Governor's message still bankable

Ehrlich: Despite slots struggle, he can claim wins on various fronts.

General Assembly

April 11, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is poised to emerge from this year's General Assembly session with undented armor and a resonant re-election message, despite the all-but-certain defeat of his high-profile gambling initiative for the second straight year.

Lawmakers are ready to approve the governor's spending plan for the next budget year, which contains a record increase for public education as mandated by a landmark reform law passed two years ago.

Also primed for passage: an Ehrlich initiative to keep nitrogen out of the Chesapeake Bay by charging sewer users $30 a year for treatment-plant upgrades, and a transportation package that will launch new road construction projects around the state.

Ehrlich might not be able to run for re-election in 2006 as the leader who brought slot machines to Maryland to pay for education - leaving unfulfilled what he calls a mandate from voters.

But he could campaign as the governor who found a way to fully fund education, who stood steadfast against tax increases and who launched one of the most comprehensive bay cleanup programs in decades.

Add one more piece - say, a shovel in the ground to begin building the long-studied Intercounty Connector highway in the Washington suburbs - and the political literature could begin rolling off the printing presses in short order.

"He's a hero, because he held the line [against taxes]," said state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Barbara A. Mikulski. "Whether he gets slots or not, he comes out of here fighting for what they sent him here to do."

While the debate over slots and taxes has consumed vast attention during the Assembly session that is scheduled to end at midnight tomorrow, other Ehrlich priorities could be just as important to his political future.

`Winning hand'

When Ehrlich left his office Friday morning for a private meeting with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, it seemed that gambling was far from his mind, though the issue remained unresolved. The topic: how to maneuver the governor's "flush tax" through the Assembly in its final hours.

"If we can get agreement on that, we feel very good about the session," Ehrlich said after the meeting. "It's clearly the most important environmental initiative of the last decade or two."

Ehrlich's newly burnished environmental credentials, added to an unwavering anti-tax message, constitute a "winning hand," said Kevin Igoe, a GOP strategist.

"As a Republican, he wins as a protector of the bay," Igoe said. "It's important as an environmental resource, and to the economy of the state."

Some State House observers question the value to Ehrlich of bringing more gambling to Maryland, noting the risks inherent in the proposal. What if slots were legalized but didn't provide enough money to cover education needs, as the governor promised? What if social costs weighed more heavily on nearby neighborhoods than anticipated?

Ehrlich allowed Miller to take the lead in pushing slots this year to avoid repercussions from a second consecutive defeat, said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat and slots opponent.

"He understands the political reality that if he loses twice, he looked ineffective," Pinsky said. "Did he want it? I don't know. He may have wanted cover to say he was attempting to solve the budget problem."

"The politics of the Annapolis legislature now are about assigning the blame, not about solving the problems," Pinsky continued, and Ehrlich can ascribe blame for the bill's failure to House Democrats.

While Ehrlich's slots-free message seems solid, the two-plus years until the next gubernatorial election could provide plenty of pitfalls for a Republican governor in a heavily Democratic state.

Solving the budget

Top Democrats contend Ehrlich has failed to provide a solution to the state's budget situation, as slots would not have covered all bills coming due.

Education and health care costs are fueling projected budget deficits of between $800 million and $1 billion, out of a state budget expected to top $25 billion. Without slots or taxes, neither of which seems likely, the gap will be filled through transfers and cuts that could inflict pain on needy residents and foment a backlash.

"Ehrlich has got a very challenging second half of his term, and he's walking around like he's won already," said Josh White, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party. "Next year, we may have nearly a $1 billion budget deficit, and he has no plan to deal with it, except `Blame the Democrats,' and that will not work."

The governor's commitment to funding the huge increases in aid to schools called for in the reform program known as the Thornton plan could be undermined next year if he cuts $400 million in state assistance to counties for teacher retirement costs - a frequently discussed potential move. He could be viewed as giving education money with one hand but taking it away with the other.

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