- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 29, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — If Kathleen Kennedy Townsend had received an additional 66,171 votes three years ago, the list of vetoed bills from this year’s General Assembly session would have been a lot different.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. — sitting at the desk that Mrs. Townsend had hoped would be hers — vetoed 26 proposed laws passed by the Democratic-dominated legislature for what he calls policy reasons, meaning that he didn’t like what the bills would have done. That’s in addition to bills that he vetoed because they had technical flaws.

At least two-thirds of those policy vetoes probably would not have occurred with Mrs. Townsend as governor, either because she would have signed the bills or because the legislation itself was the result of political disagreements between the Republican governor and the Democratic General Assembly.

It’s hard to imagine that Mrs. Townsend even thinking about vetoing a bill rejected by Mr. Ehrlich that would have increased the minimum wage in Maryland from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour. That is a core Democratic issue and a key goal of organized labor, which backed Mrs. Townsend’s campaign with volunteers and money.

The same is true of the so-called “Wal-Mart bill,” which Mr. Ehrlich vetoed earlier this month at an elaborate public ceremony on the lower Eastern Shore. It would have required companies with more than 10,000 employees to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on health care or pay the difference in a Medicaid tax. The bill didn’t mention Wal-Mart, but the world’s largest retailer is the only company in Maryland that doesn’t meet the standard.

Mrs. Townsend, who has kept a low profile since losing the election and avoided criticizing the governor, didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment on what she would have done with the bills vetoed by Mr. Ehrlich and phone calls to her home were not answered.

But it is unlikely that she would have vetoed the minimum wage and Wal-Mart bills, and she would have been more likely than Mr. Ehrlich to sign some of the other vetoed bills, including two promoted by homosexual rights lobbyists.

“The minimum-wage bill almost certainly would have been signed by any Democratic governor, as would the health care bill, the Wal-Mart bill,” said Matthew Crenson, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Robert “Rocky” Worcester, president of Maryland Business for Responsive Government, said with Mrs. Townsend in the governor’s office, the Wal-Mart and minimum-wage bills “would have slipped into law. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”

“This is the first pro-business governor we’ve had in my lifetime,” Mr. Worcester said.

Mr. Crenson said he thinks Mrs. Townsend also likely would have signed the two homosexual rights bills.

“Even [Mr. Ehrlich] was reluctant to veto them. I think he was trying to conciliate his social conservative base on the one hand and at the same time not alienate his libertarian base on the other,” Mr. Crenson said.

One of the bills dealing with unmarried couples would have created a registry of life partners. Couples who signed up would be guaranteed the rights of married couples on medical issues, including hospital visits and the ability to make medical decisions for a partner. The second would have allowed the owner of property to add a partner to a deed without paying a transfer tax, a right held by married couples.

In his veto message to the legislature on the medical decision-making bill, Mr. Ehrlich said he was sympathetic to the needs of unmarried couples.

But he said the bill would have codified “a new relationship of life partner and could lead to the erosion of the sanctity of traditional marriage as already codified in Maryland law.” The governor said he would work with the legislature next year to forge a compromise that would ensure that unmarried couples would have full medical decision-making rights.

His veto message of the property transfer bill said it “undermines the sanctity of traditional marriage.”

Two of Mr. Ehrlich’s vetoes were of election law changes approved by Democratic lawmakers over the objections of Republican legislators. One would have allowed Marylanders to cast ballots during a five-day period the week before elections. The second would have let voters use absentee ballots even if they were able to go to the polls on Election Day.

Mr. Ehrlich said the two laws would have increased the chances of voter fraud, but Democrats said the real reason for the vetoes was that Republicans are afraid the changes would increase Democratic turnout. Democratic legislative leaders plan to try to override the vetoes next year when the legislature meets again. With Mrs. Townsend in office, the bills likely would have been signed.

The Democratic-controlled House and Senate have overridden several of Mr. Ehrlich’s vetoes since he took office in 2003, including medical-malpractice reform passed during a special session in December.

Several of the vetoed bills were the result of disputes between the governor and the legislature and were seen by Republicans as an attempt by Democrats to intrude on the authority of the state’s first Republican governor since 1968. With a Democratic governor, those disputes most likely would not have arisen and the bills would not have been passed.

One example was a bill to reorganize the Maryland Commission for Women, appointed by the governor, so that the Senate president and House speaker would appoint almost two-thirds of the members. Democratic leaders, unhappy that the Ehrlich administration had ended the commission’s role as an advocate on issues of interest to women, wanted to wrest control from Mr. Ehrlich. In his veto message, Mr. Ehrlich said the commission, since its inception, had been part of the executive branch.

“The growing number of bills this General Assembly has passed that seek to curtail the powers of the executive branch of government is unprecedented and unwarranted,” he said.

With one more legislative session remaining in Mr. Ehrlich’s first term, the political disputes can be expected to resume next year. After that, it will be up to the voters to decide whether to keep Mr. Ehrlich or elect a Democrat and return to the practices of the past, when few bills were vetoed for policy reasons and a veto override was a rarity.

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