Ehrlich warns of future vetoes at bill-signing

Montgomery County levy for transportation plans may be among targets

Bethlehem Steel measure signed

Radar cameras to ticket speeders and HMO tax also could be rejected

April 09, 2003|By Michael Dresser and David Nitkin | Michael Dresser and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

As Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed his first batch of bills yesterday, the Republican governor signaled he will not be afraid to use his most potent weapon against Democrats: his ability to block measures from becoming law.

No $135 million package of new taxes. No automated radar cameras to photograph speeding motorists, who would then be issued tickets through mail.

And, in a sharp blow to a possible 2006 challenger, Ehrlich aides indicated he likely will veto a transportation fee at the center of Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's agenda.

Duncan said at an Annapolis news conference yesterday that Ehrlich adviser Paul E. Schurick had told him the governor would veto local legislation passed by the General Assembly letting Montgomery County charge residents up to $27 per vehicle each year to pay for transportation improvements.

Duncan accused Ehrlich of "actively working to undermine transportation."

The governor kept a long-standing tradition for the day after the end of the General Assembly session by joining House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller for the ceremony to sign dozens of bills into law.

Befitting the contentious session marked by deep partisan divides, none of the bills was an initiative from the governor. Most affected only local issues -- such as establishing a work-release program in Washington County. Perhaps the most significant measure created a health insurance plan for Bethlehem Steel Corp. retirees who are losing benefits.

While Ehrlich did not veto any bills yesterday, he indicated that he would use that power as he sees fit to reject measures he doesn't like.

Most notably, the governor has promised to reject the new tax bill that includes a 2 percent tax on health maintenance organization policies and a 10 percent corporate income tax surcharge.

Ehrlich also said he would likely reject a new law that authorizes speed radar cameras in residential areas and school zones.

"Obviously, that's something I've never been fond of," Ehrlich said.

Asked about the Montgomery County measure, Ehrlich said he had not made up his mind. But later in the day, Ehrlich press secretary Greg Massoni confirmed that the governor is leaning toward vetoing the measure.

"Clearly, people in Maryland do not want their taxes raised, and the governor will stick by that," Massoni said.

However, Maryland Republican Party Chairman John Kane -- a leading Montgomery transportation advocate -- provided another explanation for the likely veto. He said Ehrlich might want to keep vehicle fees open as a statewide revenue option in the future.

The money from the vehicle surcharge was intended to help fund Duncan's 10-year, $10 billion Go Montgomery transportation initiative, which includes plans for acquiring new buses, subsidizing fares and repairing roads.

Duncan, who won a landslide re-election as chief of Maryland's largest subdivision while campaigning for his transportation plan, said the vehicle surcharge is a major piece of the funding for the initiative.

"You can't provide transportation improvements if you can't have a source of money," Duncan said. "The only mandate I know of in Montgomery is one on transportation."

A leading Montgomery Democratic legislator predicted that Ehrlich will gain little politically from the veto.

"If the governor vetoes Doug Duncan's top priority, he is just stepping into a political hornet's nest, because transportation is the No. 1 concern for our constituents," said Del. Peter Franchot.

Legislators were more supportive of Ehrlich's signing of the health insurance measure, which is expected to benefit about a quarter of Bethlehem Steel's 20,000 retirees.

"People are very concerned, and they have every right to be," said Del. Peter A. Hammen, a Baltimore Democrat who represents many retirees. "They're finding that the cost of health insurance is truly unaffordable. The state is stepping in and doing the right thing."

The legislation provides a federal tax credit to make the Maryland Health Insurance Plan more affordable for former company workers ages 55 to 64. An emergency bill, it took effect yesterday.

Del. Carolyn J. Krysiak of Baltimore predicted lawmakers will have to do more. "We'll get more and more calls all the time from people for whom this isn't enough," she said.

Ehrlich said Miller and Busch agreed to pass the health insurance bill during a closed-door session about three hours before the Assembly session ended Monday -- a meeting that also sprung free a charter school bill that the governor backed, and a $742 million capital budget.

"We got more done in 20 minutes than we did in the previous 89 days," Ehrlich said. "At 9:30 p.m., four years' worth of charter schools was dead. And at 10:15, it was alive."

Ehrlich said he was beginning work immediately on the next budget he must prepare -- and how to fill a projected $700 million gap between revenues and expenses for the fiscal year beginning July 1 next year.

"The much more difficult task is the budget we start to put together today," Ehrlich said.

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