For O’Malley, a Civil Session
Governor Uses Diplomacy to Pass Bills
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has invited legislative leaders over for breakfast. He has summoned lawmakers to the governor’s mansion for pizza dinners during which his young children and family dogs competed for their attention. And early in the session, he paid a shiva call following the death of a senior senator’s father.
Since arriving in Annapolis in January, the new governor has put a premium on building relationships with legislators who felt neglected by his predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).
With the 90-day legislative session set to end tomorrow, most — though not all — of the initiatives that O’Malley has pushed this year are on track to become law, including a record $400 million in spending on school construction, a freeze in tuition at public universities next year and tighter emissions standards for automobiles.
And O’Malley is poised to win one more victory tomorrow if lawmakers vote as expected on a bill to make Maryland the first state to mandate that state contractors pay their employees a “living wage.”
Yet many lawmakers say this session is likely to be remembered as much for its civil tone as for the list of accomplishments that O’Malley aides plan to tout in appearances across the state in coming months.
“His success is in the good feeling he has brought to Annapolis more so than an extensive legislative agenda,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (DCalvert). “Could he have accomplished more? Obviously he could have if he had put the bills in.”
The scope of O’Malley’s firstsession legislative agenda was curtailed by an inherited budget deficit that analysts say could reach $1.5 billion next year. Miller and other lawmakers have criticized O’Malley for not doing more this year to address the projected shortfall, and they’ve used that to deny him some victories this year.
Among them: a proposal to require spending tens of millions of additional dollars a year in counties, such as Montgomery and Prince George’s, where the cost of providing education is higher.
Financial concerns have also imperiled a relatively modest O’Malley plan to expand access to health insurance, as well as a bill that would allow labor unions to charge fees to nonmembers whose interests they represent at the bargaining table.
Fixing the budget next year could require spending cuts, tax increases and perhaps the legalization of slot machines. Aides say O’Malley’s efforts to build goodwill this session have been driven partly by a recognition of how difficult that task will be.
“The coming year will challenge the best of relationships,” said Del. Murray D. Levy (D-Charles), who was among seven lawmakers at a pizza dinner at the mansion in February.
Levy described the evening as a relaxed, get-to-know-you session with the former Baltimore mayor. O’Malley’s two boys, ages 9 and 4, darted in and out, while his two teen girls remained out of sight. At one point, Levy said, he intercepted the family’s golden retriever from partaking in the pizza.
Ehrlich made similar gestures early in his term. But his relationship with the heavily Democratic legislature gradually soured.
By the end of Ehrlich’s term, there was little collaboration with lawmakers. Democrats muscled through bills over Ehrlich vetoes. But Democrats also frequently squabbled among themselves. In the words of one aide, O’Malley joined a “dysfunctional family” upon arriving in Annapolis.
O’Malley listed a number of accomplishments this session — some of which are pending — in a recent interview. Among the most important, he said, “is we’re reestablishing a dialogue that allows us to find common ground.”
O’Malley also said pundits can place too much emphasis on legislative wins and losses when assessing a governor’s progress. Some of O’Malley’s boldest moves have come outside the legislative arena, aides said.
Last month, he announced the closing of the state’s 129-year-old, maximum-security House of Correction in Jessup, a goal that eluded prior administrations. Earlier, O’Malley moved quickly to oust the head of the panel that regulates utilities, making good on a campaign promise.
By most accounts, O’Malley has been personally engaged with lawmakers on bills being pushed by his office and on other prominent legislation.
Lawmakers said O’Malley’s personal intervention with senior senators jump-started action on the “living wage” bill, which had been stuck in a committee for weeks. The bill would require state contractors to pay employees at least $11.30 an hour or $8.50 an hour — well above the state’s minimum wage — depending on the region in which the work is performed. The bill zipped through the House last week and is expected to arrive on the Senate floor tomorrow.
O’Malley was also “quite instrumental” in persuading lawmakers to curtail exceptions in a bill that bans smoking in bars and restaurants statewide, said Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the House panel that considered it. That bill won final approval Friday night in the Senate and is expected to clear the House tomorrow.
And the committee chairmen who shepherded “clean cars” legislation through the House and the Senate credited O’Malley for persuading some moderate Democrats to support the bill, which would toughen emissions standards on automobiles titled in Maryland.
“I’ve been here; this is my 29th year,” said Sen. Jennie M. Forehand (D-Montgomery), one of those who met with O’Malley. “I’ve never seen a governor listen like he is.”
Forehand, who supported O’Malley’s Democratic primary rival last year, credited the governor with changing the tone in Annapolis. “It’s give and take, and it’s not anger, and where there’s disagreement, there’s civility,” she said.
Republicans offered varied assessments of the tone set by O’Malley but seem united in the view that he should have done more to tackle the looming budget deficit. “We’ll see how much consensus there is when we have to foist a billion and a half to 2 billion in taxes on the citizens of Maryland,” House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnnell (R-Calvert) said.
O’Malley’s highest-profile loss of the session came on legislation to repeal the death penalty. The bill, voted down by a Senate panel, was not part of O’Malley’s package of legislation, but the governor took the unusual step of testifying in favor of it. Some lawmakers said that issue is not a fair gauge of O’Malley’s effectiveness, however.
Given how strongly people feel about the death penalty, “I think a heavy-handed approach would have been counterproductive and would have offended people,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), chairman of the committee that shelved the bill.