By DANIEL LEADERMAN
ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 02, 2010) - Gov. Martin O'Malley told Maryland lawmakers Tuesday that job creation must be at the top of everyone's legislative agenda.
"There is no government program that is as important or as empowering as a job," O'Malley said. "Therefore, progress requires that we focus the energies of this session on three primary actions: creating jobs, saving jobs and protecting jobs."
O'Malley's rhetoric echoed last week's State of the Union address, which President Obama also focused on job creation.
The governor, who is up for re-election this fall, also used his fourth State of the State address to express his optimism about Maryland's ability to overcome its fiscal challenges.
"In times of great adversity, we don't make excuses—we make progress," O'Malley said.
Maryland faces a projected budget shortfall of nearly $2 billion, and the governor's proposed budget aims to close the gap through furloughs, layoffs and transferring nearly a billion dollars from various sources that include the state's capital fund.
But jobs, rather than the budget, were the focus of O'Malley's address.
The governor praised the new partnership with Ports America at the Port of Baltimore to bring 5,700 new construction and port operation jobs, and General Motors' announcement that its new electric hybrid engines would be manufactured in Baltimore County.
The governor also asked the General Assembly to pass a $3,000 tax credit for businesses that hire unemployed Marylanders and to approve $83 million to relieve unemployment insurance premiums.
O'Malley credited federal stimulus funds with creating or saving 19,000 jobs in Maryland and said that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act would continue to create construction jobs in Maryland in the year ahead.
Fostering green energy and construction is another important vehicle for job creation, O'Malley said.
"Working with imaginative redevelopers and green developers, I'm asking you to revitalize our historic downtowns and Main Streets—along with new green neighborhoods—by passing a new Sustainable Communities Tax Credit," O'Malley said.
"We can leverage tens of millions of dollars in private investment to create hundreds of jobs now, and thousands moving forward," O'Malley said.
Education remained another high priority for O'Malley, who urged the legislature to approve his record $5.7 billion allotment for K-12 education and called the state's educated and skilled workforce "Maryland's greatest economic asset."
The legislature can make cuts to the governor's budget and recommend changes but lacks the power to increase funding.
"In areas like public education, (Maryland) is stronger than every other state in the union," O'Malley said. Maryland public schools were recently named No. 1 in the country by Education Week magazine for the second year in a row.
House and Senate Republicans, while occasionally praising the governor's delivery, criticized the speech as empty rhetoric.
"He's working on his stump speech, you can tell," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Cecil.
"I'm not sure that he's truly learning," Jacobs said. "He spent the last three years driving business out of Maryland, and now all of a sudden he's going to give (businesses) a tax credit...they can't afford to hire people right now...their businesses are barely afloat."
The proposed tax credit feels like political posturing, said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, R-Calvert.
"You look at all the regulations that have been detrimental to job creation, all the wealth we chased out of our state because of our tax policy," O'Donnell said. "Then you pitch a $20 million job tax credit because you want to get re-elected? That's ludicrous."
"We might find common ground on growing oysters and aquaculture," O'Donnell said. "Other than that, the whole notion that government creates jobs is something that we reject. The government didn't build this country. Private enterprise built this country."
Another target of criticism was the governor's response to the growing concern about sexual predators, with both O'Donnell and Jacobs saying that O'Malley needed to do more to protect Marylanders.
State supervision of sex offenders became a legislative priority after the December death of 11-year-old Sarah Haley Foxwell on the Eastern Shore. Thomas Leggs, who is registered as a sex offender in both Maryland and Delaware, has been charged with the girl's kidnapping.
O'Malley mentioned child predators just once in his address, but recently revived a state Sexual Offender Advisory Board that had been dormant since 2006 and announced legislation calling for stricter enforcement of sex offender laws.
Sen. Andrew Harris, R-Baltimore County, who is challenging Democrat Frank Kratovil for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, said the governor's education agenda was missing the point.
"To spend money just to say we spend money is not the answer," Harris said. "Overall, we may have a good school system, but there are certainly areas in this state...where the schools are suffering and the students aren't learning and we haven't done anything innovative for those schools."
Democrats said the governor was justified in his optimism.
"This is the toughest recession since the Depression," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, said. "Leaders are supposed to lead. They're supposed to encourage the constituents...it's very important that he be optimistic."
Delegate John Bohanan, D-St. Mary's, also praised the governor's upbeat tone.
"We've got to take a break from all the negative pessimism," Bohanan said. "There are a lot of positive aspects to focus on, and to call out 'too little too late' is, I would say, disingenuous."
Comptroller Peter Franchot was less optimistic.
"I think the governor has been dealt a lot of bad options and he's trying to make the best of it that he can," Franchot said. "We're not anywhere near out of the recession. In all likelihood we'll be heading for a second dip.
Capital News Service reporters Brady Holt, Adam Kerlin and Rachel Leven contributed to this report.