A glimpse of Ehrlich's strategy

The Political Game

Budget: The spending plan reveals the governor's vision, including his attempt to have slots legalized.

January 21, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

THE STATE budget released last week by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. -- four red-jacketed volumes that stack nearly 5 inches high -- is anything but a dry compendium of numbers.

The budget sets the governor's vision and priorities for his first year, which amount to limited new spending on juvenile services and health care, and temporarily filling an approximately $1.2 billion budget gap as a broader review of government operations gets under way.

But the spending plan also offers an intriguing glimpse into the strategic thinking of the new governor and his staff.

Consider this: Ehrlich includes $395 million from slot machines ($350 million in one-time license fees and $45 million in revenues from the first months of operations), but is silent on what happens if lawmakers refuse to legalize more gambling.

Ehrlich aides say they considered explicitly linking slots to programs in the budget. In other words, the books might have read: Here's the education, health and social service programs that would be eliminated, adding up to $395 million, if slots aren't approved.

Ultimately, Ehrlich decided not to link slots and programs.

The message: We're not ready to play hardball. Yet.

The spending plan contained at least one surprise, cutting $105 million in transportation money to counties. The outcry last week from county executives was swift and predictable.

But one veteran Annapolis observer saw a clever strategic move in the cut: County executives will lobby their local delegations vigorously to restore the money. Lawmakers will respond. But when that battle is over, those same lawmakers might have little energy or desire to take on the slots battle.

The observer called it a "second front" on the fiscal war being waged inside the State House, one that diverts energy and allows the first objective ---slots -- to succeed.

Asked if indeed that was the administration's thinking, Ehrlich communications director Paul E. Schurick smiled coyly and said: "We're not dumb."

Democrats have some tricks up their sleeves, however.

Because Ehrlich has been slow to announce his Cabinet secretaries and deputies, state government remains packed with appointees from the previous Democratic administrations. Those appointees could be helpful when it comes to getting Democratic priorities into the budget.

As Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg of Baltimore notes, agency managers are responsible for figuring out how much programs or ideas proposed by the legislature cost and whether the state can afford them.

Those costs are important: A year ago, for example, legislative leaders refused to consider any bill with a price tag of more than $250,000. A similar restriction could be in place this year.

Democratic agency appointees, however, could lowball the cost of certain programs to avoid the cap.

Rosenberg said he recently had breakfast with a member of Ehrlich's transition team, who expressed fear at the possibility of such maneuvers.

Mitchell's role in camp remains a mystery

One of the lingering mysteries of Ehrlich's gubernatorial win is what will become of former Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, who loyally clung to Ehrlich's side from the very first.

Mitchell now says he is going to have a special job in the administration tailored just for him. "We're fashioning something," he said.

It will have to do with economic development, Mitchell said. He wants to help "bring deals together" to create an "economic corridor" between Baltimore and Washington. His work will start in Baltimore but eventually spread statewide. And it will have much to do with minority businesses, but not solely minority businesses.

Former House speaker starts consulting firm

Former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. of Allegany County has formed a consulting firm focusing on economic development projects in Western Maryland.

In an interview, Taylor said his new firm -- Cas Taylor Consulting LLC -- is just getting off the ground. "We're developing clients," he said.

While speculation has swirled for weeks that Taylor might be offered a position in the Ehrlich administration, possibly as agriculture or natural resources secretary, no Annapolis job appears imminent. Ethics laws bar Taylor from lobbying on state issues until after the session, but that doesn't mean he won't have something to say about slot machines or the budget.

"I'm anxious to start shooting my mouth off," he said.

Another longtime State House fixture, ex-Gov. Parris N. Glendening's former chief of staff and unsuccessful Prince George's County executive candidate Major F. Riddick Jr., is now a lobbyist. He is representing Edgar Lomax Co., a mutual fund company, and Wise Technologies, an Internet service provider.

NOW criticizes governor for `old-boy' rhetoric

Less than a week in office, Ehrlich's ex-jock style has drawn the ire of the National Organization for Women.

Ehrlich told reporters there would be "no chicks allowed" when he attended a Glen Burnie boxing match the day after his inauguration.

"Feminists familiar with Ehrlich's history, record and `old-boy' rhetoric are not surprised by his ... sentiment about keeping women out of the game," said Janet Caputo, president of NOW's Baltimore chapter.

Pork returns on menu at Government House

Many legislative leaders invited to Government House last week for a breakfast budget briefing emerged satisfied. Not with the state's finances, but with the mansion's kitchen offerings: Bacon and sausage -- banned during the final, vegetarian years of the Glendening administration -- are back on the menu.

Sun staff writers Sarah Koenig and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

In Annapolis

Today's highlights

10 a.m.Senate meets, Senate chamber.

10 a.m.House of Delegates meets, House chamber.

1 p.m.House Environmental Matters Committee, briefing on health of the Chesapeake Bay, Room 140, Lowe House Office Building.

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