Ehrlich scolds businesses for lack of lobbying

He urges leaders to press Democratic lawmakers

Rebuke delivered at luncheon

Critical remarks silence hundreds of supporters

April 23, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. delivered a forceful rebuke to Maryland business leaders yesterday, challenging them to increase their influence in Annapolis and demanding that they withhold support from Democrats who vote for higher taxes and labor costs.

"You have yet to prove a willingness to engage those members who enjoy your checks and your endorsements, but who vote at critical times against jobs and growth and opportunity and prosperity," Ehrlich told business leaders and lobbyists at the Baltimore Convention Center in his first major address since the end of the General Assembly session.

"That's the Patty Hearst syndrome. You identify with your captors. The time has come for the Maryland business community to lose that syndrome."

Despite the backing of the state's first Republican governor in 36 years, business interests are being out-muscled in the state capital by well-organized ground troops from the Maryland State Teachers Association and trial lawyers, Ehrlich said, singling out two groups for which he has particular disdain.

Business leaders must do better at pressuring Democratic lawmakers directly, the governor said, so that they will vote against higher taxes and for initiatives that help business, such as medical malpractice reform.

Led by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, the House of Delegates approved a $670 million tax package this session but retreated under the threat of a gubernatorial veto. The governor's tort-reform initiative was killed.

"I do not care how many e-mails are sent over 90 days. I do not care how much money you pay to powerful lobbyists in this room," Ehrlich said. "We need you to influence votes. We need you to be dangerous."

Ehrlich's remarks silenced a crowd of more than 320 who gathered at a Maryland Business for Responsive Government luncheon to hear the governor recap the 90-day legislative session that ended April 12.

The governor said he was as proud of killing or vetoing what he called "bad bills" as he was of implementing an agenda, but he warned that he was tired of playing defense.

"It is very quiet in this room right now, because this may not be the speech you expected to hear," the governor said. "I'm not going to sit down there for two more years as a backstop."

Francis X. Kelly, a former Baltimore County state senator who is chairman and chief executive of Kelly & Associates Insurance Group in Hunt Valley, called the governor's challenge "right on the money."

"Business people are so busy running their own businesses that they don't get involved until something affects them directly," said Kelly, whose firm paid $1,000 to co-sponsor the event. "Business groups have not been as effective as teachers unions have."

State Democratic Party Executive Director Josh White accused Ehrlich of "intimidation" and said he was troubled by the remarks.

"This is damning evidence that Bob Ehrlich has brought the very worst of Washington politics to Maryland," White said. "The governor is changing the culture in Annapolis by endorsing the Washington tactic of using intimidation and bank accounts to hijack the people's agenda."

Eight businesses, lobbying firms and individuals paid $2,000 each to sponsor the luncheon, held annually by the business group that advocates for lower taxes and fewer business regulations.

Among the sponsors were Ober/Kaler, Ehrlich's former law firm; the Injured Workers Insurance Fund; Capitol Strategies LLC; and Josh Rales, a Montgomery County developer who was considering running for U.S. Senate as a Republican.

"I'm borrowing from the shock-trauma vocabulary: This is the golden hour," said Robert O.C. Worcester, president of the group. "If we can't get a beachhead in the public policy of the state under this governor, it's never going to happen."

Another attendee, Christopher Summers, president of the nonpartisan Maryland Public Policy Institute, agreed, calling Ehrlich's speech "a shot across the bow" to some of his strongest supporters.

"He sends the message that time is short," Summers said. "It's time to start hitting home runs."

The governor did not elaborate yesterday on how he will decide on some of the most contentious pieces of legislation that will soon reach his desk. Previously, Ehrlich said he would veto legislation that would raise corporate income taxes and give the money to higher education, allowing tuition increases to be limited.

He has also pledged to veto a bill that would establish a statewide "living wage" of $10.50 an hour for employees hired to fulfill state contracts, but he addressed neither of those pieces of legislation yesterday.

"We would have an increase in the sales tax, an increase in the sales tax base, an increase in the personal income tax, an increase in the corporate income tax, an increase in the gas tax. An HMO tax. A snack tax. An alcohol tax," Ehrlich said. "You'd have in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. You'd have an agenda run by the Maryland State Teachers Association and the trial bar. ... You'd have food stamps for felons and the expansion of an already extended Medicaid program."

White said it is Ehrlich's budget-shrinking policies that are hurting Marylanders. "We're confident the business community will reject the governor's destructive partisan rhetoric and continue to work with both parties to maintain Maryland's high quality of life," he said.

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