Election panel battle moves to Senate floor

Democrats want control of their party's nominees

March 17, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Lingering tension over the Ehrlich administration's failed efforts to oust state elections administrator Linda H. Lamone spilled onto the floor of the Maryland Senate yesterday, as Republicans fought a proposal to give lawmakers a greater role in picking the elections chief.

The debate was the latest manifestation of ill will between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Democratic leaders in the General Assembly. The two sides have been fighting for weeks over whether Ehrlich is overstepping his authority in hiring and firing, and in making nominations to agencies and commissions.

Ehrlich "brings these hardball, conservative, right-wing little nincompoops that hang around up there on the second floor, and apparently people listen to what they say," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller after debate on the elections board bill. "They don't make government work. They want to cause government not to work."

Yesterday's flare-up had roots in Ehrlich's decision last year to name Gene Raynor, a Democrat and former state elections head, to the Maryland Board of Elections. Raynor - never vetted by Democrats in the Assembly - became the fourth vote Ehrlich needed on the five-member board to oust Lamone. The governor makes all nominations to the board, including those of the two opposition party members.

Lamone fought back and reached a legal agreement that allowed her to stay. But Democrats, stung by Ehrlich's actions, proposed legislation this year that would drastically alter the way the state's top elections official is chosen by abolishing the elections board and further insulating the administrator from the governor's wishes.

The bill that made it to the Senate floor yesterday was heavily amended in committee. But even it wouldn't be necessary, Miller said, if Ehrlich would let Democrats select whom they want on the board. He accused Ehrlich of picking "Democrats in name only," such as Raynor, so Republicans can wrest control of the state's election machinery.

Senate Republicans offered a series of amendments yesterday to weaken the measure. "[T]he fix is actually worse than the problem," said Sen. E.J. Pipkin, from the Eastern Shore.

The amendments failed; a final vote is scheduled this week.

Miller's anger over Democratic elections board appointments is partly what led him to withhold approval of 82 Ehrlich nominees to boards and commissions this week.

Ehrlich pushed back yesterday, saying that the nominations should move forward and that legislation he is supporting also should move ahead.

"I respectfully ask again that some of the shenanigans that traditionally play themselves out at this time of the session disappear," Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich said he was "particularly concerned that a number of prominent women" have been blocked from their new jobs - an allusion to Karen A. Smith, his intergovernmental affairs chief who was nominated to the Public Service Commission, and to friends of first lady Kendel Ehrlich who would lose jobs in proposed House budget cuts.

But the House Appropriations Committee yesterday cut several dozen positions filled by Ehrlich appointees.

And at the state Board of Public Works meeting, natural resources deputy secretary Lynn Y. Buhl said that the state was delaying open-space purchases out of concern about restrictions that might be imposed by a General Assembly concerned about the administration's contemplated land sales.

Sun staff writer Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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