Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley urged lawmakers on Wednesday to take steps to address a backlog of transportation needs, but he did not endorse any specific funding proposals in his annual State of the State speech.
O'Malley pressed for action to ease the traffic congestion faced by residents, particularly in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. The Democratic governor said transportation investments are also critical to job creation.
"We can figure this out together for every citizen of our state, and we can do it now and in this session, or all of us are going to waste more time and money sitting in more and worse traffic," O'Malley said.
The lack of details concerned Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who has made several proposals of his own to raise revenue for infrastructure. These include levying a 3 percent sales tax on gasoline, letting counties raise up to 5 cents on top of the state's 23.5-cents gas tax and creating regional transit authorities.
"He's got to make it his priority,'' Miller, D-Calvert, said. "He's got to work hard to make it happen, but the absence of a secretary of transportation and the absence of any specifics in his speech concerned me greatly.''
Last year, O'Malley proposed phasing in a 6 percent sales tax on a gallon of gasoline, but the measure stalled. Critics have faulted O'Malley for using money raised for transportation needs to plug budget holes during the recession and, in the years after it, aggravating funding shortfalls.
Supporters of taking action this session say now is the year to do it, because next year will be an election year that will make it even harder for lawmakers to take a tough vote.
"It's definitely going to be a difficult needle to thread, but at the same time it's something we need to do," Sen. Rob Garagiola, D-Montgomery, said. "I think my colleagues in the House and Senate realize it."
Republicans criticized even the suggestion of raising more revenue from Maryland taxpayers, especially in the aftermath of tax increases that were passed last year. Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Cecil, said the speech sounded like it was tailored more for the national stage, rather than Maryland. O'Malley is widely believed to be weighing a presidential bid in 2016.
"I think at the end of the day, the policies that he highlighted today, the people that were in the crowd, this is the price that the citizens of Maryland are going to pay for his presidential ambitions," Pipkin said. "If you notice, the agenda he spelled out today, really had a lot more to do with the national agenda than it did a state agenda, or currying favor with various interest groups in this state and nationally that will help him with his presidential ambitions."
O'Malley reiterated his support this year for passing a comprehensive gun-safety measure. His push follows the December massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults before committing suicide. O'Malley wants to ban military assault weapons, strengthen handgun licensing requirements, improve mental health treatment and upgrade security at schools.
The governor touted investments in his proposed budget to improve public education and build new schools. O'Malley's budget plan includes $336 million for school construction. School funding has been a top priority of the O'Malley administration, despite the challenges of the recession and the state's slow recovery from it.
O'Malley also highlighted higher education. He said Maryland has done a good job getting students to college, but the state needs to do more to get them through to graduation.
"We can move our system toward rewarding a student's competency, not merely the number of years that he or she spends sitting in a lecture hall," O'Malley said. "We can rework financial aid so that more students can afford to carry full course loads to complete their degrees on or ahead of time."
O'Malley mentioned his push to help pave the way to develop offshore wind energy off the coast of Maryland. The measure, which has failed to pass in the last two years but faces better prospects this year, could ultimately raise residents' electric bills by $1.50 a month.
Noting that public safety was what drove him to enter public service, O'Malley said he will be backing the renewal of a state law allowing authorities to collect DNA samples from people charged with violent crimes. The law, which will be weighed in the U.S. Supreme Court, is set to expire at the end of the year. The governor also mentioned his goal to repeal the death penalty this year. Maryland's death penalty has been on hold since a 2006 court ruling found the state's lethal injection protocols weren't properly approved by a legislative committee. Executions can't resume until the protocols are approved.
"The death penalty is expensive, and it does not work and we should stop doing it,'' O'Malley said toward the end of the speech, which lasted about 35 minutes.