Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) used his State of the State address this week to frame his administration’s legacy as a period of reduced spending, top-notch schools and job creation.
But reaction to his assessment of the past several years seemed to split along party lines.
In a speech lasting just more than 34 minutes, O’Malley outlined his legislative agenda using familiar themes and rhetoric, such as stressing the importance of making choices — a word he employed more than a dozen times.
“Our story, Maryland’s story, is the story of better choices and better results,” O’Malley told members of the General Assembly. He went on to summarize the state’s achievements under his administration, such as the often-cited No. 1 ranking of the state’s public schools, a minimal rise in college tuition and the near-elimination of a $1.7 billion structural deficit.
But Republican lawmakers painted a far different picture.
“My overriding impression is that this speech was crafted to polish a legacy that he wants to have, rather than reflecting the reality of what we experience,” said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Dist. 29C) of Lusby, adding that the speech Wednesday was the most “leftist” State of the State he had heard from the governor.
The most clear example of that, O’Donnell said, was when O’Malley claimed to have cut more spending than any other administration in modern history — $8.3 billion in total.
“There’s not been a nickel in cuts,” O’Donnell said. “When he came into office, the budget was $29 billion. Now, it’s $37 billion. How is that cutting?”
House Majority Leader Kumar Barve (D-Dist. 17) of Gaithersburg said the governor had the record to back up his speech.
“Maryland has done very well with Martin as governor,” Barve said. “He had a lot of positive material to work with,” including the state’s AAA bond rating and balanced budgets, he said.
Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) said the speech was “very substantive” and gave a “powerful summary of how well-off the state is.”
While the address was compelling and well delivered, it was short on substance, said Richard Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University and a close ally of former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
“There’s an argument that (the state’s) economic health has improved, but at what cost?” Vatz said. O’Malley’s economic record has included increases in income taxes, which take money from the rich and give to the lower and middle classes, he said.
“He’s playing Robin Hood,” Vatz said.
But the speech also showed O’Malley — presumed to be a presidential contender in 2016 — was probably looking toward national office, Vatz said.
Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin (R-Dist. 36) of Elkton rejected O’Malley’s claims about having to make tough choices.
“This governor has increased sales taxes, income taxes, alcohol taxes, flush fees, (then) has the nerve to stand up there today and say he’s disappointed he didn’t raise one more tax, and that’s the gas tax,” Pipkin said.
In his speech, O’Malley also asked lawmakers to act to relieve traffic congestion and support building “a 21st-century transportation network,” despite the fact that a transportation funding proposal was not included in his legislative package.
Last year, O’Malley proposed either adding a 6 percent sales tax on gasoline or a one-penny increase in the overall sales tax to fund transportation projects, but neither proposal moved forward. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach is expected to submit his own transportation funding proposal soon.
O’Malley also called for developing offshore wind farms, which he said would create jobs, and a ban on military-style assault weapons, which he said would save lives.
Although many lawmakers offered a standing ovation when O’Malley mentioned the proposed ban, two showed their frustration with a theatrical flourish: Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. (R-Dist. 36) of Chesapeake City and Del. Mike McDermott (R-Dist. 38B) of Pocomoke City tore up a copy of the Second Amendment, which they believe would be violated by O’Malley’s proposals.
O’Malley’s call for repeal of the death penalty also drew applause and praise.
Sister Helen Prejean, a nun from Louisiana and a national advocate for the repeal of the death penalty, said listening to O’Malley gave her hope.
“I’ve been coming in and out of Maryland for 15 or 20 years to talk to people about the death penalty,” Prejean said. “It’s the people who have to get it and talk to their lawmakers. It’s going to come out of Maryland this year.”
Prejean said O’Malley’s speech was a stark contrast to the rhetoric in her native state.
“I come from the Deep South, and you never hear a governor talking about human dignity and green energy and harnessing the wind. They talk about cutting programs and guns, and they’re proud of it.
“It’s nice to see that this is America, too.”