- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday prefaced his third-annual State of the State address with an impromptu lecture about the need for respect in state government.

“Being treated with appropriate dignity when the governor appears before the legislative committees is about respect,” the Republican governor told a joint session of the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.

“Being treated with dignity when I enter a chamber — thank you very much — is about respect,” Mr. Ehrlich said.

His voice reflected the intensity Mr. Ehrlich had expressed Wednesday, when Democratic leaders blamed the Republican insurance commissioner for health maintenance organizations’ (HMOs) increasing their premiums by 2 percent.

This month, Democratic lawmakers overrode his veto of a medical-malpractice insurance reform bill that imposed a 2 percent tax on HMO premiums, despite the governor’s warnings that the insurers would pass the tax onto their customers.

“This is not about [Insurance Commissioner] Al Redmer,” Mr. Ehrlich said Wednesday, occasionally pounding his fist on a table in front of him. “It’s insulting. … It’s a regressive tax to be paid by the people who can least afford it for no good reason.”

Yesterday, Mr. Ehrlich used the first six minutes of his 42-minute speech to chide a “very, very few” lawmakers about their lack of respect for his office. He did not identify anyone by name, and his off-the-cuff remarks were punctuated by applause from Democratic and Republican legislators.

“Respect is working with flawed administration bills,” he said, adding that the current mood in Annapolis has deteriorated to “Capitol Hill assassin politics.”

“It has no place in a state legislature. It has no place in Annapolis, Maryland,” he said.

Mr. Ehrlich has been irked when committees have set aside his bills and then have passed similar legislation introduced by Democratic lawmakers. When he was a delegate from 1987 through 1994, the legislature worked with administration bills, he said.

Ehrlich aides have said the governor has endured pointed questioning and rough handling that has gone beyond the bounds of respect that the office of governor deserves when he has testified before some committees.

The Washington Times reported this month that the Legislative Black Caucus last month refused to allow Mr. Ehrlich to address a meeting on medical-malpractice reform, forcing the governor to wait outside the conference room.

Delegate Nathaniel T. Oaks, Baltimore City Democrat, said the legislature has become more partisan, and its discourse less civil.

“I think the governor is absolutely right,” he said. “It is not like when he first came here in ‘86.”

Delegate Herb McMillan, Anne Arundel County Republican, said the governor’s message was appropriate.

“He is the chief executive of the state,” Mr. McMillan said. “I know a lot of people may not like it, but he is the captain of the crew.”

Democratic leaders praised Mr. Ehrlich’s speech, saying they did not think he was castigating anyone in particular.

“I think the governor made a conciliatory speech,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat. “What affect it has on the chamber remains to be seen.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s County Democrat, said the message was positive.

“We all need respect,” he said. “We have different parties and different philosophies, and we all need to respect each other.”

A day earlier, Mr. Miller and Mr. Busch accused Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr. of partisan motivations in posting a bulletin that said HMOs could pass on to their customers a 2 percent tax on premiums if they notify the Maryland Insurance Administration in writing of their intentions.

A legal opinion from the state’s attorney general’s office, however, found no wrongdoing in the Redmer bulletin.

HMO officials said they are raising their rates to pass on to their customers the 2 percent tax enacted by the General Assembly two weeks ago. The revenue from the HMO tax — about $64 million in three years — will be used to subsidize doctors’ malpractice insurance premiums.

Mr. Ehrlich yesterday vowed that he would press on to legalize slot-machine gambling and establish tort reform — efforts that have been killed in Democrat-run committees. He said he would resubmit his legislation, despite the lack of respect he receives.

Mr. Ehrlich, the first Republican elected governor in Maryland in more than 30 years, also said the state would focus on increasing funding to schools and enacting witness-protection legislation.

“This is the word on the street in Baltimore; it’s all about intimidating witnesses and having the good people not do the right thing. … This is scary, but this is not the future,” he said. “We will pass this bill this year, and it will have teeth.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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