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Jan. 2014, Baltimore Sun: O'Malley Excelled in Tough Times

O'Malley excelled in tough times

Maryland's governor kept the state healthy and strong despite economic and political setbacks

By Jim Rosapepe

As Gov. Martin O'Malley makes his final state of the state speech Thursday, it's a good time to look at what seven years of his governorship have meant for Maryland.

The state of the state is clearly good: first in median family income, a top three state in income mobility, first in K-12 education five years in a row. And Maryland has already recovered 99 percent of jobs lost in the Great Recession. These are hard facts.

But such snapshots overstate and understate Mr. O'Malley's impact. They reflect decades of state policy, external events, technological and demographic changes — and plain old luck.

Governors do make a difference, though, particularly ones with strong values and strong leadership skills.

For example, in January 2006, after three years of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s budget cuts had forced college tuition up 43 percent, I proposed that the University System of Maryland Board of Regents (of which I was then a member) freeze tuition for the coming year. My proposal was defeated 13-to-1. But that week, Martin O'Malley took up the cause of college affordability, won the governor's race, froze tuition for four years and has capped tuition hikes at 3 percent for the past three years.

The result is Mr. O'Malley has led Maryland to best in the nation in boosting college affordability, from the sixth highest tuition to the middle of pack. That's change Maryland families can take to the bank.

It's also a great example of the values and governing style Mr. O'Malley has brought to Annapolis.

He took office after four years of partisan and social division, fiscal gridlock and underinvestment.

In 2007, Mr. O'Malley moved decisively to get the state back on track. He called a special General Assembly session to clean up the billion-dollar long term deficit he inherited, raising revenue by making the income tax more progressive and closing tax loopholes. And he took on more controversial issues — cutting the budget, adding a penny to the sales tax and negotiating a compromise on gambling. The result? Maryland's AAA bond rating was reaffirmed, and the state was fiscally prepared to weather the international financial crisis of 2008.

He also brought a new tone to Annapolis: respect for political opponents, immigrants and other minorities — and even legislators. When I came to the Senate in 2007, I was astonished to hear Republican colleagues say they were being consulted more by Mr. O'Malley than they had been by his predecessor.

In government, as in kindergarten, playing well with others is mission critical. Mr. O'Malley has shown he's an A student in working with diverse personalities and interests. More than anything else, that's why he's been able to strengthen Maryland's finances, expand health insurance to over 450,000 Marylanders, make college more affordable, boost renewable energy by 40 percent — not to mention win re-election by 14 points in 2010, a strong Republican year.

Mr. O'Malley has won almost his whole agenda — including repealing the death penalty, reducing gun violence and other crime and boosting minority contracting — by listening and leading. He has strong values — social solidarity, social justice and economic opportunity — and strong leadership. But he understands that compromise is the secret sauce of democracy.

Time and again, he has taken on controversial issues — fiscal prudence, immigrant and gay rights and environment protection. While other states ignored underfunded pensions, Mr. O'Malley worked with state unions to strengthen Maryland's.

For years he joined business leaders pushing to reduce traffic congestion. He knew raising the gas tax would never be popular. But when some Democrats wanted to him to dodge the issue until his term ended, he said no. He worked with legislators from around the state to pass a $2.9 billion package of investment in transit and roads.

Then there's health care.

Even with the Maryland Health Exchange's website problems, 453,000 more Marylanders have gained health insurance since 2007. With recent approval of the updated "Medicare waiver," Maryland leads the nation in innovation to hold down health care costs. And when he saw problems with the website, Governor O'Malley moved aside the bureaucrat who mismanaged it, put in a new team and told them to fix it. Now, more than 12,000 Marylanders a week are signing up for a health care plan.

When Governor O'Malley took office in 2007, Maryland's long term finances were out of balance. The next year the Great Recession hit the state. He managed through the tough times, cleaned up the fiscal mess he inherited and launched a wave of reform and investment — from transportation and health to education and the environment — to grow Maryland's middle class for decades to come.