State of the State

Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks to members of the General Assembly during his annual State of the State address. (Baltimore Sun/Lloyd Fox / February 1, 2012)

Gov. Martin O'Malley used his State of the State address Wednesday to make his case for his most ambitious legislative agenda since taking office.

Now comes the hard job of selling it.

In an upbeat, 33-minute speech to both chambers of the General Assembly, the governor issued a spirited call for an aggressive program to invest in jobs and honor the "human dignity" of families, whether the parents are gay or straight.

But O'Malley said that generating jobs, improving transportation and cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay would require additional revenue in the form of taxes and fees.

"Everything has a cost. Failing to make decisions that are consistent with the interests of the next generation – this too has a cost," he said. "Progress is a choice."

A leading Democrat said the governor must now follow up, lawmaker by lawmaker, to win approval.

"The proof is in whether or not he's able to deliver on what he's asked the body to do. These are very difficult times, and he's asked the body to do quite a lot," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

"Now, unfortunately, the politics become a one-on-one game, and he's going to have to make his case individually," Miller said. O'Malley is capable of convincing legislators, he said, but "the question is, is he willing to put forth the effort?"

Republicans found little to like in the governor's address.

"I think you can flush most of what he said," said state Sen. Nancy Jacobs of Harford County, who is seeking the GOP nomination for Congress in the 2nd District. "It was all those cliches – with a gas tax! My gosh."

Senate Minority Leader E. J. Pipkin charged that O'Malley's proposals "are nothing more than the same old tax-and-spend and spend-and-tax policies that have slowed our economic growth."

In his address, O'Malley acknowledged that his requests for increased income taxes, a higher "flush tax" and an extension of the sales tax to gasoline will not be popular. But he said that the spending reductions his administration has made over the last four years, in addition to $800 million in his proposed budget, have left "fewer options for responsible budget-cutting."

"How much less education do you think will be good for our children's future?" he asked. "How much less public safety? How many fewer jobs?"

He repeated his call for passage of his bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland, casting it as a protection of the children of those unions.

"It is not right and it is not just that the children of gay couples should have lesser protections than the children of other families in our state," the governor said. He also said that his proposal was written to respect the religious freedom of those who object to gay marriage.

O'Malley cast his proposals to raise a series of taxes and fees as necessary "public investments" in the state. To help close a $1 billion budget gap, he has proposed raising taxes on the top 20 percent of earners – including two-salary families earning $100,000 – by reducing deductions and exemptions.

Over three years, he wants to extend the state's 6 percent sales tax to gasoline purchases to pay for highway and transit projects. "Maryland has some of the worst traffic in America," the governor said. "We pay a heavy price in terms of the time we spend idling in bumper-to-bumper traffic when we could be home with our families."

The governor is also urging the General Assembly to raise the so-called "flush tax" to improve sewage treatment plants and thus the health of the Chesapeake Bay. And he has proposed shifting part of the costs of teacher pensions to the counties to cut $240 million from the state budget — a measure many county leaders are hoping to defeat.

O'Malley argued Wednesday that his tax proposals would give those jurisdictions revenues to help offset the added costs. "No prior proposal on this issue has ever offered this much help to the counties," he said.