After demolishing Bob Ehrlich last November in the General Election, Martin O’Malley officially began his second and final term as Maryland governor with his inauguration last week, the first full week of work for the 2011 version of the Maryland General Assembly.
And the governor, the House and the Senate are all still staring at the same 800-pound gorilla they grappled with in 2010, a billion dollar budget deficit.
“It’s an honor and privilege to be here, but the real work begins to try and close a $1.6 billion deficit,” said Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell, one of dozens of freshman members of the House of Delegates. I caught up with him while he waited in line to sign the book all new members sign during opening day of the session, also known as friends and family day. Just think of the first day of school—on steroids.
“And we’re prepared to make tough choices. Some of them aren’t going to be popular, but at the end of the day it’s time, we need to do the right thing for the state of Maryland,” he added.
Mitchell, who represents the 44th legislative district in Baltimore City – the same district his uncle, Clarence “The Bear” Mitchell III represented in the 1960s – may be a rookie in Annapolis, but he is a veteran of Baltimore politics serving on the City Council from 1995 to 2007, a stretch that included a run for mayor in 2007.
Mitchell argues shifting exploding pension costs to local governments should not be one of those tough choices—at least not now.
“Shifting the pension cost to the city of Baltimore would break the back of the city,” Mitchell said. “To shift that cost over while we’ve got a tax base that is dwindling, with the issues in Baltimore City, right now is not the time for the city to absorb that type of shift.”
Gov. O’Malley stirred up some dust earlier this month during the annual Conference of Maryland’s Association of Counties, when he announced he would not propose pension costs to shift beginning in fiscal year 2012. A sentiment Senate President Mike Miller sneered at during the same meeting.
“The counties determine how many people they hire and they don’t set the pensions,” Miller said. “It makes no sense whatsoever. You can’t run a business like that. You couldn’t run your private business like that, and the state can’t.”
In addition to working on the ailing pension system, a 3 percent hike in state tuitions, a funding freeze for K-12 education and a $250 million cut in Medicaid payments to hospitals, among other issues, should get plenty of debate time on the floors of the Senate and the House.
I also got to catch up with newly minted Del. Mary Washington – who was also on line to sign the rookie book – another soldier who’s trudged Baltimore’s often precarious political trenches. The Eastside community leader, now representing the 43rd legislative district, first ran for the seat in 2006. She says she embraces the unique challenges of the 2011 session.
“I don’t think my feelings have caught up with me yet…but, now to be in this room with 141other delegates it’s really exhilarating,” Washington said.
“We’re going to be delegates at a difficult time, but I’d rather be here to help us move forward during the difficult times. And I trust and I believe that the people that sent me here trust that I’m going to look out for our priorities…if you’re a ballplayer…you can’t be afraid to take that shot at the buzzer. You have to be the person that wants to be on the court when you’re behind and that’s where we are right now,” Washington added. “And I think we’ve got a great team of people from Baltimore City who are new, who want to be here during this difficult time and I’m really excited. We don’t have to do it alone.”
But, the talk on opening day wasn’t just about the “$1.6 billion cavernous hole,” in the words of the venerable Sen. Nathaniel McFadden. There was also a lot of talk – and much whispering – about the burgeoning mayor’s race in Baltimore.
Literally, as soon as I walked through the doors of the State House I was greeted by the spokesperson for one of the biggest players in Maryland politics, who also at one time worked closely with the man who wants to be mayor, Otis Rolley.
My friend basically lauded Rolley’s education and knack for trouble-shooting, but seemed to question whether or not the former Woodrow Wilson Fellow and MIT graduate, who touts Bill Cosby as a benefactor, was built for the blood sport brutality of running Baltimore City. “I don’t know if he’s ready for all that,” Rolley’s supporter lamented.
And despite the splash he made a couple of weeks ago with the appearance of Cosby at his fundraiser at the Tremont Hotel and some other big money supporters he’s attracted, Rolley lags far behind Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (and Sen. Catherine Pugh) in the size of his mayoral war chest.
The latest financial report I saw has SRB at $842,000; Pugh, who told me via Facebook, “Squarely focused on the session…have not made a decision at all yet regarding the Mayor’s race,” is at $252,000; and Rolley is a distant third with $106,000.
I’m still waiting to see if the son of a legendary Maryland senator, who attempted to wrestle the City Council president’s chair away from SRB in 2007 will make a run for the mayor’s office.
In the words of Yogi Berra, “This is like déjà vu all over again.”