- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Republicans say the setbacks of several laws this month passed by the Democrat-controlled legislature over Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s vetoes will rattle voters going into the fall elections.

“This is about public confidence in the legislature and the decisions the General Assembly makes,” said Shareese N. DeLeaver, spokeswoman for the re-election campaign for Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican. “Right now their ability to make decisions is being questioned on several issues.”

The most recent setback occurred Wednesday when U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz overturned a law that forced Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to spend at least 8 percent of payroll costs on employee health care benefits.

The judge ruled that the legislation, passed by the General Assembly in 2005, violated a federal statute that sets minimum standards for pensions and health care plans. The Maryland Attorney General’s Office is expected to appeal the decision to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

Another measure passed by the legislature — and vetoed by Mr. Ehrlich — that backfired in recent weeks would have intervened on a rate increase by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat, said the setbacks will not hurt lawmakers because voters know they had to address major problems, including the lack of health care benefits for Wal-Mart employees and the utility company’s proposed 72 percent rate increase.

“Effort counts for something,” Mr. Busch said.

State lawmakers passed a measure in a special session that would have fired the governor-appointed Public Service Commission, which oversees utility companies. The Maryland Court of Appeals blocked their attempt July 7, and the judges now are deciding whether lawmakers overstepped their authority.

The legislation also prompted Moody’s Investors Service on July 11 to downgrade the credit rating for BGE, Potomac Electric Power Co. and Delmarva Power to close to junk status.

The low rating increased the utilities’ cost of borrowing money, an expense that can be passed on to consumers. The Democrats’ energy plan also forces the power companies to finance higher energy costs that they cannot immediately pass on to customers.

Wal-Mart had threatened to pull out of plans to build a distribution center in Somerset County but has since decided to buy land to build the center, which could employ up to 1,000 people, spokesman Keith Morris said yesterday.

Even if the state’s attorney general appeals the decision, plans for the distribution center are expected to remain in place.

Republican candidates in this year’s elections will be reminding voters of these failures, said Maryland Republican Party spokeswoman Audra Miller.

“Our candidates have been and will be aggressive in explaining not only the terrible legislation this General Assembly passed but also the harmful effects it has,” Miss Miller said. “It’s time for a change. It’s time for a paradigm shift.”

The party aims to pick up the five Senate seats and 14 House seats needed to break the Democrats’ veto-proof majorities.

An Ehrlich administration official said the Democrats’ setbacks also will help the governor cast the election as a referendum on his job performance versus those of Mr. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s County Democrat.

“They’ve overreached on every issue,” said Greg Massoni, Mr. Ehrlich’s press secretary. They’ve acted irresponsibly in their positions. … Marylanders want responsible governance, not the game playing the two Mikes performed in the last four years.”

Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman said the Republicans were engaged in “wishful but unrealistic thinking.”

“The Democrats are providing what the people of the state want,” he said. “If Republicans want to run against fairness and opportunity for employers and employees in the workplace, I hope they do.”

Reporter Jen Haberkorn contributed to this article.

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