GOP sees influence expand in Assembly

Governor's backing gives Republicans strength

April 14, 2003|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Before Maryland elected its first Republican governor in 36 years, GOP legislators found themselves outcasts in the General Assembly, unable to pass legislation and relegated to the role of agitators lobbing mostly ineffective attacks at Democrats.

After a session with Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in the governor's mansion, Republican lawmakers still couldn't pass any substantive legislation. But backed by the governor, GOP legislators hit a few of their targets this year.

"I thought our caucus on the Senate side was respected in a new way," said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican.

Though Republicans are well short of being the majority, their ability to insert themselves in the process caught many Democrats by surprise.

"They are effective in what they do, and they are using new tactics, and it does cause us some consternation that we know we are going to have to deal with," said Senate Majority Leader Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said the GOP game plan -- which included filibusters, an emerging public relations machine and an often unified caucus -- will probably force Democrats to assert more partisan control over the process next year.

"I just wish I could take the Republican members and transfer them to Capitol Hill so they see how a minority party is treated there," said Miller, noting that his position gives him control over committee assignments, office space and staff salaries. "My side says, `You're too nice to these people.'"

Despite the next state election being more than three years away, Republicans have adopted a strategy of forcing rural and suburban Baltimore Democratic legislators to cast tough votes that may not sit well among conservative constituents.

When lawmakers return to Annapolis next year facing another significant budget deficit, Republicans say they will again try to put conservative Democrats on the defensive over taxes and possibly other hot-button issues such as gun control.

"I don't fault them; they use the system and the parliamentary system to their advantage. But I don't intend to be intimidated," said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, a conservative Anne Arundel County Democrat.

GOP strategy

Often with guidance from the leaders of the state Republican Party, GOP legislators tried to gum up the process -- introducing amendments they knew would never pass and starting filibusters they realized would not last long -- to highlight party positions.

The Republican strategy was often hammered out at weekly strategy meetings, where top Ehrlich officials often joined them. That's a far cry from the 2002 legislature, when the GOP caucus was trying to recover from the defections of two Republican senators to the Democratic Party in 2000 and 2001.

But Jimeno and other Democrats say GOP procedures could backfire if the public believes the party isn't responsible enough to govern. They also say the tactics run counter to what is best for Ehrlich, who needs Democratic cooperation to enact his agenda.

"If Bob Ehrlich is not successful, they will not be successful," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat. "If all they are going to do is spend four years putting a resume together for the next election, I think the general public is going to view that with somewhat of a jaundiced eye."

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat, said GOP lawmakers are partly to blame for Ehrlich's inability to get some of his legislative initiatives enacted this year.

"Half the bombs they threw landed on Ehrlich's doorstep," Barve said.

For example, in negotiations to craft a budget compromise, Ehrlich proposed raising the state property tax rate and other business fees. But when it was time for the legislature to vote on the tax package, Republicans resisted and tried to blame Democrats for the higher taxes.

In the House, all but one of the 43 Republicans voted against the budget because it included higher property taxes.

When a vote on another tax bill -- which included a surcharge on corporate taxes, a 2 percent tax on HMO policies and $35 million in so-called corporate loophole closings -- was taken later in the session, House Republicans unanimously joined to oppose it.

House Minority Leader Alfred W. Redmer Jr., a Baltimore County Republican, offered a series of amendments to strip each individual tax increase out of the budget as a way of putting Democrats on the spot.

"I wanted them on the record for each and every provision of that bill so a Republican can use it against them down the road," Redmer said.

Democrats charge that such actions demonstrate the Republican Party cannot be trusted to govern because its members fail to make the tough choices. They also note Republican legislators never offered viable alternatives to balance the budget without higher taxes.

"Someone has to be the grown-up," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat.

`Frivolous antics'

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