened focus on fighting violent crime.
"No wonder many of us are frustrated when, in the midst of this national economic downtown, we were forced to confront a long-neglected and huge structural deficit," O'Malley said in his second annual address.
He was referring to the three-week special session that ended in November with lawmakers raising taxes by $1.4 billion a year and directing O'Malley to cut $550 million from next year's budget to help fix the state's finances.
"There is good reason for all of us to be concerned and worried about our economic future," O'Malley said. "But I submit to you that the way we get through these tough times . . . is not by abandoning our priorities, but by protecting them."
O'Malley used the first portion of his address, delivered to a joint session of the legislature, to express sympathy for "the vast majority of Maryland families" that are finding it harder to pay bills at a time when growth in wages is outpaced by the rising costs of groceries, gasoline and health insurance.
In a nod to such concerns, he pledged to work with legislators to "end the fast track to foreclosure" that has cost an unprecedented number of Marylanders their homes in the past year. A proposal by O'Malley would significantly lengthen the time between default and foreclosure and increase oversight of the mortgage-lending industry.
The address, coming early in the 90-day legislation session, drew sharply different reactions from Democrats and Republicans. Democrats voiced a willingness to work with O'Malley on the laundry list of relatively modest proposals he advanced. With the state budget outlook far better than a year ago but still fragile, none of the governor's initiatives carries a hefty price tag.
"It wasn't a 'rah-rah' tone," said Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), among a large contingent of guests at the State House in Annapolis. "It's a roll-up-your-sleeves-type tone. We have some real important issues. . . . The economy is very solemn."
Republicans, however, echoed the sentiments of House Minority Whip Christopher B. Shank (R-Washington), who suggested O'Malley chose to focus on "safe, bipartisan" issues at a time when two polls have shown his approval rating dropping below 40 percent in the wake of the special session.
"He's trying to change the subject," Shank said. "He wants to talk about uniting issues that aren't driving his poll numbers down. He's hoping people will forget that he drove the largest tax increase in state history."
Among the priorities O'Malley pledged to push in his second year is a fight against violent crime, an issue that was the centerpiece of his tenure as mayor of Baltimore. He has spoken often as governor about the disconnect between Maryland being the nation's wealthiest state but also its fifth-most violent.