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‘Strong and growing stronger’

O’Malley pushes for wage hike, admits health care website fell short

Gov. Martin O’Malley on Thursday used his final State of the State address to rally lawmakers to pass legislation supporting a number of his remaining priorities in the coming weeks of the General Assembly session.

O’Malley, who is in the last year of his second term as chief executive of Maryland, declared “the state of our state is strong and growing stronger by the day.”

But the governor said he and legislators have “urgent work to do,” including passage of legislation increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10.

“We’ve lost sight of how our economy works when it is working well,” O’Malley said. “Prosperity doesn’t trickle down from the top. It never has. It’s built from the middle out and from the middle up.”

Martin O'Malley

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley delivers his annual State of the State address to a joint session of the legislature in Annapolis, Md., Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

O’Malley talked about the minimum wage increase as a way of strengthening the middle class — something other advocates of the increase have avoided.

“In other words, in a properly functioning economy, a thriving middle class is not a consequence of growth and prosperity: it is the source of growth and prosperity,” O’Malley said. “When every worker earns more money, every business has more customers — and, by the way — every taxpayer is relieved from funding poverty programs, for workers who are being paid poverty level wages.”

“The economy we seek in Maryland is an economy with a human purpose,” he said.

But Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley disagreed.

“A novel way to approach this is to acknowledge that it’s actually an entry-level wage,” Brinkley, R-Frederick, said in his response. “No one can be expected to remain at this entry-level wage for very long — nor should they. But increasing its threshold will raise the lowest rung of the career entry ladder and allow fewer positions for summer, holiday, or entry-level workers.”

The governor also called on legislators to pass bills to expand pre-school education — a bill that Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown is leading the charge on and one he has adopted as a key point in his 2014 campaign to succeed O’Malley.

O’Malley used much of his 40-minute speech to talk about the successes of the first seven years of his administration, including the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland, passage of the DREAM Act to provide in-state tuition to some Maryland residents without regard to immigration status, and the repeal of the state’s death penalty law.

O’Malley also highlighted $9.1 million in spending reductions made to the state budget over the last eight years — “tough choices,” he said.

“The governor touts that he has reduced spending by $9 billion,” Brinkley said in rebuttal. “But the reality is this: his first budget was just over $29.5 billion; the budget he submitted to the legislature last week is nearly $39.5 billion. Now, maybe it’s my public school math, but that’s an increase of about $10 billion, not a reduction as the governor claims. In fact, that’s almost 33 percent more spending over the course of their two terms.”

O’Malley also highlighted the failure of the state’s health care exchange website.

“For all of our achievements, being accountable also means acknowledging when we have fallen short,” O’Malley said. “The health care website failed to perform as designed when it was launched — a source of great frustration — especially for those who were trying to obtain health care for the first time.”

Brinkley, however, criticized Brown for a lack of accountability when it comes to the website.

Brown “was given the opportunity to apologize to the people of Maryland,” Brinkley said, “but he just couldn’t let the words pass his lips.”