Despite vow, Ehrlich sets a narrow agenda

Review: Hobbled by the state's budget woes, the governor has focused on slot machines, the Intercounty Connector and holding the line on taxes.

November 04, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

A year ago, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. proclaimed, "Welcome to history," in an Election Night acceptance speech in which the governor-elect promised to set the state on a bold new course.

But 12 months after a victory that ended Maryland's longest stretch of one-party rule, Ehrlich's vision for change appears decidedly limited, many political observers say.

Ehrlich, Maryland's first Republican governor in 36 years, has stuck by his central campaign pledges not to raise sales and income taxes, and to try to reduce the size of state government. But political experts, and even some supporters, wonder whether that is enough to sustain his election mandate.

"It's important that he set out an agenda," said John N. Bambacus, director of the Public Affairs Institute at Frostburg State University and a former Republican state senator. "I haven't seen it yet."

With the General Assembly in recess for seven months, Ehrlich has had his first extended opportunity to dominate the state's political stage in a solo performance. But he has used his pulpit to unroll only a few ideas, such as tweaking and renaming land development policies Priority Places instead of Smart Growth, and reconstituted the crime prevention strategy formerly known as HotSpots.

At the same time, Ehrlich has distanced himself from the debate he ignited over slot machines, saying he wants the House of Delegates, which killed his bill this year, to take the lead on the issue. He has not even raised the favorite targets of his conservative supporters, such as the state's laws on gun control and abortion rights, which could be championed without damaging the budget.

"You've got to give him credit for even muddling through this past year, under the circumstances," Bambacus said. "That being said, he has to move on. Most reasonable people would give him that first year to get his feet on the ground. Now he's had that one-year grace period, and there are high expectations."

Members of Ehrlich's staff say that much of the substantive work of his administration is germinating quietly within state agencies, to be unveiled when budget problems have been eradicated.

The governor and top aides have been consumed in handling Maryland's fiscal problems, said his communications director, Paul E. Schurick. Ehrlich filled a $1.2 billion gap in this year's $22 billion budget days after taking office in January and is facing a $700 million deficit next year, Schurick said, leaving little time or resources for bold policy initiatives.

"When the sun comes up, we've got to be ready to move. The sun will come up," Schurick said, adding that major new directions for health care, early childhood development, transit and incarceration policies are under development. "We will have a lot of things that by then we will have been working on for a year."

For now, the governor's goals are few and familiar: Legalize slot machines; hold the line on taxes; build the Intercounty Connector highway.

The governor may not be publicizing a broader vision for fear of alienating a Democratic electorate that carried him into office, said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University.

"He seems to be devoted to low taxes, reduced services, privatization wherever possible, and limited government in the hope that the private sector will be energized and people in Maryland will be prosperous enough so they won't make demands on government," Crenson said. "There is a pattern there. He can't advertise it too much, because it's in a state that has a 2-to-1 Democratic-to-Republican registration ratio."

Ehrlich's quietude contrasts vividly with the approaches of predecessors, who were not constrained by divided government.

William Donald Schaefer took office looking to run the state with the same "Do it now" aggressiveness he displayed as mayor of Baltimore, pushing through funding for baseball and football stadiums and a light rail system for his city.

Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening was known as a policy wonk who advocated liberal policies on labor, higher education and the environment. By the time he left office, he had overhauled the state's land-use policies - dubbed Smart Growth - and passed a gay rights bill.

"When Marylanders elected Ehrlich, they were in the mood for something different," Crenson said. "This is something different. ... Whether they like it is another thing."

For now, voters seem pleased. Ehrlich's approval rating remains high - about 57 percent, according to the most recent polls - and tax increases are equally unpopular.

A former four-term congressman and eight-year member of the House of Delegates, Ehrlich rolled to an election victory a year ago without any executive branch or managerial experience. On Capitol Hill, he was better known for party loyalty than for tackling complex issues.

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