- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2003

ANNAPOLIS Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. restated some early promises yesterday during his first State of the State address, pledging to make education a top priority, support charter schools, protect the Chesapeake Bay, give money to faith-based drug-treatment programs and aggressively prosecute gun criminals.
Mr. Ehrlich, sworn in two weeks ago as Maryland's first Republican governor in 34 years, also put a face on some of the state's worst problems by calling upon five residents who experienced them.
"As we go about the business of getting our fiscal house in order and making difficult decisions about spending priorities, let us keep in mind that these are the people who depend on us to protect them from injustice," Mr. Ehrlich said.
The governor, who hugged and shook hands as he walked through the House chamber where he gave the speech, spoke directly and passionately as he urged the General Assembly to work with him to change Maryland.
"Last night, the president talked about a war against international terror," he said. "In Maryland, we have an internal war against another enemy drugs," said Mr. Ehrlich, who has set aside $136 million in his budget for drug- and alcohol-treatment programs, a 4.2 percent increase over last year.
Among the five "faces of Maryland" Mr. Ehrlich introduced was Keith Day, a 45-year-old Baltimore resident who battled a heroin addiction for 25 years before his life was changed by the Helping Up Mission, a faith-based group.
Mr. Ehrlich said Lt. Gov. Michael Steele would lead efforts to assist faith-based groups involved in such programs.
The initiative is similar to one introduced by President Bush that would give such groups more opportunities to get federal money.
To highlight protecting the Chesapeake Bay, Mr. Ehrlich introduced Captain Bob Newberry, a fisherman who said he has had trouble earning a living because of a drop in the Bay's oyster and crab populations.
Mr. Ehrlich has earmarked $95 million in his budget to upgrade the 66 major sewage-treatment plants that cleanse the Bay and its tributaries.
"The Chesapeake Bay is central to our identity," he said. "I believe that we can protect it without unduly penalizing the good people who earn their livelihood from it."
To highlight funding for education, Mr. Ehrlich pointed to Adela Acosta, principal of Prince George's County's Cesar Chavez Elementary School and a Puerto Rican immigrant who moved to the United States as a child who knew no English and went on to earn a master's degree in education.
"She knows that every student should compete on a level playing field and that fully funding the Thornton Commission is critical to her mission," said Mr. Ehrlich whose budget includes the entire $148 million the commission sought to fund schools in fiscal 2004.
Mr. Ehrlich also announced a new commission, which he called Thornton II, and will be led by Mr. Steele. He said the commission would be "devoted to an examination of how we teach, of education policy in the state of Maryland."
Mr. Ehrlich also stressed his support for charter schools.
"It is time for this assembly to enact a charter schools bill with teeth, one that will give disadvantaged students the opportunity to pursue their dreams."
To illustrate gun violence and the need to pass another of his legislative priorities Project Exile Mr. Ehrlich pointed to John S. Tatum and Roxanne Servance, whose son, Rio-Jarell Tatum, a student at Penn State University, was shot by a robber in a Baltimore street.
To introduce his initiatives to help the disabled, Mr. Ehrlich introduced Michael Taylor, who spent 30 years in institutions for the mentally disabled before he was released four years ago.
Mr. Ehrlich did not say yesterday how he planned to fund his initiatives given a $1.8 billion budget shortfall, but reiterated the need to curtail government spending.
"Government can be made to work better, more efficiently and to live within its means," he said. "Taxpayers do it, families do it, businesses do it. We can do it, too."
Critics said the governor's speech was "pleasant," but said they were disappointed they didn't hear more about the budget deficit and the proposal to legalize slot machines.
Senator Majority Leader Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore city Democrat, questioned how the governor was going to pay for his proposals. "Do you reduce state services, or raise taxes?" he asked.
Mr. Ehrlich's budget predicts revenues of $395 million from slot machines in fiscal 2004.
The governor later said he did not speak about slots because he plans to today when he introduces a full bill on slot machines.
Republicans said they were proud to hear Mr. Ehrlich's proposals.
"I am so pleased we have a Republican governor who has broken the stereotype," said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Somerset County Republican. "He hit a home run."
Delegate Steven J. Deboy, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he also was impressed. "I think he addressed all the issues we needed to address," he said. "The governor [also] touched upon a lot of Democratic issues, like the drug initiative."
In his speech, Mr. Ehrlich also promised to build the Intercounty Connector, which he said became an issue when he was a state delegate.
"We were debating the ICC then, we're debating the ICC again today," he said. "Trust me, we're going to build the ICC." However, his budget has taken nearly $400 million from the transportation trust fund that would build the road.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat and big supporter of the ICC, said he was disappointed there was no mention of the programs that need funding.
"He didn't talk about the budget deficit, slots, transportation," he said. "These are huge challenges facing us."

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