In Annapolis, clashes at the top threaten bottom line

Ehrlich, Busch, Miller tiffs could derail session

March 21, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The intimate gatherings are occurring more frequently now.

There was the private session convened in the State House on Tuesday, attended by the governor, the speaker of the House of Delegates and the president of the Senate, to talk medical malpractice reform and slot-machine gambling.

There is the dinner tonight in the governor's mansion with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Speaker Michael E. Busch -- a breaking of bread between one-time friends whose strained relations have held back decisions on slots, taxes and other vital state issues.

The sessions are notable, in large part because they shouldn't be so notable.

Annapolis is a small place, with power concentrated in the hands of a few. Gathering in a quiet room out of public view, the governor and the ranking officers of the two legislative chambers can make policy and political decisions affecting the lives of millions of Marylanders.

But relations between the current crop of leaders have been tenuous since the 2002 election that brought two-thirds of the triumvirate into power.

Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller don't like each other much. They went months without speaking last year.

No road map

While angry words between them have subsided since the legislative session began in January, the two lawmakers rarely get together to talk goals and strategy. As a result, there is no road map of where the Democrat-controlled General Assembly is heading as it enters its final three weeks.

"If the relationship -- and it's a big if -- between the speaker and the president is a problem, a major problem, it will be reflected in lack of success achieved during this session," Ehrlich said last week.

Tension between the speaker and the president is nothing new in Maryland; historically, the leaders of different chambers with different philosophies and outsized egos have clashed.

But with divided government in Maryland for the first time in nearly 40 years, fractures between the speaker and president have greater consequences than ever. If the Assembly leaders can't get along, and both are jousting with a governor from an opposing party, the potential for gridlock is enormous.

"Whether they like one another or not doesn't matter. They need to work out a relationship to get things done," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "And that doesn't appear to be happening in this session of the General Assembly. There doesn't seem to be any room for compromise."

Such a stalemate may be just what voters ordered when they sent a Republican governor to Annapolis, says Blair Lee IV, a Montgomery County developer and newspaper columnist who is the son of a former governor. Simply having a debate over raising taxes is refreshing in liberal Maryland, he said.

"If not one piece of Ehrlich's legislation gets passed, in many ways it is inconsequential. You aren't talking about three Democrats sitting down. You have this whole new filter and phenomenon of partisanship. Sometimes, gridlock is what the people have mandated," Lee said.

Another leg of the triangle bears watching. Busch and Ehrlich, two ex-athletes who were once committee mates in the House of Delegates, are at loggerheads over slots. Busch crushed the governor's slots-at-racetracks plan last year, and is positioned to do so again if he desires. The speaker will try to get Ehrlich to swallow a tax increase in exchange for an expanded gambling program.

"Ehrlich harkens back to a day when you were buddies. He reached out to Busch because they were House buddies together. He reached out to Miller," said Carvel Payne, who headed the General Assembly's nonpartisan research office from 1978 to 1997 and is a keen observer of state politics. "Busch has chosen to chart his own course the first year of Ehrlich's term. But now there seems to be a rapprochement going on."

Former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., Busch's predecessor and now a lobbyist, said recent signs are promising.

"The most encouraging turn of events in the entire session has been the current display of communication among the three leaders," he said.

But talk of progress could be overstated. "I hope it's getting better, but I haven't seen any evidence of that yet," said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat.

The private sessions are important, political observers say, so leaders can learn where their counterparts are willing to yield on key issues and where they will stand firm. Will Ehrlich accept a temporary income tax surcharge on high-wage-earners in exchange for Busch yielding on a slot-machine plan? Is the speaker willing to give up on his quest for higher taxes to fund education, knowing that slots won't pay for it all?

That the leaders are talking at all is a positive sign. Last year's General Assembly session -- Busch's first as speaker and Ehrlich's first as governor -- ended in ugliness, largely over Ehrlich's failure to push an acceptable slots bill through the legislature.

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