15 rushed bills set up legal clash

Senate officials differ with Ehrlich on key question of end-of-session timing

General Assembly


Maryland Senate officials prepared yesterday for a legal showdown with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. over 15 bills that they rushed to pass by a key deadline but were prevented from delivering to the governor because his aides had locked an office door.

Senate clerks said that when they found the door to the governor's legislative office locked Friday afternoon, they slid the receipts - and, in some cases the bills themselves - underneath and tried Saturday to deliver the remaining bills in person.

A spokesman for the governor said the paperwork was officially delivered and received yesterday.

The difference in timing has major implications for the fate of the legislation, which includes a measure to limit pollutants emitted by power plants and another designating polling locations to be opened early, both of which are opposed by the governor.

Because it is an election year, the General Assembly cannot override any Ehrlich vetoes after legislators adjourn Monday at midnight unless they return for a special session.

The governor must decide whether to sign or veto bills that reach him within six working days of the end of the session. Aware of the deadline - which was Saturday evening - legislators scrambled to pass bills that they thought the governor might reject in time for override votes.

The standoff is another indication that even with the end of the session in sight, partisan sniping has reached a fever pitch between Democratic leaders and the Republican governor as an intensely competitive election season begins.

The sponsor of the measure on pollutants was incensed that his bill was not accepted by the governor's office last week, saying in a letter to Ehrlich that he did not think the governor would condone such behavior from his staff.

"Locking the door and refusing to accept official documents is simply silly," Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat, wrote in a letter to the governor. "The image of your staff members cowering behind a locked door and refusing to accept documents from the legislature simply doesn't square with how you personally do business."

Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, said the administration believes that Pinsky's bill and the others were received by the governor's office yesterday. He said the governor's office will review an opinion issued yesterday by the attorney general's office, which says the bills should be considered to have been received Friday, and then "determine the best course of action."

Fawell said he did not know why the office door was locked Friday by 5 p.m. when the rest of the State House was still buzzing with activity. Nor would he say whether any of the governor's staff members were at work Saturday, when the staffs of many lawmakers were in Annapolis.

"Perhaps the legislature would like to launch a special committee to waste another million dollars of taxpayer money to get to the bottom of it," Fawell said, referring to a legislative panel that is examining whether Ehrlich fired relatively low-level state employees for political reasons.

In a written advisory, Robert A. Zarnoch, an assistant state attorney general who is counsel to the Assembly, said the bills were presented to the governor's office Friday, in time for the legislature to vote to override any vetoes.

The General Assembly does not have the authority to dictate the business hours of the governor's office, but he wrote, "Unreasonable office hours may not be set to frustrate presentment."

Under state law, if the bills were delivered on time they would become law without the governor's signature if Ehrlich took no action by Saturday.

"An interested party may sue to have the court declare that the bills have gone into effect not withstanding the governor having not acted," said Bonnie Kirkland, also an assistant attorney general.

Complicating matters further, Betty Anderson, an aide in the governor's legislative office, signed a form yesterday acknowledging receipt of the bills and saying that they were originally presented Friday. The form was also signed by the secretary of the Senate, William B.C. Addison Jr., and a witness.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the only reason for the hullabaloo over the timing of the bills' receipt is that Ehrlich does not want to see Pinsky's pollutant bill become law.

"It's big business versus the environmentalists," Miller said. "This is the governor supporting power companies versus the consumers."

On March 10, Ehrlich urged legislators to vote against Pinsky's Healthy Air Act. In a news release, the governor called the bill "a direct threat to electricity prices and supplies in Maryland." The governor has proposed different restrictions through regulations.

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