- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 25, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — The thin veneer of bipartisanship on the legislature’s investigation of Ehrlich administration firings of state workers was shattered yesterday when the Democratic majority, in a series of party-line votes, blocked Republican power sharing on the committee.

“Every vote here indicates that this is not bipartisan,” said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican and one of four Republicans serving on the 12-member Special Joint Committee on State Employee Rights and Protections.

Democrats struck down 13 Republican amendments to the resolution establishing the committee’s power and the investigation’s scope, including bids to give Republicans equal access to outside counsel and subpoena power.

“I can assure you the minority party feels no inclusion at this point,” Mr. Stoltzfus said near the end of the nearly three-hour meeting.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, was disappointed, said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver.

“This is a partisan investigation conducting business under the guise of a bipartisan review,” she said. “The governor has always said he would participate in a fair and legal review. He still hopes it will return to that.”

The killed amendments also included measures to limit or curtail the committee’s subpoena power, extend legal protections to subpoenaed witnesses and to revoke the committee’s ability to extend the inquiry beyond a Jan. 4 deadline.

The committee’s Republicans seemed most riled by the defeat of an amendment that would have required at least one Republican to vote with the majority to approve subpoena requests.

“This is the amendment that assures the public this [inquiry] will be fair,” said state Delegate Jean B. Cryor, a Montgomery Republican on the panel.

The amendment failed 8-3 in a straight party-line vote.

Mr. Stoltzfus called the investigation a “partisan charade” and a “joke.”

State Sen. Nancy Jacobs, who attended yesterday’s hearing but does not serve on the committee, said the proceedings revealed the probe to be “a mockery and a farce.”

“We all know what this is about,” said Mrs. Jacobs, a Republican representing Cecil and Harford counties. “We have 40 years of Democratic administrations and then we get our first Republican governor and suddenly [the patronage system] is a problem?”

The special committee, which was set up as a subcommittee of the joint Legislative Police Committee, approved the resolution in a party-line 8-3 vote.

The committee’s fourth Republican member, state Sen. John J. Hafer of Western Maryland, was absent from the meeting.

The Legislative Police Committee met a short time later and adopted the resolution in a party-line 18-3 vote.

The resolution was nearly identical to the draft submitted Monday by Democratic leaders. It authorized the special committee to examine firings among the state’s roughly 7,000 employees who serve at the pleasure of the governor and can be fired without cause.

The committee will consider if those workers need more protections against “illegal and unconstitutional” firings and if firings have damaged the “overall quality and professional standards” of state agencies.

The committee will meet Sept. 14 to adopt rules and procedures before commencing the inquiry.

Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton, a Charles Democrat and co-chairman of the special committee, said members of both parties were responsible for politicizing the committee’s work, which Democrats have called a legislative review rather than an investigation.

“I don’t see this as aimed at the Ehrlich administration,” Mr. Middleton said.

He promised Republicans would participate fully in a review that would include an examination of personnel practices of past Democratic administrations as well as the Ehrlich administration.

After the meeting, committee member state Sen. Ulysses S. Currie, Prince George’s Democrat, blamed Mr. Stoltzfus and the governor for yesterday’s partisan flare-up.

“I think Senator Stoltzfus was there to champion the governor’s line,” he said. “If [the meeting] was not bipartisan, it is because the governor has contrived to make this a partisan issue.”

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, said the committee has a legitimate role to play in addressing possible deficiencies in the state’s personnel system. He said the committee has already succeeded in stopping the “cascade” of firings by the Ehrlich administration.

Mr. Busch said the composition of the special committee was fair and reflected the party makeup of the General Assembly, in which Democrats outnumber Republicans 131 to 57.

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