Thursday, May 3, 2007

O’Malley’s first 100 days

For some, the governor has moved too fast; for others, he has gone too slowly

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At a photo op this week for a bill to protect the diamondback terrapin, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. drew a comparison to the Maryland state reptile and the O’Malley administration.

‘‘It doesn’t proceed as fast as one would like it to, but at least it doesn’t move backward,” he quipped.

For some, the start of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s term resembles the slow-moving turtle, eschewing brash action on issues such as health care reform or the looming budget deficit.

But for others, the 100 days since O’Malley took office Jan. 17 have resembled the hare, moving quickly to resolve problems.

Within weeks of a correctional officer’s stabbing at the Maryland House of Correction near Jessup, O’Malley and Public Safety Secretary Gary D. Maynard secretly relocated 655 inmates and closed the 129-year-old prison.

‘‘At least he and the public safety secretary had the guts to take bold, resolute steps,” said Larry D. Kump, president of a chapter of the Maryland Classified Employees Association.

Other labor leaders have praise for the new governor.

‘‘If you want to pinpoint the biggest difference, O’Malley has changed the tone in terms of state employees,” said Sue Esty, a lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Correctional officers felt ignored during the Ehrlich administration, she said. And O’Malley’s for ‘‘living wage” legislation, which sets higher minimum wages for state contractors, showing his support doesn’t stop at state government.

Environmentalists largely give O’Malley high marks.

Cindy Schwartz, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said the governor’s inauguration speech mirrored her organization’s agenda.

The Audubon Naturalist Society also gave O’Malley high marks for signing bills to better manage storm water runoff and to reduce automobile emissions, and to restore funding to Program Open Space.

But the organization’s executive director, Neal Fitzpatrick, rapped O’Malley for supporting the Intercounty Connector highway.

‘‘We’re still hoping the governor will take a step back from the ICC and make more investments in transit to accomplish his environmental goals,” Fitzpatrick said.

Some business groups remain skeptical of O’Malley.

‘‘Clearly, Maryland has become the laboratory for a lot of anti-business legislation, and I hope the governor will see the need to moderate that,” said Robert O.C. Worcester, president of Maryland Business for Responsive Government.

William Burns, a spokesman for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber would have wanted to see more progress on health care. O’Malley proposed a minor expansion of insurance coverage, which was largely forgotten because a broader and more expensive plan was proposed in the House of Delegates. Neither plan passed the General Assembly.

The Tech Council of Maryland, however, offered praise for O’Malley’s first steps, which included more money for stem cell research, an expanded biotechnology investment credit and the creation of the Life Sciences Advisory Board.

‘‘For our purposes, it was clearly an impressive start to his administration. He recognized that technology is a driver for the Maryland economy,” said Julie Coons, chief executive officer for the council.

On social programs, Advocates for Children and Youth gives the governor ‘‘an incomplete,” executive director Matthew H. Joseph said.

‘‘He’s laid the groundwork for a number of important things but he has not made some of the concrete steps for improving outcomes for children,” Joseph said.

His efforts on juvenile justice have focused on the ‘‘deep end” of the issues rather than advancing programs that would prevent children from entering the juvenile justice system in the first place, he said.

And although O’Malley fulfilled a state law to provide money for caseworkers, the cash was redirected from other areas rather than from increased funding, Joseph said. ‘‘It will ameliorate a problem, and not actually fix it,” he said.

Joseph’s organization also believes the state is improperly allocating education aid. The millions coming from the Thornton reforms should be directed to low-performing students.

‘‘We were hoping he would speak out on the issue,” Joseph said.

If the governor moved quickly on some issues — the House of Correction, the death of a teenager at a Department of Juvenile Services contractor — Maryland’s fiscal crisis led to what some have coined the ‘‘O’Molasses administration.”

‘‘Time is money and we can’t afford it,” said Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley (R-Dist. 4) of New Market. And considering so many of his appointments served in the Glendening administration, Brinkley said, he was surprised O’Malley needed the time.

Brinkley’s counterpart in the House, Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, was more pointed.

‘‘He’s lip-synced his way through the first 100 days,” said O’Donnell (R-Dist. 29C) of Lusby. ‘‘He makes Ashlee Simpson and Milli Vanilli look like the Vienna Boys Choir.”

The size of the gap, projected to be $1.5 billion for fiscal 2009, almost surely means tax increases. O’Malley has asked for a year so his signature StateStat can examine state government for efficiencies. If O’Malley then asks for a tax increase, he also will be offering budget cuts as part of his fiscal solution.

‘‘I’ve heard from department heads, and he’s serious about finding economies,” said Miller (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach.

But Esty, whose union represents 33,000 state employees, said the administration would discover that Maryland government is already lean. And the Maryland Association of Counties will be expecting the former mayor of Baltimore to avoid burdening local government with state responsibilities.

‘‘And as a mayor and as a council person before that, his experience with the ‘shift-and-shaft’ policy is very up close and personal. So local government officials are optimistic he will not permit such irresponsibilities to guide budget deliberations,” said David S. Bliden, MACo’s executive director.

Even people who disagree with O’Malley philosophically, however, have noticed changes around Annapolis. Burns said O’Malley’s legislative staff listened to business concerns on some legislation. Brinkley also noted how the new governor opened lines of communication with the Republicans.

‘‘He set a civil tone, and he encouraged more thoughtful discussion. There hasn’t been the fighting or the animosity we’ve seen before,” said the LCV’s Schwartz.