ANNAPOLIS – The clock is ticking. The pressure’s on. And Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. may have to get personal to push his agenda through the crucial upcoming General Assembly session.
“He needs to be much more hands-on than he was last year,” said state Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, D-Montgomery, vice chairman of the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee. “This is probably the most important session of his term. This sets the stage for whether he’s going to be successful or not.”
To get his bills through, key Democratic legislators say Ehrlich needs to be personally involved in lobbying them this session, which starts Jan. 14. And the governor’s lieutenants are pledging to step up their game.
“We’ll benefit from something that we didn’t have last year, which was plenty of time to meet prior to the session with legislative leaders of both parties,” said Paul Schurick, Ehrlich’s communications director. “It’s simply a matter of communication. Better and more timely communication.”
As for Ehrlich’s push to expand slot machine gambling, “It’s now or never,” Schurick said.
“This year’s session is always the most substantive,” said Speaker of the House Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel. “Whatever issues that the sitting governor is going to put in place usually are established in this year.”
Ehrlich has invested lots of political capital into expanding slot machine gambling to fund public education reforms and solve state budget woes. He campaigned on the issue and made it the cornerstone of his legislative package — only to see it die in Busch’s House.
This year, Ehrlich has pledged to reintroduce a slots bill and is also gearing up for a fight on medical malpractice legislation. Both are likely to generate some “wailing and gnashing of teeth,” said Kenneth Masters, chief Ehrlich lobbyist.
“At this point in time, I think the jury’s still out” as to whether Ehrlich is willing to make the personal sacrifices that his office requires, said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert.
“He’s not a hard worker,” added Miller, who’s been a key Ehrlich ally on slots but has pledged opposition on a medical malpractice bill.
“It would be good for (Ehrlich) to become more personally involved in some of his key pieces of legislation,” said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, D-Montgomery. Last session “was a pretty rocky performance for him, and in his defense, that’s always how it is for a first-year governor.”
Executives often spend the first year adjusting to the office and getting an administration in place, while in the third and fourth years, the looming elections tend to dominate policy debates, said pollster Patrick Gonzales.
“The second year is really when you have the best opportunity to . . . tackle the really tough issues,” Gonzales said.
Ehrlich and his administration have already gotten a jump on their lobbying. Ehrlich, Schurick and Budget Secretary James C. “Chip” DiPaula have all met with slots adversary Busch in recent weeks. But so far, negotiations with Busch haven’t been productive, Ehrlich said in a recent interview on WTOP Radio’s “Ask the Governor.”
If Ehrlich and his team want to be more successful this session, Busch said, “they have to lay out exactly what their vision for the state of Maryland is and why it’s the appropriate way for the state to go, and bring people together to accomplish it.”
But while Democrats say they haven’t seen enough of the governor, Republican legislators have been seeing plenty of him, said House Minority Leader George C. Edwards, R-Garrett.
“Being a Republican, from my side of the aisle, it’s a lot better than it was” when Democrats were governor, Edwards said. The Democrats “have to adjust to the fact that there’s a Republican on the second floor of the State House” in the governor’s office.
But there may not be much time left for “adjusting.”
“This is the session where you have to get something done,” Hogan said. “You can’t just float ideas out there or put bills in. He needs to work them.”