- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2007

ANNAPOLIS - Democratic lawmakers who spent months combing through the firing decisions of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, insisted their work wasn’t politically motivated.

Perhaps to prove their point, lawmakers are going ahead with bills to protect state workers even though Mr. Ehrlich was defeated in November by Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat.

A House committee yesterday started work on a bill to reduce the number of at-will employees or workers who can be fired without reason and a bill to prevent the governor’s appointments office from being able to fire some workers.

Both measures are responses to complaints that Mr. Ehrlich, the first Republican governor in a generation when he took office in 2003, fired some low-level state employees to make room for Republicans.

Months of review by the Democratic-controlled legislature turned up no illegal firings, but lawmakers said there needed to be clearer rules protecting most employees from losing their jobs over a changing administration.

One proposal would clearly spell out that some jobs “must be filled without regard to political affiliation, belief or opinion.”

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, told the committee that the stronger safeguards are needed to “protect the integrity of the work force” for the state. Included in the package is a requirement for better job descriptions and annual evaluations.

Some Republicans, though, called the bills unnecessary.

Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican who worked on the committee probing Mr. Ehrlich’s firings, said the whole inquiry was clearly aimed at Mr. Ehrlich and that with Mr. O’Malley’s election, the employee-protection plan “has lost all its steam.”

“I think it’s a face-saving measure at this point” to justify the legislative probe, Mr. Stoltzfus said. “It’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.”

It’s not clear yet what Mr. O’Malley thinks. A legislative aide for the governor told the House committee that the governor liked some parts of the bill and wanted to tweak other parts, but she did not elaborate.

Some worker advocates pushed for the bill despite Mr. Ehrlich’s loss.

Sue Esty, a lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told lawmakers that over time the number of at-will employees grew to include even truck drivers and clerical workers.

“People making less than $30,000 a year, that should not be considered a political appointee, but it was,” Miss Esty said.

The House committee didn’t vote on the idea yesterday. A similar proposal is pending in the Senate. Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, Charles Democrat and sponsor of the Senate versions, said the Ehrlich inquiry should lead to better protections for state employees.

“They’re the brains of the operations,” Mr. Middleton said.

mDebate considered

The Senate voted yesterday not to reduce the number of votes needed to choke debate, which will likely make stopping a bill harder for Republicans.

Republican lawmakers wanted to increase the number of votes needed to stop a filibuster from 29 to 32. Increasing the number would make it harder for ruling Democrats to stop Republican filibuster attempts.

“It’s never a waste of time for intelligent people to hold discussion on the issues, Sen. Andrew P. Harris, Baltimore and Harford counties Republican, said in defense of the filibuster.

However, leading state Democratic lawmakers said the smaller number or three-fifths of the chamber is in line with other state senates and Congress. The Senate ultimately kept with the smaller number in a largely party-line vote.

Republicans also failed to require every bill to have a vote. Mr. Harris said Democrats are stifling debate from an already small Republican minority and that the state is “back to having a single party control all the strings of government.”

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