Ehrlich shows a solo style

Heading into session, lawmakers feel overlooked

Executive orders mark year

Unilateral actions avoid compromise

December 28, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has used a subtle array of techniques to get things done since an uncooperative General Assembly adjourned nine months ago.

This year, Ehrlich issued more executive orders, which carry the force of law, than any governor in well over a decade.

He has filled several high-ranking positions with "acting" appointments, temporarily dodging requirements for legislative or local approval.

And he has turned to the three-person state Board of Public Works - where he has to persuade only one other member to vote his way - to cut the budget and refine land-preservation strategies.

Through such solitary decisions, Maryland's first Republican governor elected since 1966 has avoided confrontation and compromise while maneuvering through a government divided along party lines.

But with a heavily Democratic legislature ready to return to Annapolis in less than a month, Ehrlich's governing style is about to receive fresh attention from lawmakers who feel that they have been circumvented and overlooked.

And the governor's ability to forge partnerships - something he failed to do during his first Assembly session - will be tested again as he seeks approval for another legislative package.

Flexibility and coalition-building are skills that are necessary to bridge partisan divides, said Donald F. Norris, a policy sciences professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"The nature of government, particularly divided government, is compromise," Norris said. Ehrlich's heavy use of solo techniques such as executive orders "means a lack of willingness to compromise, particularly on issues related to Republican ideological purity - taxes," he said.

"It's not surprising that he seeks to offset his legislative defeats with unilateral action," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat.

"We have a very strong executive form of government in Maryland, but it's an indication of his isolation from the legislature."

Through aides, Ehrlich declined several requests to be interviewed for this article. The governor's communications director, Paul E. Schurick, said Ehrlich is capable of forming and maintaining bipartisan partnerships.

"When coalitions are needed and appropriate, they're built," Schurick said. "When they're not, they're not."

"This governor, like every governor before him, has been bestowed by the state constitution with what is probably the strongest executive branch in any of the 50 states," Schurick said.

"This governor, like every governor before him, is playing the hand he is dealt."

Same strategies

Democratic governors have sometimes embraced the same strategies. Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer used an executive order to ban smoking in state office buildings in 1992. Parris N. Glendening issued an order when he was governor granting collective bargaining rights to state employees.

But eventually - even if years later - those governors persuaded lawmakers to go along with their plans.

Several of Ehrlich's recent moves have raised the ire of critics, who show little inclination to let him continue without a fight.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has sued the governor, saying Ehrlich's choice of an acting city Department of Social Services administrator is unqualified. The appointment is supposed to be made jointly by the governor and the mayor, but in previous years deference has been given to the mayor's selection.

"He went so far outside the law that they left us no choice but to go to court," said O'Malley, a Democrat who is considered a likely challenger to Ehrlich in 2006. "It doesn't bode well for bipartisan support, or for state and local cooperation."

Interim managers

Besides city social services chief Floyd R. Blair, the administration contains at least three other high-level interim managers. In some cases, the governor knows that his selections would be unlikely to receive the approval they needed, but he wants them in the job nonetheless.

Acting Environmental Secretary Kendl P. Philbrick assumed his position after the Senate defeated the nomination of former Chrylser Corp. attorney Lynn Y. Buhl. The state police superintendent and higher-education secretary are also serving in acting capacities.

State law, however, will in all likelihood compel Ehrlich to seek formal approval early next year from legislators who are bracing for a challenge.

"Acting appointments can't last forever," said Robert Zarnoch, an assistant attorney general who specializes in legislative matters. "You've got to go and bite the bullet and fill a position."

Ehrlich also chose not to consult with local officials - mainly Democrats - in selecting members of the Baltimore liquor board, an oversight that doesn't sit well with state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno of Anne Arundel County, who is head of the Executive Nominations Committee.

"There's an issue of a balance of power, and there's the major issue of local courtesy," Jimeno said.

`Unilateral cuts'

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