Maryland's New Governor Off to Bumpy Start

 

Maryland's first Republican governor in 36 years is getting a political baptism of fire as he seeks to implement his conservative agenda in the liberal-leaning Free State.

So far in the current legislative session, Gov. Robert Ehrlich's signature proposal to legalize slot machines is stalled in the General Assembly and his choice to head the Environment Department was rejected by the state Senate. Democrats control the legislature.

"He's really learning on the job," Baltimore Sun Statehouse bureau chief David Nitkin said of the governor's first few weeks in office.

Ehrlich is the first Republican elected governor since Spiro Agnew in 1966 and this is the first time since the Agnew administration that Maryland has different parties in power in the executive and legislative branches. Although legislators from both parties said after last year's election they had high hopes for the new governor, many have now given up hope for a productive legislative session. Ehrlich, a former state legislator and U.S.representative, defeated Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the race for the state's top office.

The centerpiece of Ehrlich's agenda is to help plug the state's $1.8 billion budget deficit by gleaning revenue from 10,500 slots that would be at placed at four Maryland racetracks. Currently the governor is still ironing out the details and has not submitted a bill to the General Assembly.

Ehrlich's proposal has alienated some of his old friends in the legislature. On Feb. 26, when newly elected House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) questioned why Ehrlich would put slot machines at racetracks in low-income and heavily black neighborhoods, Ehrlich accused Busch of racism.

"Just about everybody was shocked," said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery). "(It eroded) a tone of civility that has existed in Maryland forever."

In addition to problems with his slot proposal, Ehrlich's nominee for secretary of the Department of the Environment was rejected by the state Senate on March 11. It was the first time in Maryland history that a governor's nominee has been turned down.

Lawmakers and legislative observers are asking if these political missteps can be attributed to growing pains or if this foreshadows four long years of partisan squabbling.

Tom Stuckey, a long-time Annapolis correspondent for the Associated Press, said any governor faced with a budget deficit and trying to legalize gambling would hit roadblocks with a Democratic legislature.

"They've certainly made some missteps but they are trying to learn," said Stuckey, who has been covering the General Assembly for 40 years. "Any one of these [issues] would make for a difficult beginning."

Stuckey also said that legislature has undergone some significant changes, with an unusually large number of freshman legislators and a brand new host of leaders in the House and Senate. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. is the only party leader returning from last year.

In the past, other governors have also gotten off to a rocky start. As soon as Ehrlich's predecessor, Gov. Parris Glendening took office, he was embroiled in a scandal over a pension deal he had arranged from his previous job as Prince George's County Executive. Gov. William Donald Shaefer, Ehrlich's predecessor twice removed, also had a difficult time forging relationship with legislators. Both were Democrats.

Despite Ehrlich's missteps, reporters and legislators say he is a friendly and approachable governor, which should work to his advantage in the long run. They also say other elements of his agenda are being overshadowed by current problems. Ehrlich's other priorities include charter schools, faith-based programs and Project Exile, a crime-reduction initiative modeled after a Virginia program.

 
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