Ehrlich agenda appears in peril

Partisanship over slots and taxes threatens to ensnare other issues

No bill has final approval

Governor won't concede, insists priorities moving

General Assembly

April 04, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had high hopes for the moderate legislative agenda he unveiled three months ago when the General Assembly session got under way.

But heightened partisanship that boiled over in the State House last week is threatening several of Ehrlich's prime initiatives, including a plan to clean the Chesapeake Bay that had been on the verge of becoming his environmental trademark.

The Assembly also has tossed aside several other ideas from the governor in recent weeks, including a proposal for medical malpractice reform and tougher sanctions against criminals who intimidate victims and witnesses before trials.

Not a single bill in the governor's legislative package has received final approval.

While most of Ehrlich's ideas have been debated, modified and decided on their merits, the ultimate fate of several has become ensnared in the overarching issues of legalized slot machines and higher taxes that is consuming the General Assembly for the second consecutive year. Many could rot behind the logjam that shows little sign of breaking before the scheduled end of the session April 12.

"You've got the Senate president and the House speaker who don't agree on big issues," said Democratic Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader from Montgomery County. "So a lot of bills are going to get held up, and you don't know what the motivations are."

Republicans worry that Democrats who control the Assembly are purposely trying to embarrass the state's first GOP governor in more than three decades, refusing to approve initiatives that would make him appear successful.

"How do you spell obstruct?" asked Del. Carmen Amedori, a Carroll County Republican. "D-E-M-O-C-R-A-T."

The governor has refused to concede defeat, asserting that several of his top priorities are advancing. A program that would divert nonviolent drug-addicted criminals into treatment programs rather than jail has passed both chambers, with slight differences awaiting settlement. Legislation to aid the redevelopment of abandoned industrial sites is progressing, he said.

"All the action will happen in the last 10 days," Ehrlich said last week.

Business as usual

To be sure, 90-day legislative sessions are back-loaded affairs. Lawmakers spend most of the early weeks in hearings, and save major decisions until the end. Committee leaders often delay action on bills - especially legislation from the governor - as a bargaining tool.

"This is my 22nd session. It's always complicated," said Ehrlich's communications director Paul E. Schurick, who held a similar position for former Gov. William Donald Schaefer. "Things always look like they are going to hell in a handbasket. Always.

"The governor is quite comfortable with his legislative package," Schurick said.

But with divided government now the standard in Annapolis, squabbles between the legislative and executive branches extend far beyond differences over policy. Ehrlich allies say that if the governor yields to demands of House Democrats to raise sales or income taxes, his re-election chances are hampered seriously. Democrats see little reason to give the governor the slots-at-racetracks plan he wants without a full solution to the state's budget problems.

Little progress

Negotiations continued yesterday inside the State House, with House Speaker Michael E. Busch huddling with state Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. and Del. Sheila E. Hixson, the chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

After hours of discussion, it appeared little progress was achieved. Hixson offered the possibility of a half-cent sales tax increase that would end in two years, but the governor refuses to consider higher sales or income taxes to supplement his slots initiative, DiPaula said.

"Without revenues, you are going to be looking at severe cuts to counties and severe cuts to Medicaid," said Busch, repeating that he wants the governor to provide a plan to address a shortfall of at least $830 million projected for the budget year that begins in July 2005. "I don't know if they sense any urgency, but at the same token, that is a fact that won't go away."

Pitfalls remain

There is little evidence that the governor's second legislative package will fare better than his first. A year ago, almost all the governor's initiatives died, unable to be revived by a rookie executive operation that had taken office a few weeks earlier. Many hoped a year of seasoning would create greater success, but many of the same pitfalls appear to remain.

Last week, the biggest victim of partisan fury was the governor's plan to impose a fee of at least $2.50 a month on homes and businesses connected to sewer systems, a proposal endorsed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other environmental groups. The money would pay for sewage plant upgrades to prevent harmful nitrogen from entering Chesapeake waters, fueling plant and algae growth that depletes life-sustaining oxygen.

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