Assembly takes on an edgier tone

Approaching election, unresolved issues help augment partisan strife

General Assembly

March 22, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, The last month of a General Assembly session is a cranky time in Annapolis. And this year - with a hot gubernatorial election on the horizon, a U.S. Senate seat coming open and Democrats vowing to probe the governor's personnel practices - the tone is rougher than usual.

Republicans accuse the Democrats of playing politics with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s highest priorities, from his legislative agenda to the appointments he wants to make on a variety of state boards and agencies.

Democrats accuse the administration of replacing longtime employees with political loyalists.

And underlying nearly every conflict is the question that will be settled in a little more than 18 months: Was the election of a Republican governor a fluke, or is Maryland becoming a two-party state?

"There are still people who are angry we won, and you see it play out on a daily basis here," Ehrlich said at a Board of Public Works meeting last week, saying lawmakers should cut out what he called the "shenanigans" that typically bog down the late days of a session.

Some lawmakers say work still is being done amid the political distractions.

On Thursday morning, for example, the House of Delegates unanimously passed two bills restricting teenage drivers, both top priorities of the Ehrlich administration. Two more contentious teenage driving bills passed minutes later on votes that showed no discernible party lines.

But a number of significant issues still are on the agenda, including the budget, witness intimidation and, as has been the case since Ehrlich was elected, slot machines. Whether and how they will be resolved depends on how much cooperation lawmakers can muster.

Neither the governor nor legislative leaders put forward as ambitious an agenda as they have in years past - a common practice for the third year of a term, when attention shifts to the next election.

The political temperature rose two weeks ago, when U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes announced that he would retire next year, setting off a scramble for his succession.

Republicans say an increasingly partisan atmosphere threatens the operation of state government and accuse the Democrats of obstructionism.

At a news conference in front of the State House last week, they complained about Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's decision to hold up more than 80 gubernatorial appointments as a bargaining chip and also the lack of movement on key Ehrlich proposals, such as the witness-intimidation bill and a lead-paint initiative.

Ehrlich's witness-intimidation bill, which would loosen rules requiring witnesses to testify in person, is being blocked by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr.

And the lead-paint initiative is running into opposition from Baltimore lawmakers who want the state to restore money for a city enforcement program.

Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the minority whip from Southern Maryland, said the only thing that will force Democrats to work with the governor is his re-election.

"When Governor Ehrlich gets re-elected and we pick up a significant number of seats, the current majority party will have to make a decision. They will have to stop obstructing and do the people's work, or they can continue doing what they're doing and suffer the consequences," he said.

But Democrats say the Republicans seem interested only in scoring political points.

The day after Miller said he was holding up the governor's appointments, Department of Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Lynn Y. Buhl announced at the Board of Public Works meeting that the state would stop all land purchases through Program Open Space pending the outcome of bills in the legislature that would restrict the governor's ability to sell land.

Coming after Ehrlich's speech about Democrats' "shenanigans," the move drew a rebuke from Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, the usually mild-tempered former Democratic delegate.

"Shenanigans are shenanigans," she said.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he was puzzled that Republicans opposed a plan to reduce state property tax rates and by their outrage over Democrats' efforts to cut some state jobs.

"I do find it ironic that after years of Republican whining about the size of government and taxes, they don't want to downsize government, and they don't want to reduce taxes," Busch said. "They're not tough enough to do it."

Despite such tension, legislation is moving through the General Assembly better than it did last year at this time, largely because of improved cooperation among Democratic leaders.

Last year, Miller held up House legislation and refused to name a committee to negotiate the final details of the budget in an effort to pressure Busch into allowing a vote on slots.

The two presiding leaders remain on opposite sides of the slots debate this year. But Miller has said he doesn't want to hold up action on all other issues for the sake of trying to force a compromise on the competing slots plans the House and Senate passed this year.

"Obviously, people are talking about those things," Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said of the races for governor and Senate. "But at the end of the day, we're getting the work done. There are substantive things happening."

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

Still ahead

Slots: The House speaker has refused to appoint a committee to negotiate a compromise between Senate and House versions of bills to legalize slots.

Witness protection: The key component of the governor's anti-witness-intimidation bills is stalled in a House committee.

Budget: The House and Senate are debating the governor's budget proposal. A House committee voted to abolish the jobs of some Ehrlich allies, but chamber leaders don't want to target specific employees.

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