By LIZ FARMER, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - As the General Assembly works to iron out a compromise for a statewide ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, a new poll indicates that a record-high 72 percent of Maryland voters support the legislation.
Slightly more than half of those polled - 52 percent - also hold a favorable opinion of Gov. Martin O'Malley, up 2 percent from those surveyed in a January poll, according to results released Thursday by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies. By comparison, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., a Republican, held a 56 percent approval rating after his first three months in office.
"He's about where Ehrlich was but he's a Democrat so he should be higher," said Matthew A. Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. Crenson said that the "subdued" way O'Malley has approached his first term and the state's impending budget deficit may have taken some of the enthusiasm out of the numbers.
"I think this may reflect that kind of uncertainty because people aren't necessarily waiting for the other shoe to drop, they're waiting for the next shoe to drop," he said, referring to the potential for future tax hikes in the state.
O'Malley's job approval rating runs highest among women and African-Americans, in the Washington suburbs and his home base of Baltimore.
"For someone who's been in office a couple months and when you look at the 52 percent approval compared to the 21 percent disapproval, I would be content with that if I was a new governor," said Patrick Gonzales, president of the polling and research firm.
Support for the ban on smoking in Maryland restaurants and bars has remained relatively steady since the session opened in January, as has the strength of opposition to the ban.
Both houses of the General Assembly have passed differing versions of the bill, but neither has yet acted on the others'. A conference committee is currently working on an effort to hash out a single bill, which O'Malley has promised to sign if it passes. The ban would go into effect in January.
The Gonzales poll surveyed 820 registered voters and was conducted by telephone from Mar. 19 through Mar.22. It has a margin of error of 3.5 percent.
Maryland voters also favor a ban on assault weapons. While a majority favors the death penalty, support for it has ebbed in recent years, with 57 percent of Marylanders still supporting capital punishment and 37 percent opposing it.
"The poll is a baseline for us, not a deterrent," said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, D-Baltimore, the sponsor of the death penalty repeal in the Senate this year. Gladden said she would be more interested in questions on whether people think the death penalty is a deterrent to crime and if the punishment is racially driven.
An assault weapons ban and a repeal of the death penalty in the state have been introduced in the General Assembly for at least the past three years, but the bills died in committee every year. Support for the death penalty has dropped five points since 2001, the last time the Gonzales survey asked the question. This shift is consistent with national polling data, said Gonzales.
In addition, when asked if the more appropriate sentence for a first degree murder was the death penalty or life without parole, a plurality of 46 percent of the respondents chose life in prison without parole. The numbers represent a switch from six years ago, when a 45 percent plurality still favored the death penalty and 42 percent opted for life without possibility of parole. "The death penalty has been such a high profile issue lately, especially with DNA results showing there are people who don't belong [on death row]," said Crenson. "It may show that people are wavering...but I suspect that'll go back and forth for years."