On the eve of Maryland’s legislative session, Gov. Martin O’Malley signaled Tuesday that he will use the promise of job creation to justify asking lawmakers to take several tough votes in the coming 90 days, including some to raise taxes.
O’Malley (D) cast a plan to boost funding for public school construction by nearly 20 percent as a job creator, and he suggested that other initiatives he soon plans to unveil should be viewed in the same light.
Those are expected to include proposals to ramp up spending on transportation projects and water-and-sewer upgrades, and to provide incentives to jump-start the state’s wind power industry. Although O’Malley has not shared details, those plans are all but certain to require increases in the gas tax and “flush tax” and to result in higher electric bills.
The outline of O’Malley’s ambitious agenda has brought howls of protest from Republican lawmakers. His plans are likely to rise or fall based on his ability to persuade fellow Democrats, who hold commanding majorities in the House and Senate but do not appear to be sold yet.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, O’Malley acknowledged that some unpopular votes may be required to move his agenda forward.
“It’s not about the popularity of a given action,” O’Malley said after a traditional pre-session Democratic luncheon. “It’s about our ability to create jobs.”
Other higher-profile issues are expected to be hotly debated in the General Assembly, including an O’Malley-backed measure to legalize same-sex marriage and a bid to expand Maryland’s slot-machine gambling program. O’Malley and lawmakers must also close a $1 billion or so shortfall in the state’s $14 billion operating budget.
In recent days, however, O’Malley and his aides have sought to cast the session as largely about creating jobs as Maryland continues to recover from the national recession. Critics have questioned whether his measures are capable of having a significant effect on the state’s overall employment picture.
Flanked by schoolchildren Tuesday at an event in Annapolis, O’Malley said the state’s economy is recovering faster than the nation’s. But, he said, “to regain and recapture what we have lost . . . we have to find the political will necessary to do that; it won’t happen by itself.”
“Whether it’s upgrading our water infrastructure, our transportation infrastructure, or creating a modern classroom where our children can compete in a global economy, these are the things that a free-thinking people choose to do in order to create more opportunity,” he said.
During his morning tour of Germantown Elementary School, which was recently rebuilt with the help of state funding, O’Malley noted that the project had employed about 350 people amid the economic downturn.
After that tour, he officially announced his plan, leaked Monday, to ask the state legislature to increase funding for school construction to $372 million in the budget year beginning in July.
If approved, it would be the second-highest total for school construction in state history. O’Malley said the investment would support an estimated 11,650 jobs.
“There is no clearer indication of the greatness of a people than the way they treat their children,” he said. “We know that the better educated our children are, the more opportunities we’ll be able to create and the more jobs we’ll be able to have.”
As O’Malley remained on point, however, another news conference Tuesday in Annapolis underscored the uncertainty about how focused lawmakers will be on his agenda.
Opponents of Maryland’s death penalty vowed to make a new push to abolish capital punishment.
They argued that in the wake of the controversial September execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, Maryland must lead by example and repeal the law.
“This state is on the verge of making history,” said NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, who added that ending the death penalty in Maryland, Connecticut and California this year is a national priority for the organization.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said there is more support for abolishing the death penalty in the House than in the Senate, where a measure to do so has repeatedly failed to pass out of a key committee.
But Busch warned there is only so much that can be done in the legislature’s 90-day session. “We can’t do it all,” he said.