- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2003


   ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Republican, said Democrats made him do it. House Speaker Michael Busch described the governor’s remarks as “pure fiction.” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller called them “political claptrap.” Both are Democrats.
   The dispute among three of Maryland’s most powerful officials involved who was responsible for the $165 million increase in the state property tax approved last week by the Board of Public Works.
   It produced an outburst of partisanship that sounded more like Washington than Annapolis, where Republicans and Democrats have a long history of what they call “disagreeing agreeably.”
   When Mr. Ehrlich took office in January as the first Republican governor in more than 30 years, he and Democratic leaders said they would continue that tradition. While they acknowledged there would be disagreements, they promised to work together to avoid the bitter wrangling that envelops politics at the national level.
   They are still talking about building cooperative relationships, but working together may turn out to be a lot harder than leaders of both parties expected because the stakes are so high.
   The next four years hold out the possibility of a major change in the political landscape in Maryland, where Democrats have been the dominant force for much of the past century.
   A Democrat occupied the governor’s office for all but 18 of the 102 years before Mr. Ehrlich took office in January. Theodore McKeldin, who was elected in 1950, was the only Republican to serve two terms during that stretch.
   The party bottomed out in 1986 when its gubernatorial candidate, Thomas Mooney, got just 17.6 percent of the vote and there were no Republican candidates for attorney general and comptroller. Statewide vote totals were so low the party was in danger of losing its status as a major political party with the automatic right to put its candidates on the ballot.
   Partisanship was almost unknown in the legislature during the 1970s and 1980s because there were so few Republican lawmakers that their views didn’t matter. Democratic governors and legislators ran the show.
   But over the last two decades, the Republican Party has been rejuvenated, almost winning the governor’s race in 1992 and substantially increasing its numbers in the legislature, where Republicans now make up almost a third of the membership.
   Mr. Ehrlich was a member of the legislature in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Republicans were few in number, and he hung out mostly with Democrats, including Mr. Busch, with whom he maintained a close relationship during the eight years he was in Congress.
   Mr. Ehrlich predicted when he returned to Annapolis in January that those friendships he had built as a lawmaker would lead to continued close relationships with Democrats in his new role as governor.
   But if the first session of the legislature is a guide for the next 31/2 years, partisan wrangling may become the norm, not the exception.
   The stakes are high for both parties, who already are looking ahead to the 2006 election.
   Republican strategists hope — and Democratic leaders fear — that if Mr. Ehrlich goes into that campaign on a roll, he can win a second term and in the process sweep a lot of Democrats out of office in moderate-to-conservative rural and suburban Baltimore districts.
   Taxes and spending have been the focus of the most serious disputes.
   At a rally celebrating his first 100 days in office, the governor said Democrats had proposed more than $2.5 billion in tax increases this year, but that “we just said no.” In his post-session speeches, he accuses Democrats of following a “spend-and-tax” philosophy that put the state in deep financial difficulties.
   Democrats would like to turn the tax issue against Mr. Ehrlich by reminding voters that while they will be paying higher property taxes, the governor plans to veto a tax increase on corporations.
   “You’ve got a governor who is going to raise people’s property taxes while he protects the big boys,” Mr. Busch said.
   

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