Weighing Ehrlich's move to the middle

Cuts to ambitious budget may show where governor stands, Democrats say

February 16, 2003|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Ann Marie Doory, Midway through his first General Assembly session as governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has been staking out an agenda that appears to be a far cry from the Democrats' campaign refrain that he is too conservative for Maryland.

From increased aid for the mentally ill, disabled and drug addicted, to his calls for legalizing medical marijuana and keeping nonviolent drug offenders out of prison, the Republican governor is espousing a moderate tone on many issues.

"He is looking and sounding very much like a Democrat," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee.

McIntosh and other Democrats are facing the same problem that haunted them during the fall campaign: How do they differentiate themselves from Ehrlich when he sounds like one of them?

"He is an astute politician," said Senate Majority Leader Nathaniel J. McFadden of Baltimore. "He knows it is a majority Democratic state, and he is trying to move the Republican image more to the middle."

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley highlighted Democrats' frustrations last week when a reporter asked him what Ehrlich thought of a tax credit program aimed at encouraging historic building restoration. "He likes this like he likes all programs," O'Malley said sarcastically.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller sounded similar discontent after Ehrlich's State of the State speech last month. Miller said Ehrlich's speech was effective only because he sounded Democratic themes throughout it.

For his part, Ehrlich gloats that he has been able to govern from the center and become the new spokesman for traditionally Democratic issues.

"I think [the Democrats] are having a hard time pigeonholing me, which is not really my problem," Ehrlich said in an interview. "I like not being pigeonholed."

But while Ehrlich maintains that his support for many social programs is genuine, Democrats say the real test of his commitment is still to come.

If the General Assembly does not approve Ehrlich's proposal for slot machines, legislators will have to cut an additional $395 million to balance next year's budget - threatening some of the programs the governor embraces, especially if he doesn't back down from his refusal to raise taxes.

"If he really cares about these programs, he will hold them harmless whether or not slots become a reality," said David Paulson, spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party.

But Democratic leaders concede that they must do a better job drawing distinctions between themselves and Ehrlich on issues of importance to Marylanders.

"Things remain to be seen on environmental issues, some of the gun issues, and I don't know what ultimately the right-to-life movement will throw into the mix," said Del. Ann Marie Doory, a Baltimore Democrat. "There are some litmus-test issues that may cause different lines between us."

Until then, many of the partisan lines remain blurred.

In his budget, Ehrlich has proposed spending increases of $128 million for Medicaid, $38 million for developmental disabilities services and $36 million for mental health services.

"Medicaid and the poor always get hit first in bad budget times, and I did not want to repeat that problem," said Ehrlich, who campaigned as an advocate for the mentally ill.

On Wednesday, Ehrlich spoke to a meeting of the Mental Health Association of Maryland. After the speech, the room was abuzz about how Ehrlich sounded like a Democrat.

"I think a lot of people are very, very pleased," said Jane Walker, executive director of the Maryland Coalition of Families for Children's Mental Health. "It's a wonderful, wonderful outcome."

On criminal justice matters, the governor is also charting a seemingly compassionate course.

One of his major priorities has been reforming the state's juvenile justice program. The governor has appointed former Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a liberal Democrat from Baltimore, secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice.

And unlike the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" approach typically associated with Republicans, Ehrlich wants fewer youth offenders sent to adult prison. The governor has said in recent weeks that he also thinks fewer adult drug offenders should be sentenced to prison.

Ehrlich has proposed spending nearly $136 million on alcohol and drug treatment programs - a 4.2 percent increase over last year.

Ehrlich surprised many last month when he indicated his support for proposals before the General Assembly to legalize marijuana for medical purposes. He backed similar measures while in Congress.

But Ehrlich's spending plan has taken aim at some priorities of the last Democratic administration. He has proposed $25 million in cuts for child care vouchers to poor families. His budget eliminates a program to refurbish playgrounds in communities and a program in Baltimore that encourages people to live in the city.

"I think we are going to have more bombs like that popping out that we have not noticed yet," Paulson said.

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