O'Malley, Ehrlich spin end of Maryland session

By Aaron C. Davis and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

With balloons from the annual session-ending confetti drop still strewn on the floor of the Maryland State House, Gov. Martin O'Malley and his Republican challenger rushed Tuesday to spin this year's legislative session into campaign sound bites.

"In times of great adversity, we don't make excuses, we make progress," Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said as he highlighted a new law mandating foreclosure help for homeowners and a state budget with $250 million in new borrowing to build schools.

"I don't think much of anything happened in Annapolis this session," countered former governor Robert L. Ehrlich (R), who is seeking a rematch with O'Malley in November.

O'Malley and the Democrats spent the session "kicking the can down the proverbial alley, waiting for the next session, waiting for the monumental tax increase everyone knows is coming," said Ehrlich, who fielded questions from reporters in the lobby of the downtown Baltimore building where his law office is located.

O'Malley also cast the session as successful in working with Republicans, saying things in Annapolis were "more collegial and cooperative" than in any of his previous three years as governor.

Ehrlich took issue with O'Malley's claim of bipartisanship, suggesting his characterization of progress rang hollow given how many Republican measures the governor and the Democrats ignored.

"Some of those lines sound real good when you say them fast," Ehrlich said.

That the criticism didn't go much further, however, hinted at how safe O'Malley had played his last session before seeking re-election. Gone were emotional pleas to repeal the death penalty, legislation to open casinos or other big ideas from the sessions of his first three years in office.

Since January, O'Malley's agenda has been largely viewed as reactionary, with modest requests to the General Assembly to approve tax breaks to tackle Maryland's highest unemployment rate in 26 years and to pass new restrictions on sex offenders to close gaps exposed by the killing of an Eastern Shore girl in December.

Traction with voters

Yet on Tuesday, it was also clear that O'Malley had failed to completely navigate the session without drawing election-year controversy. Criticism from Ehrlich and other Republican leaders demonstrated that the party thinks it has traction with voters on whether O'Malley's budgeting is sustainable for a second term and whether he'll choose to balance more forecasted shortfalls with tax increases, much the way he raised taxes to fix a predicted long-term budget imbalance in his first year in office in 2007.

The General Assembly largely went along with O'Malley's plan this year to close a near-record $1.9 billion shortfall, half through cuts and half through borrowing, transfers and other one-time budget maneuvers.

"We have locked in future tax increases because this body and this governor have demonstrated that they don't have the political will to make real, significant reductions," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert). "It's the governor's and the legislature's plan to come back here next year and raise residents' taxes -- plain and simple."

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