For Ehrlich, bill-signing ceremony isn't much to write home about

After tough session, state leaders are left with little to highlight

General Assembly

April 13, 2005|By Andrew Green and Ivan Penn | Andrew Green and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

In a strained gathering yesterday on the day after the 2005 General Assembly session closed, the governor, House speaker and Senate president said little to each other in their traditional post-legislative session bill-signing ceremony and highlighted no major issues.

Governors usually focus on an important accomplishment of the session in the day-after ceremony - last year it was funding for road projects, the year before a health insurance program for Bethlehem Steel retirees.

"I have nothing particularly insightful to say," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday before grabbing a pen to sign 91 bills, including funds for the Baltimore Zoo tram, a requirement for hepatitis C testing for kickboxers and authorization for wine festivals in Montgomery County.

He signed the bills with the usual parade of sponsors and political interests, who were there to have their pictures taken as the governor signed their bills, but he did it without any grand declarations about the session or the bills.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch had just two words to say about the 2005 legislative session: "Long year."

After the ceremony, the governor said that he plans to veto a bill that requires large employers - effectively, just Wal-Mart - to spend a certain percentage of their payroll on worker health insurance or pay a tax to make up the difference. He said he hasn't decided whether to reject other bills, including a $1-an-hour increase in the minimum wage and a measure to allow unmarried couples to make medical decisions for each other.

Lawmakers overrode two of the governor's vetoes on bills to change appointments to the board of elections and to restrict his ability to strike international trade agreements. And Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said the Assembly has the votes to override other vetoes when the legislature reconvenes next winter.

Miller said he believes the legislature will have the votes to override Ehrlich's veto of the Wal-Mart bill. "Come next January, I'm sure the votes are going to be there," Miller said.

But Ehrlich said an override of the Wal-Mart bill would send the wrong message to the business community and would put at risk the Arkansas retailer's plans to build a new distribution center in Somerset County.

"It tells us that the business community has no push in this town," Ehrlich said. "It tells us the Maryland General Assembly is more interested in punishing one business than economic development in the state of Maryland. It tells us they are willing to put at risk 1,000 jobs in Somerset County."

The governor said he is also concerned about the effect a minimum-wage increase could have on business but has not settled on a veto.

Ehrlich said he also has reservations about the bill on medical decisions, which was a high priority for the state's gay community but was criticized by social conservatives as a first step toward same-sex marriage.

"We obviously have a very strong policy orientation toward protecting traditional marriage," Ehrlich said. "On the other hand, ... I was approached by a man and a woman, they were a couple, weren't married, and their situation would have fallen in the reach of the bill."

Yesterday's bill-signing ceremony was the first of several that will take place over the coming months.

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