- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. began an eleventh-hour effort yesterday to garner public support for administration bills stuck in committees or altered beyond recognition by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, said the push is needed before the session ends Monday night because partisan wrangling has undermined bills that originally had bipartisan support.

“Bills that started out as very light lifting have become very heavy lifting,” he said.

Mr. Ehrlich has achieved only minor legislative victories this year, such as passage of stricter rules for teenage drivers.

Meanwhile, his legislation to legalize slot-machine gambling is in limbo, with House and Senate leaders unable to reconcile their disparate bills.

Lawmakers significantly reduced the income tax credit Mr. Ehrlich proposed for military retirees. And his plan to restructure the Office of Children, Youth and Families has been abandoned by lawmakers in favor of dismantling the office.

Mr. Ehrlich began his appeal for public support by visiting an elementary school near Annapolis and surrounding himself with about 85 children attending an after-school program that the governor said could lose funding if House Democrats succeed in dismantling the office.

“Who thinks an after-school program is important? Raise your hand,” Mr. Ehrlich said to students at Walter S. Mills-Parole Elementary School in Parole.

Mr. Ehrlich said House Democrats were “clearly irresponsible” in passing legislation to gut the office, which he wanted to elevate this year to a Cabinet-level agency.

House Democrats instead passed a bill allowing the authorization to expire for the office, which coordinates community-based programs to assist children and families. The House budget bill then eliminated 21 positions in the office — nearly half the staff.

Among the job cuts was the post of special secretary held by M. Teresa Garland, who has ties to the governor’s wife. The governor has accused Democratic leaders of targeting her in a payback for a perceived administration purge of Democrats from state jobs.

Yesterday’s event did not appear to have an immediate effect on House Democratic leaders, who said they had planned for five years to close the office and that the governor waited until Jan. 21 to offer an alternative plan.

Delegate Sheila E. Hixson, Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the committee responsible for the bill to close the office, said the programs run by the office would continue in other departments with the same staff but without the excess administration.

A Senate bill would keep the office open for another year while the reforms proposed by the governor are studied. The Senate budget bill does not eliminate administrative jobs. The different versions must be reconciled in conference committee and approved by both chambers.

Senate Majority Leader Nathaniel J. MacFadden, Baltimore City Democrat and member of both conference committees, said the office likely will win a one-year reprieve, but lawmakers are in a “stalemate” over the job cuts.

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