- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2003

ANNAPOLIS — As Democrats waited for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s first set of vetoes, they said the bills he chose to sign or reject would give some important clues about whether he is the political moderate he said he was when he ran for office last year.

Some Democrats expected the Republican governor to make liberal use of his veto power to put a more conservative stamp on state government.

But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Calvert and Prince George’s County Democrat, looking the results Thursday at the final bill-signing ceremony, said Mr. Ehrlich had taken a balanced approach to the hundreds of bills passed by the 2003 General Assembly.

As promised, he vetoed a $135 million increase in business taxes proposed by Democratic leaders to forestall some of the spending cuts needed to keep the budget balanced.

But he signed a medical marijuana bill, despite pressure from the White House to veto it, and approved a $2.50 surcharge on automobile registrations to help hospitals pay doctors who staff trauma centers 24 hours a day.

Environmentalists, fearful that he would exact revenge because they worked to kill his nomination of Lynn Buhl to be environmental secretary, were relieved he vetoed just one of their priorities: a bill setting stricter efficiency standards for some electrical goods.

Mr. Ehrlich went against the wishes of many Republican legislators when he signed a bill making cruel treatment of a child one of the grounds for divorce. Republican opponents argued during the session that despite a laudable goal, the bill would encourage groundless claims of abuse by husbands and wives eager to punish an estranged mate.

The one area where he drew a clear ideological line was in the area of taxes. His veto of the business tax bill was an easy one, he said.

Talking last week to reporters when he announced the veto, Mr. Ehrlich said that if former Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend had won the election, “today’s press conference would have been about tax increases.”

“People have said we want some change. This is a tangible result,” Mr. Ehrlich said.

Mr. Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch were quick to point out that although Mr. Ehrlich vetoed business tax increases, his budget resulted in an increase in the state property tax of almost 5 percent.

“This is a clash between fat cats, and working men and women,” Mr. Miller said. “The fat-cat CEOs and the directors of major corporations have a seat at the table with respect to this governor. Corporate big shots have the governor’s ear.”

Mr. Busch said Mr. Ehrlich was willing to increase the tax on property while vetoing the business tax bill, which would have raised revenues and helped avoid increases in tuition at Maryland colleges and universities.

Small-business owners who rallied Thursday in Annapolis to support Mr. Ehrlich’s veto said that after years of hostility from Democratic governors, it is time they had a chief executive on their side.

Mr. Ehrlich also struck a conservative note on some bills that probably would have been signed by Democrats who preceded him in office.

He vetoed a bill allowing local governments to use cameras to catch speeders in neighborhoods and school zones, even though it would have raised money for homeland security and was portrayed by supporters as a traffic-safety issue.

The bill cut across party lines to some extent in the General Assembly, but the fiercest opposition came from Republicans. Mr. Ehrlich said it went against the grain of his libertarian views on government intrusion into the lives of citizens.

He vetoed two bills setting up task forces, one to study regulation of bed and breakfasts, and another to examine whether teachers have to spend too much time filling out paperwork.

“Task forces should be employed more sparingly than in current practice,” he said in the letter explaining his veto of the bed and breakfast bill. The task force on teacher paperwork would be “unnecessary, duplicative and an inefficient use of time and resources,” he said.

But Mr. Ehrlich drew praise from Common Cause, a government watchdog group, for signing a bill extending the life of a commission studying use of public funds to pay for election campaigns in Maryland.

His Democratic predecessors probably would have signed the bill requiring efficiency standards for a list of electrical goods that included ceiling fans and commercial washing machines. Mr. Ehrlich said manufacturers would be unduly burdened if states were allowed to set differing standards.

However, representatives of environmental groups were happy he signed another of their priorities, a law that will increase fines for property owners and developers who illegally fill in wetlands. The maximum fine will jump from $250 to $10,000 for each violation.

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