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State of the State stresses job growth, ducks transportation funding

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley delivered a rosy recap of his first six years in office during remarks to the General Assembly Wednesday but, as expected, did not endorse a plan that would raise new money to fund transportation.

In his seventh State of the State Address, O’Malley focused on his administration’s work to foster job growth in a recovering economy and touted this year’s top initiatives, including creating a market for offshore wind energy, repealing the death penalty, banning assault weapons and forcing the licensing of handgun owners.

But O’Malley did not endorse a proposed bill to create a regional taxing authority to raise transportation money. That legislation is expected to be introduced by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, this week.

“We have the worst traffic congestion in the country,” O’Malley said, before being briefly interrupted by lawmakers’ applause. “(That is) nothing to clap for. You all have cast a lot of difficult votes time and time again, and moved us from the back of the pack to the front of the pack in some cases. There is no reason we should be content with having the worst traffic congestion in the country.”

O’Malley did thank Miller for his work, and also thanked House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, for thinking about ways to fund transportation improvements. But after two of O’Malley’s transportation proposals, hiking the gas tax and hiking the sales tax, were panned by the legislature last year, the governor continued to signal his intent to allow lawmakers to suggest a new revenue stream.

“We can figure this out together, for every citizen of our state and we can do it now and in this session,” O’Malley said. “Or all of us are going to waste more time and money sitting in more and worse traffic.”

No more taxes

Del. Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat and the House majority leader, said a majority of delegates agree that transportation funding ought to be a priority. But many lawmakers are sensitive about raising taxes a year after increasing the income tax rate for individuals earning more than $100,000 and couples earning more than $150,000.

“The question is whether or not we can get the votes,” Barve said, adding that price of sitting in traffic may be greater than a tax increase would be — especially in his suburban Washington district.

“Congestion is a congestion tax,” he said.

Larry Hogan, the appointments secretary for former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., blamed O’Malley for that congestion.

“Gov. O’Malley said we have the worst traffic congestion in the nation, on this we agree. But he failed to tell you that he is the reason we are in this predicament, because he diverted funds from the transportation trust fund to pay for other things,” said Hogan, now chairman of Change Maryland, which bills itself as a nonpartisan grass-roots organization. “Of what was left in the transportation budget, he only allocated a tiny amount to roads.”

The state’s Transportation Trust Fund is dangerously low, and Miller’s proposal is being discussed as a conversation starter rather than the solution. No concrete plan has been offered by Barve or other members of the House that would raise enough money to maintain roads, highways and bridges while also paying for light rail lines in Montgomery County and Baltimore.

Busch, when asked about Miller’s proposal to create regional transportation authorities that would force urban residents to pay for those mass transit projects, has refrained from endorsing or objecting to the bill.

Barve said no plan to rival Miller’s proposal has emerged in the House, but said that should not be a concern.

“We’re at the very beginning of a 90-day session,” Barve said. “I don’t believe it’s acceptable for us to do nothing.”

‘National agenda speech’

Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Upper Shore Republican and the Senate’s minority leader, said he did not believe it was acceptable for O’Malley to ask for new taxes to fund mass transit, and found little substance in the governor’s address.

“It’s a national agenda speech,” Pipkin said. O’Malley, who is term-limited as governor, is widely believed to be eyeing the presidency in 2016.

In the speech, much of which could have served as the soundtrack for a gubernatorial victory lap, O’Malley ticked off accomplishments from the last six years that ranged from increasing public education funding and limiting the cost of college tuition, to suggesting the reform of some overbearing business regulations, to closing what was once a nearly $2 billion structural deficit.

“We reformed hundreds of pages of regulations, streamlined permitting and fast tracked jobs projects,” O’Malley said. “We eliminated paperwork, simplified applications for business licenses, and reduced waiting times from months to days.”

He also lauded the effectiveness of a public-private partnership between the Maryland Port Administration and Ports America Chesapeake, which has paid for supersized cranes and built a 50-foot berth at the Port of Baltimore to accommodate large ships that will come to the East Coast once expansion of the Panama Canal is completed. Baltimore is one of only two East Coast ports that can support such ships.

Winds are blowing

The second half of the address, though, dealt with the governor’s initiatives this year, led by the offshore wind energy bill. After watching similar legislation die in the Senate Finance Committee for the last two years, O’Malley appears confident about its chances in this session. Miller, the Senate president, rearranged the roster of the Finance Committee to ensure there were the six votes necessary to move the bill into the full Senate, where Miller has also secured 24 cosponsors — the same number of votes needed to pass a bill in the Senate.

“Moving forward with offshore wind could make Maryland the new regional manufacturing hub for wind turbines,” O’Malley said. “We will create jobs and we will generate abundant, clean, renewable energy, but only if we choose. … Let’s get this done this year.”

Pipkin, who did not join wind energy advocates in applause, later pointed out that by forcing consumers to use energy generated by offshore wind, the state would be increasing the electricity bill of every household and every business.

“It’s the dumbest idea ever,” Pipkin said.