- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that his administration has erased the massive deficit it inherited and is now positioned to spend more on education, drug treatment and scientific research.

“Today, three years later, Maryland is strong and prosperous. We are growing a vibrant, knowledge-based economy, and our future has never been brighter,” Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, said in the annual State of the State address.

The governor’s 47-minute speech highlighted the budget turnaround, from a $2 billion deficit in 2003 to a $1.7 billion surplus, and outlined new proposals for stiffer penalties for teenage drunken drivers, state funding for stem-cell research and tax breaks for low-income homeowners and military veterans.

Mr. Ehrlich, who delivered the speech before state House and Senate lawmakers and other dignitaries, also made a plea for bipartisanship in 2006 — an election year that includes his re-election bid.

The request was similar though less strident than last year’s, in which Mr. Ehrlich scolded lawmakers for their incivility and lack of respect for his office.

“The people we serve care little about our minor political dramas,” he said. “Most simply want safer streets, schools that work, a cleaner [Chesapeake] Bay and jobs that pay the bills and enable them to put some money aside for a rainy day.”

Still, reaction to the speech divided mostly along party lines.

“It was a very vibrant, positive speech,” said House Minority Leader George C. Edwards, Western Maryland Republican.

He credited Mr. Ehrlich with using the surplus to put $640 million in the so-called rainy day fund and holding $670 million more in reserves, in addition to funding new programs.

“That is different than the last governor [Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat] who spent every cent,” Mr. Edwards said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. called the speech a “feel-good” talk that skirted the truth.

“You cannot cut taxes and spend like a drunken sailor,” said Mr. Miller, a Prince George’s Democrat. “I respect the governor. It was a good speech. But it wasn’t truthful.”

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve said the surplus was mostly the result of a robust national economy.

However, House Speaker Michael E. Busch broke with fellow Democrats to praise the governor.

“I thought today was an upbeat day,” said Mr. Busch of Anne Arundel County. “There are a lot of things to celebrate in Maryland. … It is good to have a surplus after four years.”

He said House Democrats could find much “common ground” with the governor, including increased spending on school construction and property-tax credits for low-income homeowners.

Mr. Ehrlich asked the Democratic-controlled legislature to again consider his plan to legalize slot-machine gambling, a plan Mr. Busch helped defeat in the past three years.

The governor’s comments drew groans from the crowd.

Mr. Ehrlich also asked lawmakers to join him in spending more on public schools and higher education and in giving raises to state employees. He also asked them to adopt his plans for lifetime monitoring of sex offenders and for tax breaks to military veterans.

“We’ve changed Maryland, and there is more to do,” Mr. Ehrlich said in a refrain repeated throughout the speech.

Highlights of the governor’s plan also included a $20 million stem-cell research fund to support Maryland-based research institutions or private-sector companies.

He did not say whether the research would include work with embryonic stem cells, which critics say destroys potential living beings.

“Our goal is to ensure dollars are directed to promising projects with the greatest opportunity for therapeutic breakthroughs, while respecting the diversity of social, religious and ethical views pertaining to the stem-cell issue,” Mr. Ehrlich said.

He shared the podium during his speech with Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, La., who commended the governor and other Marylanders for their help after Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. Broussard presented a proclamation from Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco thanking Mr. Ehrlich for the state’s rapid response to the Gulf Coast disaster. He also presented a Jefferson Parish Council proclamation declaring yesterday Governor Ehrlich Day, Maryland Day and Military and Emergency Responder Day in the parish.

Mr. Ehrlich commended the thousands of Marylanders who rushed to Louisiana to help.

“Do you know what the state of the state is?” Mr. Ehrlich asked. “It’s compassion. That’s the state of this state.”

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