- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 14, 2006

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — During a flurry of activity to start the new year, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. promised more money for higher education, a historic increase in public school aid and more money — plus tougher laws — to protect children from predatory sex offenders.

After taking a long weekend break, the Republican governor was back last week with promises on successive days to cut property taxes and provide $20 million for stem-cell research.

To the frustration of Democrats, Mr. Ehrlich has been taking advantage of the powers and the platform as governor to burnish the record he will take this fall to voters in his campaign for a second term.

Democrats say Mr. Ehrlich is trying to scramble back to the center of the political spectrum, and they speak scathingly of his “election-year conversion” on issues such as higher education funding and reducing the property tax.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat, said Mr. Ehrlich “absolutely” is trying to move to the center in preparation for his re-election campaign.

“I think that was evident when George Bush came to town, and [Mr. Ehrlich] wasn’t there,” Mr. Busch said of the president’s visit last week to Anne Arundel County.

Ehrlich aides said the governor couldn’t join Mr. Bush because Mr. Ehrlich had scheduled an event the same morning to announce the property tax cut.

“If Bush’s approval rating was 70 percent, he would have been there,” the House speaker said.

Mr. Ehrlich and his aides say his recent announcements are in keeping with his record as a state legislator, member of Congress and governor.

“That charge is ridiculous — that there is a philosophical conversion here,” said Paul Schurick, the governor’s communications director. “To suggest anything other than that is, in fact, election-year politics.”

“There is a long list of issues where the governor has had this type of middle-of-the-road position,” Mr. Schurick said. He noted that one of the first things Mr. Ehrlich did when he took office three years ago was to expand state services for the disabled.

“He has doubled funding for needs-based scholarships. He has supported arts funding. He has developed laws to expand Medicaid,” Mr. Schurick said.

Ehrlich aides say the governor has been able recently to announce increases in state aid for some key issues because the state has a surplus after four years of tight budgets.

The campaign staff of Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, one of Mr. Ehrlich’s potential Democratic opponents, issued a paper comparing the records of what it called “Right wing Robert: conservative Republican ideologue” and “Bankroll Bobby: the phony election-year moderate.”

The Duncan campaign said that during his first three years in office, Mr. Ehrlich increased property taxes, made “Draconian cuts” to higher education, diverted millions of dollars from land preservation, reduced school construction aid, refused to support stem-cell funding and lobbied against legislation to restrict emissions of four pollutants.

Now the governor is changing all those positions in an election-year “extreme makeover,” the Duncan campaign said.

However, Audra Miller, spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party, said Mr. Ehrlich did not have money for many of his priorities the three previous years because Democrats had “spent the people of Maryland into significant budget deficits.”

(Mr. Ehrlich inherited a $2 billion budget deficit when he succeeded Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, in 2003.)

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