Letter from the state rebukes Smith's criticism of budget

Ehrlich's counsel writes, with sarcasm, that county should ask for a cut in aid

May 21, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

In a sign of what appears to be growing acrimony between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., the governor's chief legal counsel sent a sarcasm-laced letter to members of the county's legislative delegation last week suggesting they should ask the state to cut more than $60 million in aid to the county next year.

Ehrlich's counsel, Jervis S. Finney, a former Baltimore County councilman and state senator, said in the letter that the state has increased its aid to the county since Ehrlich took office. In spite of that, Finney wrote, Smith criticized the governor in a May 9 Sun article for cutting $25 million in aid to the county, and he called the budget situation in Annapolis "a train wreck."

"Since these state funding increases for Baltimore County are adverse, i.e. do no good in the County Executive's eyes, then one would conclude that this fiscal relationship should change, that these increases should stop, that Annapolis should just back off, so that the Baltimore County `train' can continue to `run on time,'" Finney wrote in the letter addressed to Sens. Norman R. Stone Jr. and James Brochin.

"It occurred to me that you might wish to ask Fiscal Services how to go about eliminating some of these allegedly damaging '04 and '05 state budgetary increases for Baltimore County, down to your prior Governor's levels," Finney added.

Finney later said the letter was "a friendly reminder of Governor Ehrlich's state funding for Baltimore County in fiscal '04 and '05 with some kidding and attempted humor." Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the governor's office approved the letter before it was sent.

Smith declined to comment. County Budget Director Fred Homan said overall state aid to the county has gone up in the past two years, but only because of the increases in funding dedicated to public education, the so-called Thornton money.

Other aid has dropped by $25 million over that period, but Smith's major concern is about next year's budget, which Ehrlich administration officials have said could be balanced through deep cuts to local governments, Homan said.

Former state Sen. Michael J. Collins called the letter "classic Jervie," and said Finney was probably just having fun.

"It's curious, though, that they would expect the county executive to not do his job and make the citizens aware of what may be coming around the bend," Collins, a Democrat, said.

David S. Weaver, a spokesman for Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, took the matter more seriously.

"This administration is balancing the budget on the backs of local governments," Weaver said. "We would be remiss if we didn't stand up and protest those cuts. For local officials to get reprimanded by the top legal adviser to the governor for doing so is just outrageous."

Political observers said the letter looks like a warning.

"When I read ... Jimmy's statements, I thought, `Why is he talking like that? What does he have to gain by saying that?'" said former state Sen. Francis X. Kelley, a Republican who is close to Ehrlich and Smith. "Jimmy would be better served if he were a little more judicious in his comments."

Smith has criticized the governor's fiscal leadership, and he called Ehrlich's insurance commissioner "aloof" in his response to Tropical Storm Isabel.

The governor has talked to a Democratic county councilman about switching parties to run against Smith and has admonished politicos in his native Arbutus who had been planning a Smith fund-raiser.

Baltimore County is the most crucial political jurisdiction for Ehrlich. About 98 percent of his margin of victory in 2002 came from the county.

In light of the recent interactions between Smith and Ehrlich, the letter looks like part of a pattern, said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University.

"[It] looks like the campaign is already on, and [Ehrlich is] trying to disable the potential opposition as much as possible," he said.

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