ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. outlined his legislative goals for the 2004 General Assembly session in a meeting with House and Senate leadership Thursday.
Legislators from both parties met with the governor behind closed doors to survey his agenda in what may turn out to be a rare civil moment of the 90-day session.
The first week of work has been marred by rancorous rhetoric and razor-sharp partisanship, including Republican protests and largely party-line votes defeating the governor’s veto.
Ehrlich’s completed bill package was scheduled to be introduced within the next week.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, called the private meeting productive.
“We haven’t seen all the details of the legislation, and obviously there are concerns about various pieces, but it’s good to see the discussions going on,” Busch said. “There’s a lot out there that everyone is concerned about; the question is the details.”
A slots proposal was noticeably absent from the governor’s legislative agenda. Slots have been a major aspect of Ehrlich’s plan to fully fund future education obligations.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, said action on a slots bill needed to be taken quickly.
“I haven’t talked to the governor about slots, but my chief concern is getting the bill in and getting it introduced,” Miller said. “The governor’s trying to craft a consensus bill, but I would urge him to get the bill done quickly.”
Miller said he would work with the governor on his agenda and expressed hope for cooperation.
“I congratulate him on his environmental reforms and victim’s rights, and, although I don’t agree with him, his even-handed approach to medical malpractice,” Miller said.
Doctors from across the state rallied Wednesday outside the State House to draw attention to the rising costs of medical malpractice insurance and urged lawmakers to work for reform.
Ehrlich’s proposed bill would reduce the cap on punitive damages in medical malpractice cases to a flat $500,000, down from $635,000 with annual increases of $15,000. Actual damages would also be limited.
The governor’s environmental priorities included the creation of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Restoration Fund. Also known as the “flush tax,” a $2.50 monthly charge would be assessed for each household, and businesses would be charged based on how much wastewater they generate. The money would fund upgrades at the state’s largest sewage treatment plants.
Additional efforts to improve the health of the bay include the governor’s proposal to streamline the process of monitoring farms for nutrient runoff.
Addressing crime prevention, Ehrlich outlined a plan to redirect non-violent offenders to treatment programs, and proposed the creation of an Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council in each county. Another bill in the governor’s package would add first-degree murder of a witness or victim of a crime to the list of conditions eligible for the death penalty.