Governor's supporters cool their heels in Annapolis

Long-delayed testimony on Ehrlich bills seen as partisan snub

General Assembly

March 02, 2006|By ANDREW A. GREEN | ANDREW A. GREEN,SUN REPORTER

In Annapolis tradition, legislative committees usually schedule hearings on bills dealing with similar topics on the same day.

But yesterday's agenda in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee raised eyebrows in Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration for the seemingly unrelated litany of bills: medical malpractice reform, restrictions on child sex offenders, witness-intimidation proposals and tougher penalties for minors caught driving drunk.

The connection: They are all sponsored by the governor. And they could all be in for a rough ride.

A year after Ehrlich harangued legislators during his State of the State speech to "show respect," relationships in bipartisan Annapolis look more fractured than ever, with the governor's aides calling the hearing schedule inconsiderate and Democrats saying the governor's bills are retreads of old ideas put in for show.

The committee hearing dragged on for hours, and testimony on the governor's bills was delayed by a three-hour debate on gay marriage. Supporters of the governor were left waiting in hallways.

"You've got doctors, crime victims, police officers, the deputy secretary of corrections, the secretary of corrections, the state's attorney from Baltimore City," said Ehrlich's chief legislative aide, Alan Friedman. "It doesn't matter to me because I work across the street, but it's awfully inconsiderate to those people."

Yesterday, the governor showed little inclination to mend his relations with legislators. The Judicial Proceedings marathon took place at the same time that Ehrlich was demonstrating what he called a "new paradigm" in negotiations over the state budget. For the second day in a row, he held a news conference outside of Annapolis to decry suggestions for cuts to his budget made by nonpartisan legislative staffers.

Legislators have yet to make even preliminary decisions about the cuts, but that has not stopped the governor from using his bully pulpit to put pressure on them.

"Some people are acting with shock that a governor would go out ... and defend our priorities," Ehrlich said in Baltimore. "And you know what? They better get acclimated to it because we are real serious following up on, implementing and measuring our priorities."

The governor's legislative agenda had appeared imperiled before yesterday's hearings. Democrats had introduced many bills similar to those proposed by the governor, and observers said lawmakers were likely to kill the governor's bills and pass their own versions.

By late yesterday, that strategy looked more likely than ever to come to pass.

Committee Chairman Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he saw no reason to give the governor's bills more individual attention because none of them breaks significant new ground. All but one are repackaged versions of legislation that failed last year, and the other, the sex offender bill, is similar to more than a dozen others the committee has heard, he said.

"We've got to hear these bills sometime, and it's not like these are marquee issues that deserve their time in the sun," he said.

With Ehrlich out of town, the governor's legislative staff and supporters were prepared to defend his ideas in Annapolis. But first they would have to wait. And wait.

Sitting in a hallway waiting to testify on one of her top legislative priorities, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy acknowledged that the prospects were looking bad for expanding a witness-intimidation statute to provide greater penalties in cases of child abuse and domestic violence.

"I don't think they can give everything its own day, so I didn't expect that," Jessamy said shortly after she arrived about 3:30 p.m., 2 1/2 hours before she would testify. "But I would expect more caring for children in domestic violence and the most dangerous situations."

The hallway outside the committee room, furnished with a few couches and speakers broadcasting the proceedings inside, was packed for most of the day. Dr. Carol Ritter, a Towson gynecologist who has been active on medical malpractice issues, said she had written off the day to come testify.

"Maybe I should go shopping," she said as the gay marriage debate headed into its third hour.

About that time, Friedman arrived, stuck his head in the committee room long enough to hear the words "heterosexual marriage," and came back out.

"I've got M&Ms," he said. "For 5 bucks, they're yours. In an hour, it'll be 10."

Later in the afternoon, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller stopped by to see how things were going.

"This is not my handiwork," he said with a smile. "Brian Frosh is a very independent thinker."

When the governor's aides finally did testify, Frosh wasted no time sharing his thinking with them.

He and the other senators sat almost entirely in silence during the hours of gay marriage testimony, but Frosh turned into a hard-charging cross-examiner.

He questioned whether Maryland really is in a medical malpractice crisis. On witness intimidation, he asked why the governor is proposing more penalties for criminals rather than funding to protect witnesses. For the sex offender bill, he grilled corrections officials about whether they were playing political games with the information they gave to legislative analysts.

The gavel fell on the hearing just before 8 p.m., not quite seven hours after it began. By the end, six of the committee's 11 senators were left.

A few times during their testimony, Ehrlich aides made asides hinting at their annoyance at the scheduling. But Frosh said that if anyone is playing games with the bills his committee discussed yesterday, it is Ehrlich.

"Med mal? We've heard it a zillion times," Frosh said. "They put it in for show. They didn't put it in because they expect it to pass."

andy.green@baltsun.com

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