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Local legislators react to State of the State

November 30, 1999|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

ANNAPOLIS ? The highlights of Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley's State of the State address ? record school construction money, more correctional officers, open-space protection ? elicited good reviews on Wednesday from Washington County's Republican-heavy delegation.

But there was caution and skepticism, too, as some saw strong hints of future tax increases in a largely upbeat speech.

O'Malley laced his first post-inauguration address with calls for better education funding, a prison system overhaul and a commitment to preserving the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Del. John P. Donoghue, the county delegation's only Democrat, said he particularly liked O'Malley's focus on cutting down the number of uninsured Marylanders, boosting reimbursement rates for doctors and helping small businesses insure employees.

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Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, was thrilled to hear the governor's support for agriculture ? especially MARBIDCO, a state-created quasi-public corporation that supports agriculture, forestry, the seafood industry and rural land preservation.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, was pleased by O'Malley $2 million for advanced global positioning systems to track sex offenders, a cause with which Shank has been involved.

Delegation members also spoke highly about state funding for 155 correctional officers, an item that drew one of several bipartisan standing ovations during the governor's speech.

O'Malley's office has said the positions are new, not filling existing vacancies.

Of the 155 positions, 73 are earmarked for Washington County's three state prisons, according to Jacqueline Lampell, the executive director of communications for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

A question that can't be ignored, some said after the speech, is: What's ahead?

O'Malley's reference to "a huge looming structural deficit" of about $4 billion sends a clear message, said Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington.

"You don't have to be a genius to see that he's setting up for a tax increase next year," Mooney said.

"I don't see anything in his speech or budget looking forward to a state deficit ..." said Shank, the House minority whip. "I feel that we're just digging our hole deeper if we don't address the situation."

O'Malley's proposed fiscal 2008 budget includes a record $400 million for school construction and $1 billion for highway projects.

It raises spending 2.5 percent, less than the rate of inflation. It also relies on almost $1 billion from the state's rainy-day fund, almost two-thirds of it, leaving $674 million.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, said O'Malley scored points on school construction and operations and on health-care coverage.

"My biggest question is, Is there enough money to pay for all that?" Myers said.

Sen. George C. Edwards, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, called O'Malley's speech good, but short on fiscal specifics about the coming deficit and money for new initiatives.

It's time to talk about legalizing slot machines, Edwards said.

Munson said O'Malley deserves some slack.

"It always concerns me when the prospect of taxes is on the horizon, as it is," Munson said. "But the guy's been in office for two weeks. I think he really needs to have a longer time to look into the future."

"I felt there was a lot a moderate Republican could embrace," said Del. Richard B. Weldon Jr., R-Frederick/Washington.

However, Weldon said he took exception to O'Malley's "nonsense" implication that Maryland was adrift during the four years Republican Robert Ehrlich was governor. The reserve fund O'Malley is drawing on is the reserve fund Ehrlich built up, Weldon said.

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