ANNAPOLIS – At noon today, an overhaul of Maryland government officially begins with the inauguration of the first Republican governor in more than three decades — Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
His first priority will be to close the state’s $1.2 billion budget shortfall — he’ll release his fiscal plan Friday — and already one of Ehrlich’s key fixes, legalized slot machines, may be in jeopardy in the General Assembly.
At a prayer breakfast Tuesday — part of a string of inaugural events — Ehrlich and Lt. Gov.-elect Michael Steele, joined state clergy and Baltimore Archbishop Cardinal William Keeler.
“The Ehrlichs do not wear religion on our collective shirt sleeves,” Ehrlich said between the clerics’ sermons. “God did not endorse this election. God did not vote in this election. God does not identify with any particular party — although we suspect he may lean Republican.”
The breakfast, and other events, including a Sunday parade through Ehrlich’s hometown of Arbutus, will culminate in today’s inauguration at the State House and a gala in Baltimore so large it was split between two venues. The festivities, however, may be the calm before a storm of budget battles with the Democratic General Assembly as the new administration tries to organize itself for the war.
Even before the oath of office was administered, many top staffers are getting pink slips, or getting out.
Thirty top state employees were given their notice Monday, including Karen White, Maryland Department of Natural Resources deputy secretary and former campaign manager for Ehrlich’s general election rival Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
“The vast majority, they were longterm career public servants . . . not political appointees,” said J. Charles Fox, who plans to resign as Department of Natural Resources secretary. “Any governor has the responsibility of bringing in his own staff. We’ll have to see who the governor brings in.” Ehrlich has selected his former campaign manager as budget secretary, a nomination imperiled in the state Senate. One Ehrlich layoff failed to stick. Popular Motor Vehicle Administrator Anne Ferro was saved Tuesday, while Delegate Robert Flanagan, R-Howard, played damage control for the incoming administration. Flanagan, tapped to head the Department of Transportation, would be Ferro’s boss, if approved in the Senate. However, his nomination, too has proved controversial. As of Tuesday, Ehrlich said he had only filled 80 percent of his Cabinet positions. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, has said Flanagan’s nomination, and that of former Ehrlich campaign manager James C. “Chip” DiPaula, picked to head the Department of Budget and Management, are on shaky footing in the upper chamber. Miller said he doesn’t think DiPaula, who oversaw development of a $34 million Baltimore County retirement community and managed the 2000 Republican National Convention, has the experience to fill the spot. “You can’t look at a state budget as just pure cold numbers,” Miller said. “You’ve got to understand what bodies and what issues and what departments are involved.” Ehrlich’s budget, drafted in part by DiPaula, will likely include projected funds from slot machines at state racetracks, a move opposed by many in his own party. Getting the more troublesome parts of his program through the General Assembly will require a “give and take” approach, said U.S. Rep. Albert Wynn, D- Prince George’s. Slots will be a “tough sell” in the General Assembly, said Wynn, whose constituency includes a significant black population. The Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, a key voting bloc in the Assembly, may pose a threat to slots in Maryland. “He has to find common ground with the Legislature,” said Wynn, who served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee with Ehrlich. “His personality will work in his favor.” Both Democrats and Republicans who served with Ehrlich on the House committee said he is open and friendly. “Bob and I are friends,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a senior Democrat on the committee. “He is a conservative, but he has an irrepressible quality that makes it hard not to enjoy working with him. I think that quality will serve him well in the legislative process.” Ehrlich “was a consensus builder on the committee who understood the fine art of compromise,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La. “That quality will serve him well.” Miller agreed Ehrlich’s demeanor and bipartisan friendships will help in his budget battles. “He’s very personable,” Miller said. “But he still has some great budget adjusting to do. He’s going to have a difficult sell in regards to pushing slot machines.” While the budget will dominate Ehrlich’s first year, the incoming governor also proposed an initial lean legislative package, including funding for faith- based initatives and charter schools. “He’s posed a very limited agenda and that’s not unusual for a first-term governor,” Miller said. “So if he focuses on those items and he works hard at balancing the budget his first year will be deemed a success.” – 30 – CNS-1-14-03