ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pushed tougher gun laws, help for faith-based charities and institution of charter schools in his first State of the State address Wednesday.
Ehrlich sprinkled his speech in the House of Delegates chamber with the tales of five Marylanders, highlighting their achievements in overcoming drugs, harvesting the Chesapeake Bay’s riches, struggling with mental illness and excellence in education and, in one case, the grief of parents whose son was gunned down in Baltimore in May.
“Sometimes, we need to see, to touch, to feel as legislators – and I was a legislator for 16 years – the real impact of these issues on the lives of citizens in order to better understand them,” Ehrlich said in his speech he called “Faces of Maryland.”
Capt. Bob Newberry stood as the governor outlined his proposal to improve Maryland wastewater treatment, and improve the bay’s health. Newberry fishes and crabs on the Eastern Shore, but has pulled in dramatically less in recent years because of the sad state of the Bay and increasing regulations on Maryland’s watermen, Ehrlich said.
“We can protect the bay without unduly penalizing the good people who earn their livelihood from it,” he said.
Ehrlich then introduced Prince George’s County educator Adela Acosta as someone who beat the odds and overcame prejudice to get a good education.
Acosta, the nationally recognized principal of Cesar Chavez Elementary School, was placed in special education classes because she could not speak English when she began school.
Acosta, whose students are largely black and Hispanic, is an ardent supporter of charter schools, Ehrlich said, making his pitch for the proposal.
Public funding of sectarian institutions also was highlighted by Ehrlich, with the story of Keith Day, a rehabilitated heroin addict from Baltimore who now helps manage the Sheraton Inner Harbor.
Day, a 25-year drug user, kicked his addiction and improved his life through Baltimore’s Helping Up Mission, a faith-based organization.
“Last night, the president talked about the war against international terror,” Ehrlich said in reference to Bush’s State of the Union speech Tuesday. “In Maryland we have an internal war against another enemy – drugs.”
Ehrlich moved to his proposals to improve Maryland’s treatment of the mentally ill when he introduced Michael Taylor, a man who spent 30 years locked in institutions.
Taylor was released in 1999 and is living independently, he said.
“Michael Taylor is an American success story and a Maryland success story,” Ehrlich said.
Before introducing his final “face” of Maryland, Ehrlich paused. Rio-Jarel Tatum was not in the audience, he said, because he had been shot dead in Baltimore in May. His parents, John S. Tatum and Roxanne Servance, represented him.
Tatum graduated from Baltimore’s Polytechnic Institute in 2001 with a 3.97 grade point average, earning a full scholarship to Pennsylvania State University, Ehrlich said.
“He did everything right, yet he still became a victim of the gun violence sweeping our state’s largest city,” he said. “It’s time to bring Project Exile to Maryland.”
Project Exile would impose tougher sentencing for criminals who use guns.
Ehrlich began his speech by recognizing seven long-serving and key legislators who will weigh his proposals: Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert; Delegate Wade Kach, R-Baltimore County; Delegate Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s; Delegate Hattie N. Harrison, D-Baltimore; Delegate John Arnick, D-Baltimore County; Delegate Pauline Menes, D-Prince Georges, and Sen. Norman Stone, D-Baltimore County. Ehrlich presented Miller with a crab statue during the speech.
The peacemaking gestures aside, Democratic lawmakers were critical of Ehrlich, who took office just two weeks ago as the first Republican to hold the seat in 34 years.
Powerful House Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, said he thought it was interesting that the “faces” Ehrlich talked about thrived under Democratic leadership in the state.
“All of these are programs that the Democratic General Assembly (members) have been the primary supporters of over the last few years,” Rawlings said.
Democrats were also dismayed that the governor ignored the proverbial elephant in the room: the state’s $1.7 billion budget gap.
“There comes a time when you stop campaigning and you get down to the heavy lifting,” Miller said. “At this point in time he hasn’t done any heavy lifting. He’s put slots on the table and that’s it.”
The governor omitted any discussion of that key budget fix, something that also irritated Democrats.
One of the controversies the governor waded into was the fight over construction of the Inter-county Connector, a long-stalled highway construction project.
“Trust me, we’re going to build the ICC,” Ehrlich said, renewing a campaign promise, to loud applause. Both Rawlings and House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery, said another Ehrlich plan, to fully fund public education recommendations, wouldn’t hold through 2004. “The main problem is, I’m still confused how he’s going to address the budget issues and fund some of these proposals,” Rawlings said.
“Everybody wants to fund education, but where’s the money going to come from?” Barve said. “We look forward to working with the governor but this speech gives us very little to assess what precisely is going to be in store for us.”
House Minority Whip Kenneth Schisler, R-Talbot, said Wednesday was a good day for the state GOP. “We have an incredibly strong leader and it will no doubt inure to the benefit of Republicans,” said Schisler, one of 43 Republicans in the 141 member House. “To have someone so powerful, so effective and such a strong communicator — that’s no doubt going to help the Republican Caucus. It makes being here a lot more fun.” – 30 – CNS-1-29-03