Sunday, August 15, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — As a young Democratic senator from southern Prince George’s County, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. wanted to bring the national champion cloggers from his district to Annapolis to perform in the State House.

He asked the State House Trust for permission, but was turned down.

Mr. Miller tried again.

“I said, ‘Look, these people won the national championship. It’s not going to do any damage to the State House. They’ve got a wooden floor they dance on.’”

He was turned down again. “They just felt it wasn’t in keeping with the historic nature of the State House,” he said.

Now, as Senate president, Mr. Miller gets to help make decisions about what goes on in the building where American patriots met more than two centuries ago to help form the nation.

He is one of four members of the State House Trust, which controls what goes on in the State House and the grounds around the building. The other members are Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican; J. Rodney Little, state historic preservation officer; and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat.

For most of its 35 years, the trust has done its work quietly, outside the spotlight. Most people, including many in state government, don’t know it exists.

But the veil of anonymity was parted this summer when the Ehrlich administration, without notifying the trust, told news organizations that they would have to vacate ground-floor press rooms they had occupied for a half-century.

The administration said the organizations had to move out to make way for a major renovation project that includes replacing heating and air-conditioning pipes and removing asbestos.

Mr. Miller and Mr. Busch reminded the administration that the governor did not control the State House and that any changes had to be approved by the trust.

The speaker and president said there are good reasons why the trust was established in 1969 and given control over everything inside State Circle, the street that encircles the Capitol grounds.

“You are talking about a building where George Washington resigned his commission as the head of the Continental Army. The Founding Fathers — Jefferson, Madison, Monroe — all visited the State House,” Mr. Busch said.

“You have the most historic building in the state and one of the most historic buildings in the United States of America,” he said. “The condition and presentation of the State House is very important.”

Mr. Miller said the State House Trust is needed so that changes will not be made “at the whim and caprice of each new administration” that takes control of the state government.

“It’s a very historic building,” he said. “It needs to be preserved and protected.”

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, who said he didn’t know in advance about the plan to move news organizations out, supports the goals of the law creating the State House Trust. But he doesn’t have strong feelings about whether it goes too far in restricting the powers of the chief executive.

When Mr. Miller and Mr. Busch first said the renovation work could not proceed without approval of the trust, General Services Secretary Boyd Rutherford contended that approval was not needed.

But in mid-June, he requested in writing a meeting of the trust to consider the renovation work and to discuss how space should be divided among the legislature, the governor’s office and the media.

The powers of the trust are broad. It is tasked by law with approving, disapproving and supervising “any proposed repair, improvement or other change to the State House or to any other building within State Circle, including any changes to the furnishings or fixtures of those buildings” as well as “proposed landscaping of the grounds of those buildings.”

The trust has three single-spaced pages of guidelines regulating who can use the building and for what purposes. Weddings? Not permitted. No commercial ventures. No fund-raising activities.

Private groups may use the State House for historical celebrations.

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