No `free pass' given for Assembly session

Strategy: For his second time around, Ehrlich must enact an agenda or risk losing support, experts say.

General Assembly

January 14, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

A year ago, Maryland's Democrat-controlled General Assembly roughed up rookie Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., dismissing the Republican executive's ideas for slot-machine gambling and tougher sentences for gun crimes.

Today, with lawmakers returning to Annapolis for the second year of the Ehrlich administration, political experts say the governor must find a way to enact an agenda or risk a loss of popular support.

"You give a guy a free pass for the first session," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "This time, you have a bunch of legislators who have now seen how he operates. I think people are going to be expecting something this time."

Maryland's 188 senators and delegates convene today for their annual 90-day session without knowing many of the specifics of what the governor wants to accomplish.

Ehrlich has announced he will seek a $2.50-per-month fee on municipal sewer customers to pay for sewage treatment plant upgrades, and is working on legislation to speed the redevelopment of abandoned industrial sites, to make malpractice insurance more affordable for doctors and to legalize slot machines.

But details are not known. The governor also has yet to release his plan for closing a $730 million budget gap this year or how he will proceed with the gambling debate.

The governor says he has been "empowered" by the public's response to his no-tax-increase philosophy. But with so many questions after his first year in office, Democratic lawmakers say they can't tell if Ehrlich is any more likely this year than last to turn his campaign ideas into reality.

"I thought this governor was going to roll up his sleeves. What has happened is a total avoidance of coming up with a comprehensive solution," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch yesterday during a Democratic luncheon.

"This year, the most substantive year of any administration's agenda, everybody is still in the dark about what a substantive vision is," Busch said. "What are the solutions? We have none."

Ehrlich, in an interview, dismissed the criticism against him as partisan bickering. The "comprehensive solution" that Democrats like to advocate is code for "tax increase," the governor said -- something he won't allow to happen despite calls for money for schools, roads and other programs.

"We've been empowered over the past year," Ehrlich said. "The negativism is coming from the usual suspects. There are basically two groups of Democrats in Annapolis. One is happy with the election; the other is angry and upset. We expect that."

If Democrats in the Assembly quash his agenda again, the governor said, they would incur the wrath of voters who, according to a poll this month for The Sun, give him a 56 percent approval rating.

"It's not hard to do; they control the legislature," Ehrlich said. "All they are going to do is upset the majority of the people again."

Democrats sound as if they are in fighting mood. On the agenda today: reconsideration of Ehrlich's vetoes of bills passed last year.

Legislative leaders are reviewing several bills for veto overrides, including a measure that would set energy-efficiency standards for nine types of appliances sold in Maryland; and legislation that would have blocked a family with strong Republican ties from opening a tavern in Baltimore's Canton neighborhood.

The vote could come tomorrow, officials said. No governor has seen a veto overridden in Maryland since 1989 during the administration of William Donald Schaefer.

"The governor would be disappointed with the override of any of his vetoes," said Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman. "He is deeply committed to striking a cordial and bipartisan tone this session. And will not let any potential veto affect that effort."

Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip from Southern Maryland, said Democratic leaders should make better use of their majority status.

"My belief is that the citizens understand that the governor has received scant cooperation from the legislative leaders," O'Donnell said. "The citizens of Maryland want this governor to stick to what he is doing."

Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said Ehrlich could no longer use a recalcitrant legislature as an excuse.

"The partisan division is still there and will be for the remainder of his term," Schaller said. "But he still has to show that as a self-proclaimed crossover centrist, he can navigate those partisan currents."

Schaller said Ehrlich's performance during the session would be an important indicator of his future success.

"I think this is his make-or-break session," Schaller said. "Anything accomplished in the 2005 session will be mostly too late to have major impacts on his re-election fortunes."

At yesterday's Democratic luncheon, Ehrlich took repeated shots from party leaders.

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