Senators heed Ehrlich's call

Four switch votes, defeat plan to give more budget powers to the legislature

General Assembly

March 12, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

After heavy lobbying by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the state Senate rejected a proposed constitutional amendment yesterday that would have diverted to the legislature some of the extraordinary budget-writing authority now enjoyed by the state's chief executive.

The 25-20 vote, which fell four votes short of the 29 needed to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot, reversed the result of a vote Tuesday in which the Senate gave the measure preliminary approval.

After heavy lobbying by Ehrlich, four senators switched their positions. Two of them were Republicans who had broken with the party position Tuesday. The GOP was unanimous in yesterday's vote.

Ehrlich adviser Paul E. Schurick said the governor was pleased by the result.

Maryland's Constitution gives the governor the strongest budgetary powers of any state in the country. Legislators are unable to add or reallocate spending in the governor's operating budget bill. They can only make cuts and hope the governor agrees to spend the savings in ways they prefer.

The amendment defeated yesterday would have given legislators the power to shift money from one program to another but would not have let them increase overall spending.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a supporter of the amendment, gave Ehrlich credit for keeping his troops in line.

"The governor convinced the two Republicans who have supported this concept in the past to stick with the rest of the Republican caucus," Miller said. "The governor obviously worked very hard to persuade them."

Sen. Richard F. Colburn, an Eastern Shore Republican, said that although he supports the amendment, he voted against it after prodding by the governor.

"He reminded me of the fact that I asked him to run for governor," Colburn said.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, a Washington County Republican, said that he, too, heard from Ehrlich and decided to change his vote.

"The governor was deeply offended," Munson said. "He thought it was being used as a political weapon against him. I didn't come here to embarrass the governor."

Miller said backers of the amendment were not motivated by partisanship, adding that senators tried to pass a similar bill under Democratic governors Parris N. Glendening and William Donald Schaefer.

The Senate president said Ehrlich's priorities have made it particularly important for the legislature to secure more budget authority. He said Ehrlich hasn't had the same emphasis on public schools and higher education as Glendening.

Miller said two Democrats who missed the vote, Sens. Leo E. Green of Prince George's County and Sharon M. Grosfeld of Montgomery County, were expected to support the amendment. He said that Grosfeld had an excused absence for medical reasons but that he did not know where Green was.

Their presence would not have changed the result because Democratic Sens. John A. Giannetti Jr. of Laurel and John C. Astle of Annapolis changed their votes.

Ehrlich's efforts may have continued right up to yesterday morning, when he was invited to appear at the Senate podium for a ceremony honoring Baltimore Cardinal William H. Keeler, former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and the late Del. Howard P. Rawlings.

In his brief remarks, the governor exhorted senators to "vote right."

Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, the chief sponsor of the amendment, said later that Ehrlich's remarks were "inappropriate."

"Nobody's supposed to lobby from the podium - even the president of the Senate," Hogan said. The Montgomery County Democrat, who has sought the amendment for years, accused Ehrlich of threatening senators' projects to get their votes.

"Maybe I'm taking it too personally," Hogan said. He said he would try again next year.

Sun staff writers Howard Libit and Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

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