- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday made a plea for bipartisanship during his State of the State address, but vowed to stick to the commitments he has made to voters.

“Today, I ask you to join me in ushering in a new era of bipartisan cooperation,” said Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican. “However, I will never hesitate to hold firm on the promises I made to the citizens of Maryland when they elected me governor.”

During the speech before General Assembly lawmakers and other state dignitaries, Mr. Ehrlich outlined the “five pillars” of his administration: fiscal responsibility, educational excellence, health and the environment, public safety and commerce.

He also restated his top priorities of passing legislation on legalized gambling to finance the Thornton education plan, treating substance abuse within the state’s growing prison population, creating a Cabinet-level Department of Disabilities, building the Intercounty Connector to help Montgomery County commuters and cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. He wants to improve the Bay by instituting a $2.50 surcharge on sewerage bills to pay for overhauling water-treatment systems.

Mr. Ehrlich also called for more business-friendly legislation, a more level playing field for minority businesses, a tax credit program and more fiscal responsibility in government.

Despite Mr. Ehrlich’s call to set aside party allegiances, few Democrats reacted favorably to the speech, which lasted about 30 minutes.

House Deputy Majority Whip Emmett C. Burns Jr., Baltimore County Democrat, said the applause was more about decorum than a return to civility.

“Politics is hard game,” he said. “We will applaud, we will stand up and cheer, then go back and vote against you.”

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan criticized the governor’s budget for cutting money to local programs but boosting funds for school districts.

“There is a direct attack on us to help them solve their problems, rather than them helping us solve ours,” said Mr. Duncan, a Democrat.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, said, “We have important work to do, and we don’t do it with the ‘fool’s gold’ solution of slots.”

He and Mr Duncan are considered potential challengers to Mr. Ehrlich in 2006.

Delegate Carolyn J.B. Howard, Prince George’s Democrat, said Mr. Ehrlich failed to provide “details” about how to pay for the programs.

“We didn’t hear anything new,” said Mrs. Howard, chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus. “You know the devil is in the details, and we did not get that today.”

She also said Mr. Ehrlich’s speech failed to resonate with the rest of the caucus, which in recent weeks has overridden four of Mr. Ehrlich’s vetoes from last year.

“Power doesn’t equal votes,” Mrs. Howard said. “He is not going to get the support, and he doesn’t have the votes for any of his proposals.”

Other Democrats were more supportive.

“I just think [Mrs. Howard] represents the old Democratic partisan leadership that wants to see him fail,” said Delegate Tony E. Fulton, Baltimore Democrat. “They won’t give him an opportunity no matter what he does.”

He also said Mr. Ehrlich’s message was on target and that his platform of social concerns would be hard to refute.

Mr. Ehrlich’s comments about partisanship clearly were directed at his effort to pass his legalized gambling legislation. The General Assembly is controlled by Democrats who passed the bill in the Senate but defeated it in the House.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, last year helped defeat Mr. Ehrlich’s bill that called for putting 11,500 slot machines in four racetracks. Mr. Busch said too much of the profit would go to track owners.

Mr. Ehrlich rewrote the bill this year to include an additional 4,000 slot machines at two off-track sites along Interstate 95, a committee to help pick the sites, and an option to have the state run the sites.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George’s Democrat and Mr. Ehrlich’s biggest bipartisan supporter for slot machines at racetracks, said the speech had a positive tone.

“The only slight negative I can put to it is there was absence in detail,” he said.

Mr. Busch called the governor’s speech conciliatory and said he shared Mr. Ehrlich’s desire for a spirit of bipartisanship.

“Everybody wishes that was the case,” he said. “Unfortunately, partisanship has come to a lot of the statehouses across the country.”

Mr. Busch also said state Republicans were responsible for much of the partisan tension in the General Assembly, pointing out that they protested the re-election of Mr. Miller, despite his leading role in winning passage of Mr. Ehrlich’s slots bill in the Senate last year.

Still, he said there was potential for a more cordial relationship between the parties.

“The fact of the matter is that there is a lot of common ground,” he said, citing bipartisan support for such issues as cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and ending frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits.

“There are a lot of things both parties can embrace,” Mr. Busch said. “But at the same time there are going to be philosophical disagreements.”

S.A. Miller contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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