- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday introduced a wide-ranging legislative package that drew support from both parties and found common ground on some contentious issues, including giving medical decision-making rights to homosexual partners.

“I intend to work with the majority of his program,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George’s County Democrat who last week vowed to “bury” the Republican administration during this election-year General Assembly.

Mr. Miller said the governor crafted a thoughtful legislative package with bills that will appeal to Democrats and to the governor’s more conservative base of support, though the latter face slim chance of passing in the Democrat-controlled legislature.

One likely doomed bill is Mr. Ehrlich’s plan to legalize slot-machine gambling, which he introduced for the fourth consecutive year. The plan has been killed each previous year by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat.

“Nothing has changed,” said Paul E. Schurick, the governor’s communications director. “The speaker refuses to allow a good-faith debate on this bill.”

He said the governor introduced the bill in the face of certain defeat because he feels “an obligation to Marylanders who overwhelmingly support slots.”

The governor’s package of 20 bills includes tough penalties for teenage drunken drivers, lifetime monitoring of sex offenders, medical-malpractice reform, new benefits for military veterans and several new tax credits.

He also proposed tax relief through reducing the estate tax or “death tax” and expanding the property tax credit program for low-income homeowners and the historic-preservation tax credit program.

Many of Mr. Ehrlich’s proposals mirrored some priorities set by Mr. Busch, including better monitoring of sex offenders, improved benefits for veterans and property tax relief.

Other Democratic priorities this session include improving the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay and funding stem-cell research, Mr. Busch said.

Mr. Ehrlich set aside $20 million for stem-cell research in his budget proposal.

“This governor has shown to be a moderate, middle-of-the-road and conciliatory leader,” said Delegate Anthony J. O’Donnell, Southern Maryland Republican and minority whip. “This package shows he is moving the state forward.”

Sen. Alex X. Mooney said he was skeptical the bipartisanship would last. “What the Democratic leadership likes to do is … kill the governor’s bill and pass their own version, which is often weaker,” the Western Maryland Republican said.

Mr. Ehrlich also proposed the creation of an advance-directive registry in which residents could voluntarily document their wishes regarding emergency medical care in an electronic database.

The bill does not explicitly give homosexual couples the same medical decision-making rights as married couples. However, the registry could be used to assign those rights to a same-sex partner or any designee.

Mr. Ehrlich last year vetoed a bill establishing a registry of homosexual couples who want to share medical decision rights.

Among the lawmakers signing up as co-sponsors of the bill yesterday was Delegate Don Dwyer Jr., Anne Arundel Republican and the legislature’s most vocal opponent of homosexual “marriage.”

He said he co-sponsored the bill because it offered rights to all Marylanders but did not single out homosexuals for special treatment.

“I don’t think sexual orientation should even enter into the equation since we are all Americans,” he said.

Mr. Ehrlich intentionally made the bill apply broadly, said Henry P. Fawell, a spokesman for the governor.

“As he said in his veto message last year, he wanted to find common ground, find a bill that is the appropriate solution,” Mr. Fawell said. “He believes he has found that solution.”

Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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