Gov. Martin O’Malley called on Maryland lawmakers Wednesday to make “tough choices,” including backing several tax increases that he argued are needed to maintain the state’s top-ranked schools and rebuild its transportation infrastructure.
O’Malley (D), in his sixth State of the State address, also pressed for the legalization of same-sex marriage, casting the issue as a matter of fairness for children of gay couples.
The governor argued that his budget priorities would bolster job creation, and he said he was not “sugar-coating” proposals to raise income taxes for high-earning Marylanders and the taxes motorists pay at the pump.
“Asking our fellow citizens to do more will not be popular,” O’Malley acknowledged in his 33-minute speech. “But without anger, fear or meanness, let’s ask one another: How much less do we think would be good for our children’s future? How much less education do we want? How much less public safety? How many fewer jobs? There are costs and there are values.”
The address to a joint session of the General Assembly was interrupted by applause about two dozen times. But outside the chamber, parts of O’Malley’s speech were criticized by Republicans and Democrats, underscoring the challenge he faces in the remainder of the 90-day session.
In pushing the most expansive legislative agenda of his governorship, O’Malley is counting on support from officials who feel alienated by his other initiatives.
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D), for example, said Wednesday he could not take a position on an O’Malley plan to apply the state’s 6 percent sales tax to gasoline because he was still smarting over O’Malley’s proposal to shift half the cost of teacher pensions from the state to the counties.
The shift is a major component of O’Malley’s plan to close a shortfall in the state budget.
“Frankly, it’s such a devastating proposal for local governments that it’s hard to get past it and focus on anything else that is in the governor’s agenda,” said Ulman, who just concluded a year leading the powerful Maryland Association of Counties.
O’Malley administration officials and legislative leaders have said that the support of county officials is key to corralling enough votes in the General Assembly for a gas-tax increase, which would be used to fund hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation projects.
In pressing his case on that issue Wednesday, O’Malley told lawmakers that Maryland “has some of the worst roads in America” and argued that, “We pay a heavy price in terms of the time we spend idling in bumper-to-bumper traffic when we could be at home with our families.”
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) and Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) applauded O’Malley’s transportation plans. But both Washington area leaders also criticized the governor’s pension proposal after his speech.
Leggett, who leads the state’s largest and wealthiest county, objected as well to O’Malley’s plan to raise income taxes on those with six-figure incomes.
The Republican criticism against O’Malley’s speech was less nuanced.
Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne’s), who delivered a recorded Republican response online and on Maryland Public Television, suggested that the primary impact of O’Malley’s proposals would be to hurt Maryland families.
“We hear a lot of talk from Gov. O’Malley about tough decisions and balanced approaches and investments,” Pipkin said. “But what’s so tough about using the power of government to take away your hard-earned money?”
Very little of what O’Malley presented Wednesday was new. He had either proposed or floated his priorities in recent weeks. Wednesday’s speech was instead an opportunity to make his case to a captive audience of lawmakers and assorted dignitaries — which included four foreign ambassadors to the United States.
During the speech — in which O’Malley mentioned the word “job” or “jobs” nearly 50 times — he also pitched initiatives to jump-start the wind-power industry and curb septic systems in new residential developments. Similar O’Malley initiatives failed last session.
O’Malley said his same-sex marriage bill would provide equal rights for gay couples and protect the right of religious institutions, which he said would not be forced to conduct marriages that conflict with their beliefs and teachings.
Both of the legislature’s presiding officers praised O’Malley for speaking forthrightly Wednesday about revenue increases.
“He was straightforward and presented what he believes the needs are and what I believe everybody believes the needs are,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). “I don’t think there’s anybody out there who doesn’t think we need the transportation revenue.”
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) was more focused on the mechanics of how O’Malley might get his array of tax increases, environmental initiatives and bid to legalize same-sex marriage over the finish line.
“He’s going to have to make his case for his programs and be very diligent,” Miller said. “There are core people who are going to vote for each one, but after those core people, the governor is going to have to call lawmakers up to his office one by one to explain to them why those tough votes need to be made,” Miller said.