- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — If the first two weeks of the 2004 General Assembly is a prelude to the rest of the legislative session, then the rest of the session will be filled with gridlock and partisan bickering.

Lawmakers are saying the political squabbling and lack of civility could derail important business, such as cutting the budget deficit and funding school improvements.

“I think it is troubling,” said Delegate Patrick L. McDonough, Baltimore County Republican. Residents of Maryland “are having their best interests replaced by petty, partisan political power plays. This place is turning into a hack political circus. … I am disgusted with it.”

“I think it is absolutely imperative that we put aside our party differences and do what is best for Maryland residents,” said Delegate Kevin Kelly, Allegany County Democrat.

The General Assembly’s 188 lawmakers started the political wrangling on opening day, with House Democrats overridingthree vetoes and Senate Democrats overriding one veto by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the state’s first Republican governor in more than three decades.

The General Assembly had not overridden a governor’s veto since 1989.

Democrats hold 33 seats in the 47-member Senate and 98 seats in the 141-member House.

Republican lawmakers wasted little time fighting back when they refused to vote on the re-election of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s County Democrat. Mr. Miller was easily elected to another term.

Republicans were protesting a move by Mr. Miller that requires them to have more votes to sustain a filibuster in the Democratic-controlled Senate. The new rule increases the minimum number from 16 to 19 senators to sustain a filibuster. The House of Delegates requires only a majority vote to end debate.

Some political observers said the partisan wrangling started during Mr. Ehrlich’s first year when he proposed to increase revenue by placing 11,500 slot machines at four Maryland racetracks.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch of Anne Arundel County led fellow Democrats to defeat the Ehrlich proposal in the House Ways and Means Committee. The proposal was narrowly approved in the Senate.

Sen. Richard F. Colburn, Eastern Shore Republican, said the partisan atmosphere really unfolded when Republicans staged the “small rebellion” against Mr. Miller’s re-election.

“Obviously, there is concern that [Republican] numbers are increasing,” he said. “The other side feels threatened by that, but there was no need to change the rules. A filibuster is really 24 hours, seven days a week until it’s over. We haven’t had a filibuster since the abortion debate of the 1990s.”

Meanwhile, House Deputy Majority Whip Emmett C. Burns Jr., Baltimore Democrat, said it was necessary to override the governor’s vetoes — even the one that stopped the opening of a bar in Baltimore.

“The vetoes don’t represent an impediment to the democratic process,” he said. “The veto itself is part of the democratic process. How can a veto be a part of the democratic process and overriding not be apart of the democratic process? You can’t have just one side.”

But Mr. McDonough said overriding the bar-opening veto went too far.

“It was nothing but a power play by a Democratic politician to stop an Ehrlich supporter, a Republican, from opening up a restaurant,” he said. “You don’t abuse the override process. That is something you use for big issues.”

Mr. Kelly, a House Democrat, voted against all three of the House veto overrides. “I think that it is incumbent on us that we function in a bipartisan spirit,” he said.

Senate Minority Whip Andrew P. Harris, Baltimore County Republican, said Mr. Miller has stifled the debate with the new filibuster rule, and he assailed the Democrats for the overrides.

“The overrides were just pure, partisan politics,” Mr. Harris said. “It is pretty clear that it was a partisan call, and it was clear that Mike Miller made it a partisan call. That is no secret in Annapolis.”

Mr. Miller did not return a message seeking comment left with his office staff.

Mr. Ehrlich has tried to improve the situation by naming Democrats to seven of 22 Cabinet positions and choosing a Democrat this month as his first appointment to the state’s highest court.

Still, Republican strategist Kevin Igoe was not optimistic about the parties mending fences.

“Obviously, things got off to a very partisan start,” he said. “When you change the rules to run … over the minority, and when you conduct veto votes that have not been done in 15 years, you are going to cause hard feelings and not build a spirit of compromise. There is always hope that things will get done, but I am not going to quantify it.”

Mr. Ehrlich said the Democrats may “feel the need to flex their muscle,” but he is determined to represent the “people who elected us.”

“The people elected us to follow our [campaign promises], and we have a list we check off on a weekly basis,” he said.

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