Ehrlich's legislative priorities sputter as session winds down

General Assembly

April 04, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

With a week to go in the legislative session, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has yet to see a single vote cast against any of his proposals on the floor of the House of Delegates this year.

But that's because only his least-contentious ideas have made it through the legislative process, while others have stalled, giving him a mixed record at this point in the last session before attention shifts to next year's election.

Ehrlich proclaimed 2005 the "year of the child" when unveiling his agenda, and he has won successes on a package of bills to extend the time teenage drivers have provisional licenses and increase penalties for underage drunken driving.

But his bill to step up lead paint enforcement has yet to make it to the floor of the Senate. And his effort to elevate the Office of Children, Youth and Families to Cabinet-level status was so badly gutted by a House committee that Republican delegates last week amended the bill to remove Ehrlich from the list of sponsors.

Other priority bills, including tax credits for veterans, additional medical malpractice lawsuit reforms, and measures to stop witness intimidation and to legalize slot machines, have stalled in one chamber or the other.

"There have been a lot of games played with some of his initiatives, most notably [the children's office proposal], but they're simply that, games," said Ehrlich communications director Paul E. Schurick. "Cool heads will prevail."

It's common for a governor's bills to get stuck until the very end of the session, as legislative leaders hold up passage for leverage on other issues. Many bills could be approved in the final hours before the session's April 11 close.

Still, Ehrlich's record for brokering last-minute legislative compromises is not strong -- and his store of good will among Democratic leaders was diminished by a rancorous special session over medical malpractice in December.

Democrats likely will try in the next election to paint the governor as more interested in blaming the legislature for his failures than in doing the work needed to pass his initiatives.

But Ehrlich probably will argue that he has won key victories in spite of a legislature stacked 2-to-1 with members of the other party. Among those successes are last year's vote on the so-called flush tax to help clean the Chesapeake Bay, and an increase in car tag fees that has funded transportation projects around the state.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, a Washington County Republican, said Ehrlich's portrayal of the legislature as obstructionist is getting through, and he predicts that voters will consider that in evaluating his accomplishments.

"The governor on all these issues has shown a willingness to compromise, and in return he gets slapped around by the legislature," Shank said. As a result, the governor will be "even more popular" in districts like Shank's, the delegate said.

It looks unlikely at this point that the governor will be able to say he delivered on his pledge to legalize slots. But if enough of his financing plan for the Intercounty Connector is approved this year to allow a groundbreaking on the proposed Washington-area highway, he can point to a major promise kept when he campaigns next year in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Montgomery is home to many liberal voters who will find fault with whatever the governor does, but starting the ICC could change enough minds in that Democratic stronghold to make a statewide victory difficult for his opponent, said Tom J. Reinheimer, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party.

"He can demonstrate he's actually doing something to work in improving the transportation mess that's been developing," which is a major headache for suburban Washington voters, Reinheimer said.

But Democrats say they see Ehrlich as more interested in raising issues than in solving them.

He has worked for the last three years to bring slot machine gambling to the forefront. But it landed in his 2005 legislative agenda as an afterthought, and he has relied on Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, to push a bill through the legislature.

Through intense lobbying, Ehrlich got an impressive 35 out of 43 Republican delegates to support a House slots bill, but he didn't succeed in getting Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch to negotiate a final compromise.

Ehrlich's medical malpractice reform bill, which he said was necessary to make up for deficiencies in the compromise approved by the House and Senate in December's special session, hasn't made it out of committee in either chamber. Meanwhile, delegates crafted their own package of limits on malpractice lawsuits without the governor's help.

"The one constant thing I don't see, and I haven't seen it in three years, is reaching out to moderate and conservative Democrats and building alliances with them," said Sen. James Brochin, a Towson Democrat. "Reaching out to me and discussing the issues and showing me why his issue is important could have easily convinced me."

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