- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 6, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says he is making progress on his legislative agenda, despite a combative special session that ended with an override of one of his key vetoes and a regular session in which he has scolded lawmakers for their lack of respect.

“We are very pleased at this point because the response has been almost unanimously positive on our legislative package and our budget,” he told The Washington Times.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, said much of his confidence has resulted from private meetings with leaders of the Democrat-controlled General Assembly in which he felt assured the majority of his bills would pass.

Still, his analysis comes after an especially rough start this year, including two setbacks last week.

Democratic leaders joined black lawmakers Friday in criticizing Mr. Ehrlich and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat, for considering an end to the affirmative-action program for awarding state contracts. The Ehrlich administration has since said that it has no immediate plans to eliminate the program.

Earlier in the week, House Democrats proposed raiding the state’s rainy-day fund to increase school spending instead of accepting the governor’s centerpiece legislative proposal to legalize slot-machine gambling to pay for the increases.

The maneuver was backed by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat who orchestrated the defeat of the governor’s gambling bill in the past two sessions.

Mr. Ehrlich still appears to have support for slots from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Calvert and Prince George’s Democrat.

Mr. Miller has backed Mr. Ehrlich’s initiative since he took office in 2003 and opened this year’s General Assembly with a pledge of continued support.

In the 2004 General Assembly session, Mr. Ehrlich had 17 of his 48 bills become law. All of his agenda’s priorities, except slots, were approved.

This year, his bills have garnered a sizable number of Democratic co-sponsors.

More than 60 House Democrats signed on to his bill to crack down on witness intimidation in criminal trials, and 10 co-sponsored his bill to give tax credits to high-tech entrepreneurs.

“There are obviously things we can come together on,” said Delegate Herman L. Taylor II, a Montgomery Democrat who has co-sponsored several administration bills.

Mr. Taylor said last week that he appreciated the way the governor presented his legislative initiatives this year. It was like “a hand reaching across the aisle,” he said.

Mr. Ehrlich called this year’s special session to resolve the state’s looming crisis in doctors’ medical malpractice insurance premiums. Lawmakers rejected his efforts to resolve the problem through tort reform.

Mr. Ehrlich then vetoed their plan to tax health maintenance organizations, but lawmakers overturned his veto.

Democratic leaders are blaming Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr., an Ehrlich appointee, for higher HMO premiums resulting from the tax.

Mr. Ehrlich cited the attacks on Mr. Redmer in his State of the State speech, which also served to chastise lawmakers for the increasingly bitter partisanship in Annapolis.

“This is not about Al Redmer,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “It’s insulting. … It’s a regressive tax to be paid by the people who can least afford it for no good reason.”

State Democratic lawmakers also have criticized Mr. Ehrlich’s plan to sell state preservation land in St. Mary’s County and are considering a constitutional amendment requiring the governor to have legislative approval before taking such action.

Mr. Ehrlich compares the atmosphere in Annapolis to “Capitol Hill assassin politics.”

Lawmakers from both parties do not expect the rancor to subside anytime soon, and they are just a third of the way through the 90-day session, which ends April 11. “Things are not getting better,” House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, Montgomery County Democrat, said Friday.

Sen. David R. Brinkley, Carroll and Frederick Republican, said last week that the mounting tension is the fallout from Mr. Ehrlich victory — the first time Maryland has had a Republican governor in 34 years.

“You still have a legislative temper tantrum going on about what happened in 2002,” Mr. Brinkley said. “It is going to get worse before it gets better.”

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