Film puts state cuts, Ehrlich in spotlight

UM student aims to use documentary as tool to fight tuition increases

March 29, 2004|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is the star of a new movie, though he didn't seek the part and doesn't like the director.

The 30-minute documentary features a University of Maryland, College Park student on a quest to confront the Republican governor about budget cuts that have resulted in double-digit tuition increases and the layoff of hundreds of college employees statewide.

Titled Bob & Me, the film by UM senior Tim Daly is modeled after Michael Moore's Roger & Me, in which Moore chronicles his efforts to meet General Motors Chairman Roger Smith to ask why the company is turning Flint, Mich., into a ghost town.

Daly's been on Ehrlich's case since last summer, when he became the student government president at UM. He started a political action committee to fight higher tuition and is using some of the PAC money to finance the movie.

"This is a critical time for us to be doing our most intensive lobbying efforts," said Daly, 22, who plans to show the movie to legislators in Annapolis this week. It will have its big-screen premiere Thursday at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, which Daly has rented for the occasion. The screening will be a fund-raiser to benefit his political action committee, the Student Citizens Action Network.

With the General Assembly session nearing its end April 12, Daly and junior Byron MacFarlane were on campus during spring break last week, shooting the movie's final scenes. Daly was at work editing yesterday.

"It's late in the session, but there's a lot of very important things coming up," Daly said, pointing to key votes on higher education funding and the final budget deliberations.

`Lobbying tool'

Like Moore's portrayal of GM's thousands of laid-off workers, Daly tracked down students struggling with tuition -- which has gone up more than 30 percent in two years -- and university employees who got pink slips due to budget cuts.

"This is not a partisan attack. This is a lobbying tool," said Daly, who is a registered Democrat but says SCAN represents students, not party politics. "This shows the consequences of [budget cuts] last year and what can happen if those decisions are made again this year."

A spokesman for Ehrlich, Greg Massoni, did not mince words when informed of the movie. "We don't waste a second of our day thinking about what [Daly] is doing. We have no comment on anything that he does," Massoni said. "He's bought and paid for by the Democratic Party."

Though Daly and Ehrlich have never spoken or met, the two have had a series of indirect clashes in the past year.

In June, Daly hauled a decrepit Ford Pinto to the base of the State House after Ehrlich was quoted as saying Marylanders might have to settle for a Pinto of a Medicaid system if they can't afford a Cadillac -- words Daly seized as indicative of the governor's stance on higher education.

In a September interview with The Diamondback student newspaper, Ehrlich dismissed Daly as a "hot dog."

Then in October, Ehrlich accepted an invitation to appear on Daly's talk show on the university's student radio station. But after Daly repeatedly referred to Ehrlich as "Public Enemy No. 1" at SCAN's kickoff news conference, Ehrlich backed out.

Both incidents are covered in the movie. Daly scrapped a final attempt to catch Ehrlich at last week's Board of Public Works meeting after Daly determined that he and his crew would not be able to reach the governor.

Collaborative effort

Over the past eight months, Daly and cameraman Thom Wolf -- a Takoma Park free-lancer who has worked for the BBC -- interviewed students and laid-off workers and searched for alternatives to budget cuts, such as closing corporate tax loopholes.

"We went up to Wilmington, Del. -- 1150 N. Main St. -- where allegedly 650 companies have their corporate headquarters," Daly said. "There's not a single piece of office furniture. It's an empty floor."

Daly recruited Steve Hill, director of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Silver Spring, to give the documentary an expert's point of view.

"I played the role of the budget and tax geek who provided the numbers and talked about how big our deficit was and how corporations dodge paying taxes," Hill said. "We provide independent analysis of state budget and tax issues. We don't have an agenda that we're advocating for."

Hill will be on hand at the legislative unveiling to discuss the documentary's contents. SCAN will distribute DVD copies of the film.

Including production, staffing and travel costs, Daly anticipates the project will cost about $10,000. But he said SCAN has raised more than twice that through contributions from Democratic lawmakers, university officials and labor unions, such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents some campus workers in Maryland.

Daly said no Republican lawmakers have contributed to the committee, but said some private contributors have been Republicans.

Ehrlich's office says no one there is interested in the film.

"As long as it was paid for by the Democratic Party, we don't care," Massoni said.

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