Ehrlich signs bills on stem cell research, clean air, despite his opposition in past

General Assembly

April 07, 2006|By JENNIFER SKALKA | JENNIFER SKALKA,SUN REPORTER

It could have been - as bill signings often are - a moment for bipartisan back slaps and general good cheer.

But when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed stem cell research and anti-air pollution proposals yesterday, he failed to note that he had vigorously opposed both measures in the past, taking credit instead for their passage.

Ehrlich gave thanks only to his staff for their work on the legislation. He neglected to mention the many legislative sponsors, advocates, families and others - some of whom were in the stately conference room on the second floor of the State House - who had worked hard to see the bills become law.

In the case of the pollution-reduction initiative, the governor's staff did not invite the sponsor of the proposal, Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat, to the early-morning event.

"I think it showed no respect, not just for me, ladies and gentlemen, but for the whole legislature," Pinsky said during the morning Senate session yesterday, adding that when he asked the governor's chief of staff why he hadn't received a call, James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. simply shrugged.

Many people involved with the passage of those two bills said that they were miffed that Ehrlich would try to co-opt proposals that were primarily pushed by Democrats and that he had labored against.

Matthew Crenson, chairman of the Johns Hopkins University political science department, said Ehrlich is attempting to bolster his legislative credentials as he embarks on a re-election campaign.

"He needs to be able to take credit for something because for the last three legislative sessions he's gotten almost nowhere," Crenson said. "Now he needs to show he can work with the legislature, or he'll be seriously damaged. You don't want to go into a gubernatorial election and point to the flush tax as your only achievement."

Andrea Koshko, whose daughter has diabetes, had lobbied for the stem cell research bill. Koshko said the governor has been absent from legislative discussions, opting not to back last year's research proposal, which died in the Senate when Ehrlich declined to thwart a threatened Republican-led filibuster.

`It's an election year'

"We've been doing this for years now, and then this year, he decided to step in and in a sense take credit for this bill," said Koshko, who lives in Perry Hall. " ... I honestly think it's ironic that it's an election year, and he did this."

The stem cell bill establishes a process for reviewing research proposals and allows the state to commit money annually for research. The General Assembly secured $15 million for the next fiscal year. In years thereafter, money must be allocated in the budget.

Early in the session, Ehrlich proposed $20 million for research and $13.5 million for a research center in Baltimore. But with his budgetary plan on the table, Ehrlich and his staff repeatedly advised against the need for legislation.

Lawmakers disagreed, saying that a formal review process was necessary to ensure that state money goes to reputable research projects that are also the most promising.

Yesterday, with the bill's sponsors in the room as well as the Koshkos and others, Ehrlich said the stem cell legislation was "done the right way."

"It's very close to the approach that I advocated for many, many months," the governor said.

On either side of him, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller looked stunned. And while Ehrlich signed the bill, sick children crawled into the presiding officers' laps, not the governor's, for a photo opportunity. It was Busch who gave the pens used to sign the legislation to the children, bill sponsors, lobbyists and the like.

Miller derided the administration's decision not to invite all those who were involved in getting the stem cell bill passed, including Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, the Baltimore Democrat who had advocated so strongly for the bill, and Susan O'Brien, spokeswoman for Maryland Families for Stem Cell Research. Others, such as Baltimore Democratic Del. Peter A. Hammen, whose committee processed the bill, received a phone call.

"Unfortunately it's a little bit of one-upmanship," Miller said. "These people worked long and hard to get the bills here, to the desk of the governor, and weren't even notified of the bill signing."

Rosenberg said it is not unusual for governors to take credit for the work of the legislature.

"But his was an about-face," he said of Ehrlich. "And he could've had more input into the bill had he been a participant in the process."

Absent from yesterday's stem cell bill signing was Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Roman Catholic who has vacillated on the issue, baffling an audience of Baltimore Jewish leaders when he compared the research to Nazi medical experiments during a February event.

He subsequently expressed support for embryonic stem cell research during an interview on WBAL Radio.

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