Democrats fail to agree on battle plan

The Political Game

Tuition: House and Senate leaders take different approaches to opposing the governor on increasing college costs.

October 28, 2003|By David Nitkin and Michael Dresser | David Nitkin and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

DEMOCRATS in Annapolis are coalescing around an issue they believe they can use to hammer Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.: rising tuition rates at the University System of Maryland.

But tension between House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is draining the effort.

Busch named a panel of 24 lawmakers last week to study access to and affordability of the state's higher education system - which has absorbed about 20 percent of the cuts to the state budget. Tuition rose by up to 20 percent this year, with another increase ranging from 6 percent to 11 percent on its way.

But as Democrats are gathering ammunition to challenge Ehrlich on what they are now calling a tax increase for the middle class, the Senate's top officer is remaining quiet.

All 24 members of the legislative study panel are delegates. Busch had hoped for a mix of senators and delegates, but Miller declined to take part.

"We first approached them with the idea of doing it jointly," Busch said. "For whatever reason, they decided not to participate."

Miller could not be reached for comment yesterday, but other Senate leaders insisted they were just as interested in university tuition rates as the House is.

"We don't always work in tandem on important issues," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who is collecting co-sponsors for a bill to limit tuition increases to 4 percent yearly while increasing university budgets by 5 percent. "Would I have liked to see us do it together? It's not my call."

Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, another Montgomery Democrat, said he's very concerned about the tuition increases but doesn't disagree with Miller's decision not to join in a formal study.

"Just because the House has this internal task force looking at it doesn't mean the Senate is going to ignore it," he said. "We're going to continue to pressure the governor to fund higher education."

Hogan said the tuition issue could make Ehrlich vulnerable among middle-class voters who backed him in last year's election.

"If they see they can't afford to send their kids to college, I think it's going to have a huge impact," Hogan said.

Las Vegas casino drops its Annapolis lobbyist

Wynn Resorts is dropping its representation in Annapolis, having concluded that Maryland isn't ready for its style of gambling, its lobbyist said yesterday.

Edward O. Wayson Jr. said his firm, Capitol Strategies LLC, will let its registration as Wynn's lobbyist expire Saturday.

Wayson said he advised Wynn to discontinue its lobbying efforts because the climate isn't right for "destination gaming" - the company's forte. Ehrlich, Miller and Busch all said recently that they oppose allowing casinos to operate in Maryland.

Wayson said Wynn sees slots-only palaces as the "lowest common denominator" of the gambling industry - bringing little capital investment to the host region.

"The synergies for the total resort experience don't occur, and it mainly attracts day trippers, not people going for the weekend," Wayson said.

A spokesman at Wynn's headquarters in Las Vegas could not be reached for comment.

First lady is provided lesson in public relations

When First Lady Kendel Ehrlich's remarks about wanting to "shoot" pop star Britney Spears threatened to erupt into a full-blown crisis this month, Ehrlich communications guru Paul E. Schurick adopted two strategies.

First, shift the debate away from the entertainment industry and toward the issue of parenthood.

And second, use some humor.

Schurick addressed the administration's handling of the Spears issue during wide-ranging remarks last week to the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County chapter of the Public Relations Society.

He said that as news outlets from across the globe picked up the Spears story, his office tailored its response around the issue of parenthood - and avoided repeating criticism of the singer. Kendel Ehrlich had said at a domestic violence conference that Spears was a poor role model for young children, especially girls.

If the first lady continued an assault on the entertainment industry, Schurick said, he feared a repeat of Tipper Gore - who lingered in the news over her campaign to clean up lyrics on records.

"I knew that we would get buried by that media machine," Schurick said. "We didn't want to make it about Britney Spears. We steeled ourselves to talk about the challenges of raising young families."

As it turned out, the Ehrlich family is growing. Kendel is expecting in March, an announcement she made at a fashion-show fund-raiser as the story was breaking. The humor, Schurick said, involved playing Spears' song "Oops, I Did It Again" as the Ehrlichs were leaving the stage.

"I guarantee you, it was not an easy sell," Schurick said. "I had to sit with Kendel Ehrlich for an hour," he said, to convince her it was a good idea.

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