By Justin Palk and Cns Staff
ANNAPOLIS – Legislators extolled the historic significance of Lt. Gov. Michael Steele’s swearing-in and praised the bipartisan tone of Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s inaugural address Wednesday afternoon.
In his speech, Ehrlich pledged to have the state government, which is facing a $1.7 billion budget shortfall, “live within its means.”
The symbolism of Maryland inaugurating Steele, the first African-American elected to statewide office, on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday was not lost on lawmakers.
“It’s a great day. It almost became a bit overwhelming,” said Delegate Barry Glassman, R-Harford. “Being a part of that history is a great feeling.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Delegate Talmadge Branch, D-Baltimore.
“(It’s) a fabulous time to see an African-American lieutenant governor finally becoming a partner of the state,” he said.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike said they felt a sense of enthusiasm and excitement in the crowd, and they’re hoping to cooperate with the new administration.
“I think these people here today are largely people who are supportive of Ehrlich, and I think that is appropriate,” said Delegate Elizabeth Bobo, D- Howard. “I’m hopeful that I will have something in common with (Ehrlich).”
Delegate Nancy R. Stocksdale, R-Carroll, said she “just got positive vibes” listening to the inauguration speakers.
Ehrlich’s decision to choose a diverse group of people to represent him — Democrats, Republicans, people of different races and religions — was noteworthy, she said.
“Bobby (Ehrlich) and I joined the Assembly at the same time 17 years ago and I enjoyed working with him and hope to begin where we left off,” said Delegate John Wood, D-St. Mary’s.
However, some Democrats were upset about Ehrlich’s failure to mention outgoing Gov. Parris N. Glendening in his speech, an oversight his spokeswoman explained by saying the former governor was not in the audience and so was omitted.
“It was sad they didn’t make an effort to recognize significant accomplishments over the past eight years,” said Delegate Richard S. Madaleno Jr., D-Montgomery.
Bipartisanship will be necessary to fix the budget, said lawmakers from both parties, although delegates are waiting to see specifics, and some predict battles between the parties are likely later in the term.
“For me, it’s about balancing the budget,” said Branch. “Party lines don’t balance a budget, public leaders do.”
“No rhetoric or talk will substitute for what the budget says,” said Delegate Brian Feldman, D-Montgomery. “The budget will be a formal map of the governor’s priorities and where he plans to take the state.”
Ehrlich listed five priorities in his speech: balancing the budget, improving public education, beefing up public safety, empowering faith-based organizations and assisting Maryland’s least fortunate citizens. How he will meet those priorities will be contained in his budget, expected to be released Friday.
Budget fights are likely going to take a back seat to constructive work on policy matters, predicted Delegate Kenneth Schisler, R-Talbot.
“It’s not going to be what you’d call a honeymoon, but an era of cooperation over the policy initiatives,” he said.
Some delegates also welcomed Ehrlich’s call to make government “live within its means”.
“(That was) a clear statement that we’re not going to be raising taxes,” said Schisler. “We have a structural deficit. There have to be cuts in government.”