Time running out on a few major issues

Votes on session's last day could affect '06 elections

`Starting their campaigns now'

Political wrangling begins over expected vetoes

General Assembly

April 11, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Tonight - after a 90-day session dominated by partisan feuding between lawmakers and the governor - the General Assembly wraps up business for the year, leaving behind a legislative record that could cast a long shadow in the looming 2006 elections.

Just a handful of major issues remains to be decided before the scheduled midnight close of the session, including state support for stem cell research, the timing of party primaries and restrictions on the governor's ability to sell state lands.

Should those bills pass, all could have an impact on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s prospects for becoming Maryland's first two-term Republican governor in decades.

And the political wrangling has begun over measures approved in recent days that Ehrlich is expected to veto, chief among them a $1-an-hour minimum-wage increase and a bill mandating a certain level of health care benefits from large employers, which now would affect only Wal-Mart.

Ehrlich has already vetoed a bill that would change appointments to the State Board of Elections. The Senate overrode the veto Saturday; the House is expected to follow suit today.

Supporters believe they can muster the votes to override other expected vetoes when the legislature reconvenes in January, setting up the possibility of a political showdown to begin the election year.

The Democrats are "doing things that are so political," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip from Southern Maryland. "I think they're starting their campaigns now."

Indeed, both of Ehrlich's biggest potential Democratic rivals next year have joined the debate on some issues.

Last week, Mayor Martin O'Malley's campaign manager sent an e-mail to 5,000 supporters statewide asking them to sign a petition supporting the minimum-wage increase. And Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan sent an e-mail to supporters urging them to write to the governor and ask him to sign what has become known as the "Wal-Mart bill."

Ehrlich and the Republicans haven't been idle either. On Thursday, the state party sent out a list of talking points for the final week of the session, suggesting that Republicans call in to a talk radio show while Ehrlich was on the air and criticize Democrats for blocking the governor's legislative agenda.

Democrats shed some of the obstructionist label that Republicans had fixed on them when the House passed a bill to allow some prerecorded testimony in trials marred by witness intimidation. The Senate must agree on the House's amendments before the bill can become law.

Still, Ehrlich spent time last week at events that appeared designed to get his message out on television that Democrats in the legislature were blocking his proposals.

He brought veterans to the State House to draw attention to his proposed military tax credit, surrounded himself with children at an-after school program to highlight the House's efforts to abolish the Office of Children, Youth and Families, and traveled to the Rod 'n' Reel, a Chesapeake Beach restaurant with legal pseudo-slot machines, to make a pitch for expanded gambling.

Twenty minutes before the governor arrived at the restaurant, administration message guru Ed Blakely called a huddle with reporters to explain exactly when Ehrlich would arrive, where his car would stop, and where, with whom and about what he would engage in "casual conversation" during his visit. A few days later, Ehrlich declared slots "dead" in a radio interview.

Such events are not a serious attempt to persuade legislators to pass the governor's agenda, said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

"It's politics," said Miller, a Prince George's Democrat. "That's moving forward with respect to 2006."

Perhaps the most surprising evidence of positioning for the election came last month when Ehrlich announced his support of bills to limit the governor's ability to sell state land, including one that would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot giving the legislature veto power over certain land sales.

The bills came in reaction to his administration's botched attempt to sell 836 acres of preserved forest in St. Mary's County to a Baltimore construction company owner with no guarantee that he wouldn't develop it. Ehrlich never took a formal position on the bills, but for months had said he believed the state's existing process for deciding whether to sell land works and doesn't need changes.

But last month, the governor announced that he would lead the effort to pass the bills and persuaded the Republican Senate delegation to support them. The bills received final passage from the House on Saturday.

Ehrlich is not one to back down from a position, and many Annapolis observers believe the move was calculated to minimize the negative effect of having a land-sale amendment on the ballot at the same time that he is up for re-election.

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