Capital Notebook

November 01, 2007

Senator cries foul on `strongarm' e-mails

Republican Sen. Andrew P. Harris said recent e-mails by O'Malley administration officials concerning the governor's revenue proposal are intended to "strongarm" people into supporting the governor's plan.

Harris shared two e-mails with reporters yesterday at the close of a rally of education leaders and students supporting Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan.

The first, sent Oct. 23 by Stephen J. Kearney, O'Malley's communications director, warns Cabinet secretaries of cuts in vital programs if the legislature fails to pass the governor's plan to eliminate what he is calling a projected $1.7 billion "structural deficit."

The e-mail refers to a prior discussion between O'Malley staffers and Cabinet secretaries on the issue and includes a copy of the governor's "cost of delay" budget, his plan for cuts of $800 million to state agencies and programs if his plan is not approved by lawmakers.

The second e-mail, sent Oct. 26 by Alvin C. Collins, secretary of general services, begins "Dear DGS partner" and appears to ask those who do business with the department for help supporting the governor's proposal. It also includes the governor's doomsday budget.

Harris said a constituent of his, a small-business owner with a state contract, received the e-mail.

"This constituent was clearly intimidated by the officer in charge of procurement in the state," said Harris. "He was worried he would not be getting further contracts, or that his contract dollars would be reduced if this plan is not initiated."

"At worst, what I think we're seeing is illegal," Harris said. "Even at best, it's highly unethical."

Harris sought an attorney general's opinion on the matter. Late yesterday, he received a response saying that the e-mails did not violate any law.

"While it is fair to say that the e-mail advocates for the Governor's legislative package, it does not fall within the definition of lobbying," Assistant Attorney General Sandra Benson Brantley said in the response. "The letter asks recipients for their help in `communicating to' their `colleagues, friends and neighbors the choices facing Maryland.'"

Kearney characterized Harris' objection as "silly" and noted that Harris, who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, is seeking to unseat Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest.

"Part of the Cabinet secretaries' job is to communicate the work of the agency and the challenge they face. And that's all that happened here. ... This is more about a campaign for another capital."

Kelly Brewington

Franchot assails O'Malley on slots

Comptroller Peter Franchot continued to take swipes at Gov. Martin O'Malley's revenue proposal yesterday morning, saying the governor is more concerned with legalizing slot machine gambling than with closing the state's projected budget deficit.

"It seems as if everything under the sun right now is beginning to be linked to slots," said Franchot, speaking to reporters after yesterday's Board of Public Works meeting. "Looks like we are more interested in lining the pockets of the gambling industry than fixing the structural deficit."

Franchot, a Democrat and former delegate, has been an outspoken critic of slots. He also hasn't been shy about criticizing the Democratic governor's decision to call the General Assembly into a special session.

"I'm not even sure if there is consensus on what the problem is," he said, noting that a legislative analyst is projecting a budget shortfall of $1.5 billion next year, not the $1.7 billion figure used by O'Malley.

A day earlier, the administration made it clear that without a voter-approved slots plan, the governor would hold off on increased funding for health care and higher education.

"What benefit does it give the state to have a referendum on slot machines tied to higher education and health care?" Franchot said. "To my former colleagues, I just say my goodness ... you're getting possibly nothing."

Kelly Brewington

Fund needs no boost, Ehrlich says

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. isn't just opposing Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan to close the "structural deficit" in Maryland's finances. Taking a position that puts him at odds with Maryland's business establishment, he also contends that there is no need to replenish the state's transportation trust fund.

Ehrlich, who pushed through a more than $200 million-a-year transportation revenue package in 2004, said that action provided sufficient money for the state's current transportation needs. The former governor discussed his views on transportation spending during and after an appearance at Professor Richard E. Vatz's advanced persuasion class at Towson University on Tuesday.

The O'Malley administration, contending the state's transportation trust fund needs an infusion of more than $400 million a year to fund a backlog of unmet needs, has proposed an increase in the vehicle titling tax, indexing the gasoline tax to inflation and other revenue measures.

Some business groups have criticized O'Malley's initiative as insufficient. The Greater Baltimore Committee has been running ads contending that the state needs $600 million a year for transportation.

A combative Ehrlich said he is dead-set against any tax increases. And he dismissed the GBC's call for additional transportation spending.

"The GBC has no credibility with me on anything and never has," he said. "For the GBC to support a tax package is embarrassing."

GBC President Donald C. Fry, who was in Annapolis yesterday to testify in favor of efforts to raise $600 million for transportation, said that position is also supported by the Washington Board of Trade and the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

Michael Dresser

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