- The Washington Times - Monday, December 23, 2002

Republican lawmakers in Maryland hope to find common ground with new, more liberal Democratic leaders in the upcoming General Assembly session which will focus on closing the state's roughly $1 billion budget shortfall.
Leading the Democrats when the General Assembly convenes next month will be Delegate Michael E. Busch of Annapolis, who replaces Casper R. Taylor Jr. as House speaker. Mr. Busch is considered a liberal, while Mr. Taylor was known as a conservative party leader.
Key committee leaderships, meanwhile, have been reassigned to Democratic lawmakers considered more liberal than their predecessors, which could create problems for incoming Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
"They can be cooperative, or they can be obstructionist," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, Senate minority leader and Lower Eastern Shore Republican.
He thinks Mr. Busch is acting more "obstructive" than he has in the past 12 years.
"He is not as naturally liberal or obstructive as he is acting right now," Mr. Stoltzfus said.
Mr. Busch said last week that Democrats would not support such Ehrlich administration initiatives as the Project Exile crime-prevention program, charter schools in Maryland and faith-based groups getting an equal amount of state money.
However, he has promised to discuss the initiatives with Mr. Ehrlich.
Some Republicans think Mr. Ehrlich's less-conservative approach will help him win Democratic support and fulfill his agenda.
"The issues you see from the administration are moderate issues," said Sen. Andrew P. Harris, Baltimore County Republican. "A majority of people agree that Project Exile is long overdue, and with charters we are playing catch-up. Faith-based initiatives will have wide support."
Like Mr. Busch, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. also has named new committee leaders, including several women and minorities, who are considered more liberal than their predecessors.
Sen. Brian Frosh, Montgomery County Democrat, was appointed to lead the Judicial Proceedings Committee that oversees abortion and gun control issues. He is an avid supporter of environmental rights and is considered one of the state's most liberal legislators. Mr. Frosh also has supported pro-choice legislation.
Delegate Kumar Barve, a Gaithersburg Democrat, was named House majority leader. Delegate Dereck E. Davis, Prince George's Democrat, was named Mr. Busch's successor as chairman of the Economic Matters Committee. Maggie L. McIntosh, Baltimore Democrat, was appointed to lead the Environmental Matters Committee.
Miss McIntosh is an advocate of environmental issues and gun control.
"That's a more liberal team than it has been in the past," said Thomas F. Schaller, political science professor at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. "Let's say that."
Analysts say that committee chairmen are important only because they could determine which issues get to the floor of the House and Senate for voting. However, this session will be dominated by fixing the budget crisis.
The situation should give Mr. Ehrlich the upper hand.
"The legislature fundamentally has very little power over the budget," said George Liebmann, executive director of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research, a Baltimore-based think tank. "It can reduce items, but it can't increase them. It is the governor who would hold any cards here."
Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a Bethesda-based public polling group, agreed that the budget issue will dominate this session while social issues such as abortion and gun control take a back seat.
"The governor still wields enormous power when it comes to the budget, and the legislature just often responds to what the governor presents," he said. "No matter who chairs committees, it is the governor's agenda that gets dealt with front-center."

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