- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday preserved the governorship’s nearly 100-year-old power to make budget decisions for the state.

The Senate Democrats’ attempt to pass a constitutional amendment to give the General Assembly more influence on state spending was defeated 25-20, with two lawmakers not voting.

The Maryland governorship has maintained complete control over the state budget since 1914.

The General Assembly cannot increase items in the governor’s budget or move money from one program to the other. The amendment would have allowed the House and Senate to do both, but would have prohibited them from increasing the level of spending proposed by the governor. It also would have given the governor veto power over changes made to his budget.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, visited the Senate yesterday to congratulate three recipients of First Citizen awards and seemed to influence the later vote by urging lawmakers to “vote right” on the amendment to reduce his power.

A companion bill was introduced in the House of Delegates and appeared to be headed for passage with 88 sponsors, three more than the 85 votes required to approve amendments to the constitution.

An amendment needs a three-fifths majority in the House and Senate. If approved, Maryland voters then would vote on it.

The bill’s sponsor, Patrick J. Hogan, Montgomery Democrat and vice chairman the Senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee, insisted the proposal was nonpartisan and said it has been debated since 1978.

“I wanted to give the governor a full budget cycle” to get acclimated to office before presenting the bill, Mr. Hogan said after the vote. “I don’t care whether it’s a Republican governor or a Democratic governor, it’s the right thing to do.”

The bill’s co-sponsor, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat, said lawmakers are tired of being in the only legislative body in the country that cannot add programs to the budget.

“The chief concern has been the governor’s cuts in education,” he said. “This year I think the General Assembly feels the governor’s cuts haven’t been well received in terms of higher education because it resulted in higher tuition.”

Democratic Sens. John C. Astle, Anne Arundel; George W. Della Jr., Baltimore; John A. Giannetti Jr., Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties; Philip C. Jimeno, Anne Arundel; Ida G. Ruben, Montgomery; and Norman R. Stone Jr., Baltimore County, voted with the Republicans.

“I have always believed that it is important to have a strong chief executive,” Mr. Giannetti explained. “I think the power is where it should be.”

Mr. Ehrlich’s rare visit before a key vote was his first this year before the Democratic-controlled assembly, which has at times clashed with the Republican administration and throttled some of the governor’s key legislation.

Mr. Ehrlich still is waiting for House Democrats to consider his bill to bring 15,500 slot machines into the state to pay for the Thornton Education Act.

Last year, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, helped defeat the governor’s slots bill. He instead favors a 1-cent sales tax to finance the $1.3 billion act, which will close the disparity between rich and poor school districts.

The House and Senate also has passed legislation forcing Mr. Ehrlich to fully fund the act, though Mr. Ehrlich has said he will not be forced into signing it.

Republican lawmakers also have had a difficult time, being outvoted on legislation to tighten restrictions on illegal aliens, abortions and gay “marriage.”

Though an amendment to prohibit illegal aliens from obtaining driver’s licenses reached the House floor Wednesday, it was defeated in a partisan vote. A Republican-sponsored bill insuring that same-sex relationships are not recognized in Maryland was defeated by Democrats the day before.

Mr. Ehrlich’s $23.8 billion budget is being reviewed in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and should come to a floor vote next week. It also must be approved by the House.

Mr. Ehrlich has had to plug a $786 million budget shortfall left by his predecessor, Paris N. Glendening, a Democrat.

The debate about limiting the governor’s spending power began with the start of the 2004 General Assembly, which was marked by partisan bickering.

The assembly’s 188 lawmakers started the political wrangling on opening day, with House Democrats overriding three vetoes and Senate Democrats overriding one veto.

The 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 Mr. Miller, who 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.

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

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

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