Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley addresses the House of Delegates on… (Patrick Semansky/AP )
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley lacks clear public support for key budget and tax proposals and a bid to legalize same-sex marriage, underscoring the uncertainty of an ambitious legislative agenda that could shape his legacy and political future.
A new poll by The Washington Post finds that 55 percent of Marylanders approve of O’Malley’s overall job performance, even as half of all respondents say he has accomplished only some or not much during his five years as governor. And a slimmer 41 percent approve of the way he’s handling fiscal issues.
At a time when O’Malley (D) has taken on greater leadership roles nationally for Democrats, the poll reveals significant challenges at home as the clock ticks on his second term and as he pushes arguably his most far-reaching agenda yet in the 90-day legislative session that began Jan. 11.
With the governor set to deliver his State of the State address on Wednesday, the poll found rising but still tepid support for same-sex marriage, which O’Malley has vowed to pass after it failed to clear the state’s heavily Democratic legislature last year.
Overall, 50 percent of those polled support legalizing gay nuptials; 44 percent do not. A majority of African Americans object, with many citing religious beliefs as the basis for their opposition. That rift remains pronounced in the state’s General Assembly, where O’Malley has made little apparent progress in courting additional black lawmakers to tip the balance.
O’Malley’s proposals for broad-based tax increases, which are his first since 2007 and which he contends are necessary after years of cost cutting, have also left Marylanders with decidedly mixed views: Fewer than half support even a modest increase in the gas tax to fund more transportation projects, a proposal O’Malley has floated but not formally introduced.
When asked how they feel about an increase of 10 cents per gallon or higher — in line with what lawmakers expect O’Malley to propose — opposition swells above 70 percent and across a range of income levels.
Half of Marylanders also oppose another plan that O’Malley has argued is necessary to improve the state’s infrastructure: doubling collections of the so-called flush tax, a fee on water and septic bills used to modernize waste-water treatment plants.
And fewer than four in 10 support O’Malley’s plan to shift a share of teacher pensions from the state to the counties, a key provision in his plan to balance the state’s projected $1 billion shortfall.
A tough sales job
In public appearances in Maryland, O’Malley has acknowledged that he is asking lawmakers to make several tough votes this year to balance the budget and invest in infrastructure — and that his agenda is “not an exercise in popularity.”
Marylanders are more receptive to some O’Malley initiatives, the poll found.
Fifty-six percent support raising income taxes on those making six figures or more — roughly one-fifth of taxpayers. The plan, which is another part of O’Malley’s effort to balance the state budget, would limit personal exemptions and cap personal deductions for those making $100,000 or more.
Support for the idea grows considerably — to nearly three-quarters of Marylanders — if the threshold for those affected is raised to incomes of $250,000 or more. Some leading lawmakers have started saying that they should move away from O’Malley’s proposal and aim at higher income levels.
Higher bills for wind power?
A majority — 55 percent — also support an O’Malley initiative to jump-start the offshore wind-power industry in Maryland, even if that means small increases in utility bills, the poll found.
Starting in 2017, under the governor’s plan, ratepayers would begin paying about $2 more per month to subsidize generation of a power plant’s worth of offshore wind power.
The plan has support from environmentalists, steel workers’ unions and others, but it remains a tough sell among lawmakers, given O’Malley’s many other proposals that would all hit state residents in the pocketbook.
The poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 23-26 among a random sample of 1,064 Maryland adults. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The numbers suggest that O’Malley has a major sales job ahead of him this session if he is to pass the bulk of his agenda.
Some Democrats have questioned whether O’Malley, who is serving his second year as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, is focused enough on building support for his initiatives. During the first couple weeks of the session, O’Malley has taken two overnight political trips, to South Carolina and New York, at a time when legislators are still digesting his budget and legislative priorities.
Even for Marylanders who approve of O’Malley’s performance, his plans are a lot to stomach.