Ehrlich sets high goals, but gives little guidance

State of the State address offers few fiscal answers

January 30, 2003|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

In his first State of the State speech yesterday, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. gave a performance heavy on emotion, but, critics said, vanishingly light on fiscal solutions to Maryland's most pressing problems.

In the roughly 30-minute address, Ehrlich sounded themes commonly associated with Democrats: protecting the environment, improving education, helping the disabled and treating the drug-addicted.

And he took pains to create a feeling of collegiality with the 188-member General Assembly as it gets ready to take up his legislative initiatives.

As the words "Governor Bobby" lit up the voting screens in the grand House of Delegates chamber, Ehrlich spent the first eight minutes of his speech lobbing joking asides to old friends, praising long-serving lawmakers and presenting a ceramic crab to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Not once did he mention the words "deficit" or "slots" - two of the biggest headaches now facing the legislature.

"When you are talking about all those issues, you are talking about the budget. There's no sense of repeating what everybody knows," Ehrlich said afterward.

Besides, he said, his administration plans to spend today introducing legislation on legalized gambling. "Tomorrow's the day for slots," he said.

Despite the title of yesterday's event, Ehrlich, who has been on the job just two weeks, chose not to answer the question "What is the state of the state?" Rather, he framed his speech around five Marylanders whose lives - tragic and triumphant - are emblematic of his policy priorities.

The guests sat to the right of the dais, and they stood as he told their stories.

Bob Newberry, 45, a fisherman from Crumpton who once let the governor use his boat during a campaign swing through Kent Island, exemplified for Ehrlich the difficulties of making a living on the polluted Chesapeake Bay.

"One day, in the not-too-distant future, there may be no fish, oysters or crabs to catch unless we upgrade our 66 major municipal sewage treatment plants," Ehrlich said, adding that he has budgeted $95 million to do that.

However, more money is needed from the federal government, he said. "This is a vital joint effort - I repeat, joint effort - between this Assembly and this administration."

"Meet Adela Acosta," Ehrlich continued. Acosta, principal of Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Prince George's County, is a Puerto Rican immigrant and the daughter of a heroin addict who was mistakenly labeled learning-impaired by her teachers in New York's Spanish Harlem.

She is now a presidential appointee to the Commission on Excellence in Special Education.

Ehrlich used Acosta's story to stress his commitment to additional funding for education, the development of a "Thornton II" commission to examine pedagogical methods, and the establishment of charter schools in Maryland.

"It is time for this Assembly to enact a charter-schools bill with teeth, and I ask that you do it this year," he said.

Ehrlich used Keith Daye of Baltimore, a 25-year heroin addict who was homeless before he got involved with a religious treatment program, as an example of why the legislature should approve his faith-based initiative and support increased funding for alcohol- and drug-treatment programs.

"Last night, the president talked about a war against international terror. In Maryland, we have an internal war against another enemy - drugs," he said. "We must work together to get nonviolent drug offenders out of jail and into treatment programs, where they belong."

Michael Taylor, a mentally disabled man who was institutionalized for 30 years before getting an apartment and earning a living, was Ehrlich's example of why legislators should retain the $38.3 million he has budgeted for community-based treatment for people with developmental disabilities.

"As I said during the inaugural, it's not only a moral imperative and a constitutional right, it's a good deal for the taxpayers," Ehrlich said.

Finally, the governor acknowledged John S. Tatum and Roxanne Servance, the parents of Rio-Jarell Tatum. Their son, a 19-year-old academic and sports star, was shot to death in Baltimore in 2002 while being robbed of $10.

"The things that made a difference in his life - academics, sports and family - are the same things that made a difference in mine," Ehrlich said.

"The story is a wake-up call for all of us. As long as gun-toting criminals roam our streets and communities, no one - not even the best and brightest - is safe. It's time to bring Project Exile to Maryland," he said, referring to a program designed to deliver harsher sentences to gun criminals.

The speech received several standing ovations and extended applause when it ended. Some in attendance called it "wonderful" and "touching."

Good reviews

"He's my governor. It was one of the best State of the State speeches I've heard since I've been here," said state Sen. John C. Astle of Anne Arundel County. "And I've got a "D" on my shirt."

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