Ehrlich vetoes to face scrutiny

General Assembly leaders indicate rejected bills are likely to get new life

`Sometimes it's necessary'

Governor not overridden in more than a decade

December 18, 2003|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Key lawmakers say they will override a Maryland governor's veto for the first time in more than a decade when the General Assembly reconvenes next month.

It would represent another setback for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the first Republican chief executive in the largely Democratic state in 36 years, who has had a testy relationship with the legislature since taking office this year.

Not since 1989 -- when lawmakers overturned Gov. William Donald Schaefer's veto of a bill that gave optometrists the same authority as ophthalmologists to administer eye drops -- has the Assembly successfully used that power, according to the legislature's Library and Information Services.

Legislative leaders are confident that the Assembly will overturn Ehrlich's veto of a bill that would set energy-efficiency standards for nine types of appliances sold in Maryland. In addition, lawmakers are eyeing several other vetoed bills, including one that would close a loophole that allows corporations to avoid paying state income taxes.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he expects two or three bills to be overridden. Sentiment is running strongest to restore the energy bill, he said.

"Only one company objected" to the energy bill, Miller said, emphasizing that the action is not a partisan issue or an attack on Ehrlich. "That was the Home Depot company. People are going to vote to override that bill."

The potential overriding of Ehrlich's vetoes is just the latest challenge to his authority as the state's chief executive.

Among the most notable: the rejection of Lynn Y. Buhl, his Cabinet nominee for environmental secretary, during his first legislative session as governor this year. Governors generally have been given wide latitude in the selection of their Cabinet members.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said the administration did not see overriding the vetoes as partisan politics. Fawell said the governor's vetoes were designed to protect citizens and businesses in the state.

"Obviously, an override is something within the legislature's power," Fawell said.

"As far as the energy-efficiency bill, it was overly burdensome on businesses and required them to do something that the federal government is looking at doing anyway," he said.

"On the tax bill, the governor vetoed it because it would cause great harm to families and HMOs. An override of the tax veto would be a massive tax increase on people who cannot afford it," he said.

Miller said lawmakers may table the override of the tax bill veto until after other measures are considered during the session that resolve some of the governor's concerns.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said elements of the tax bill would probably return in separate legislation, with projected revenue linked to specific government programs.

"A veto override is never the first option. You like to sit down and see if there is some common ground you can work out," he said.

But he too predicted there will be a number of overrides, including one of the energy bill, which he would support.

"You aren't going to have massive overrides," Busch said. "I don't think it's the best way to go, but sometimes it's necessary."

Overriding a veto requires a three-fifths vote in each chamber.

The energy bill passed both chambers by almost a dozen more votes than the necessary three-fifths, a strong indication that the override will pass.

The legislation would require energy-efficiency standards for such products as ceiling fans, commercial washing machines and retail store refrigerators.

Home Depot, which operates 35 stores and has 5,000 employees in Maryland, had pressed the governor to veto the bill shortly after the last legislative session, saying it feared the legislation would limit consumer choice and could raise the costs of appliances.

Home Depot officials said at the time that the measure could increase the cost of ceiling fans by $20.

But lawmakers and environmentalists say they think in the long run the bill would prove beneficial for consumers and the community at large.

"It's a bill that would bring great energy efficiency and protect the environment," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and a leading environmental advocate in the legislature.

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