O’Malley signs wind bill, other jobs measures

Source: By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun • Posted: Thursday, April 11, 2013

After his most successful legislative session in two terms, Gov. Martin O’Malley on Tuesday signed a long-sought bill to promote development of an offshore wind industry near Ocean City, among several other measures he hailed as job creators.

Just hours after balloons and confetti fell in the State House to mark an end to the General Assembly’s 2013 session, O’Malley joined legislative leaders to sign bills laying the groundwork for more private investment in state projects and funding job training for high-demand fields.

Left for another day were some of the most high-profile accomplishments of the 90-day session: repeal of the death penalty, a sweeping gun control law and a bill that will eventually generate more than $700 million a year for transportation projects by raising the gas tax and Maryland Transit Administration fares.

Instead, the governor chose to highlight the theme of jobs — and the bills he contends will create them. “There is no progress without jobs,” he said.

O’Malley, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller all lauded the track record of the General Assembly this year. Miller, a Calvert County Democrat who has served in the legislature for more than 40 years, called it “probably the most productive legislative session of my lifetime.”

Busch, an Annapolis Democrat, agreed and said the productivity was the result of “cooperation and collaboration.”

The day-after signing ceremony was a stark contrast with the same event a year ago, when the tension between the governor and the presiding officers — particularly Miller — was palpable after the session ended amid recriminations and finger-pointing because an important budget-related tax bill failed to pass.

This year, the three appeared relaxed and cordial and exchanged compliments.

Signing of the offshore wind bill was the culmination of a three-year effort by O’Malley. The measure would guarantee a market for a proposed wind-generated power plant of about 40 giant turbines off the state’s Atlantic coast and provide subsidies for an eventual developer.

If a developer proposes such a plant, clears state and federal hurdles and builds it, the bill would require electricity suppliers in Maryland to purchase up to 2.5 percent of their power from offshore wind as early as 2017. The developer could receive a subsidy of up to $1.7 billion over 20 years, paid for by Maryland’s residential and commercial electric ratepayers.

To win support from lawmakers concerned about the potential effect on consumers, O’Malley agreed that a developer would have to limit the extra cost to residential customers to $1.50 per month. The electricity bills of commercial customers could rise no more than 1.5 percent.

The O’Malley administration estimates that such a wind farm would create 850 manufacturing and construction jobs for five years and another 160 ongoing positions.

Nearby, Senate Minority Leader E. J. Pipkin told reporters that the offshore wind bill was the “dumbest idea ever.”

“It’s multiples more expensive than conventional fuel. The wind doesn’t blow off Ocean City when we need it the most,” said Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican. He called the measure a “$1.7 billion wind tax” that will drive jobs out of the state.

But Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said the legislation would save ratepayers money in the long term because the cost to consumers will be frozen for 25 years while the price of fossil fuels can be expected to go up.

“It’s a historic day for Maryland clean energy. Future Marylanders will look back on this day and ask what took so long,” Tidwell said.

The workforce development bill, called EARN for Employment Advancement Right Now, creates a pool of money employers can apply for to train workers for specialized jobs. “There’s often a big gap between the jobs that are open and the skills that our people have,” O’Malley said.

The public-private partnerships bill is envisioned as way of developing financing for large projects that can’t be paid for through conventional revenue streams. The state’s $1.3 billion deal with Ports of America to upgrade the Seagirt Marine Terminal is a leading example.

Other bills among the 153 signed Tuesday give the Prince George’s county executive more control over the school system and allow people who have been convicted of some crimes to be employed at casinos after seven years without a violation.