O'Malley curbs use of state cars

Ehrlich's staff abused fleet, some taking vehicles home, governor says

May 17, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

Gov. Martin O'Malley criticized his Republican predecessor yesterday, saying he abused the Maryland fleet system by giving his staff access to too many state cars and permitting several employees to take vehicles home.

Faced with a projected budget shortfall of as much as $1.5 billion starting next year, O'Malley said his office will "lead by example" in cutting costs, promising to cut his office's fleet in half. He also said he would halt take-home privileges for his staff. The governor ordered all state agencies to conduct similar fleet audits.

"We are here today to do a little spring cleaning," O'Malley, a Democrat, said during a midday news conference. "As you know, we have inherited a $1.4 billion - excuse me, did I say that right? - a $1.4 billion deficit in state government. That is something that we are going to be wrestling with, that we've already begun to wrestle with."

O'Malley spoke in front of 10 state vehicles formerly used by staff members of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whom O'Malley defeated last fall. The cars, parked between the State House and Lawyer's Mall, were covered with signs reading "Press Car No More," "Your Taxes Do Not Equal My Gases" and "Priced to Move."

The event marked the most visible - and theatrical - effort by the governor to tie Maryland's budget woes to Ehrlich. The O'Malley administration and legislative leaders are quietly working to craft a revenue package that could include some combination of sales and gasoline tax increases, among others, that are likely to be hard to sell to voters.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said he doesn't recall how many vehicles were used by Ehrlich staffers or which ones took vehicles home with them at night. Fawell said Ehrlich, who is in private law practice but remains active politically, reduced the statewide fleet by 300 vehicles.

"We are puzzled, flattered and entertained all at once that the new governor would spend so much of his valuable time thinking about us," he said.

Jim Pelura, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, said O'Malley is going to have to do more to address the state's budget problems than auction off a few cars.

"In light of the huge fiscal problems that we have, if this is what he thinks is the way to go, this really shows a lack of understanding of the true nature of the structural deficit," Pelura said. "This is pocket change. If this is the approach to the structural deficit, then he's clueless."

There are 9,000 vehicles in state government, O'Malley said, costing the state about $55 million annually.

O'Malley, who announced last week a directive to Cabinet secretaries to cut state spending, said working families "took it on the chin the last four years" under Ehrlich. He said his team will work to find savings wherever possible, including limiting vehicle use by his staffers.

"In practical terms what does this mean? That [communications director] Steve [Kearney] and [press secretary] Rick [Abbruzzese] are not going to be driving around in unmarked [Maryland Transit Administration] police cars like their predecessors did before them," O'Malley said.

"We find no justification and no good reason why people who are working in the press office should be driving around in police vehicles that taxpayers paid for," he said.

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

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