ANNAPOLIS – Two weeks into an already roiling General Assembly session, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich touted his administration’s strides toward fiscal responsibility and called on lawmakers to find common ground during his State of the State address Thursday.
Ehrlich focused on his major legislative priorities of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, reforming medical malpractice laws and reducing criminal recidivism. Many of the policies the governor discussed made their debut in his first State of the State speech, and died during the last Assembly session.
The governor also called on lawmakers to support his record $326 million budget increase in elementary and secondary education funding for Fiscal Year 2005, and asked for cooperation to pass a “clean” slots bill.
“A decade of talking is long enough,” Ehrlich said. “Let’s do it now!”
The governor submitted his revised slots proposal to the Legislature this week. His first attempt to expand legalized gambling died in the House last spring. This year’s bill calls for up to 4,000 slot machines to be installed at two locations along the Interstate 95 corridor between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, and more than 11,000 slot machines at four racetracks. Like the slots bill that passed the Senate last year, 46 percent of gambling revenues would be earmarked for education funding, and 39 percent would go to the tracks. Ehrlich pledged to “advocate my position, negotiate in good faith, be flexible and find common ground,” and he called on lawmakers to do the same.
“This is a citizen legislature, not Capitol Hill and it should never be Capitol Hill,” the former congressman said. “I invite you to join me in ushering in a new era of bipartisan cooperation. That doesn’t mean giving up on your principles or voting against your conscience; your promises to your constituents are sacrosanct.” Ehrlich’s talk of collegiality comes as lawmakers statewide have only just begun grumbling over the governor’s legislative and budget proposals, which include operating budget cuts to counties, the revival of slots legislation and a shortage of transportation funding. Tensions between the Democratic majority in the Assembly and the Republican governor have already bubbled over in acrimonious debates about Senate rules, and the first successful vote to override a governor’s veto since 1989. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, said the governor made it clear in his speech that he would not go back on his campaign promises. “I think he made it clear where he could be moved and where he would stand firm. He knows he needs Democratic support to move the state forward,” Miller said. But he also criticized the governor for the lack of detail in his address about the cuts necessary to achieve fiscal responsibility. “It was a very upbeat speech, but it was short on the pain that comes with governance,” Miller said. “He talked a lot about fiscal responsibility but not about the cuts that come with that.” Ehrlich’s 2005 budget contains more than $160 million in funding cuts to local governments. Cuts to county and municipal governments account for $17.5 million. Funding for part of the Thornton plan to improve education – the part that would provide counties extra funding based on a geographic cost of living index – was also left out of the governor’s budget.
Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan said the governor’s words and his budget presented two different pictures.
“The speech and the budget numbers are the two different things. It’s a one-year budget at best,” Duncan said.
Ehrlich gave Duncan a nod during his address, pledging to build the Inter-county Connector despite the opponents’ objections. The roadway that would connect Interstates 95 and 270 has riled many environmentalists.
Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley echoed the concerns of the counties. “Everyone needs to come off their collective high horse and start looking for a compromise,” O’Malley said. “Drop the rhetoric and get it done. Right now, they’re balancing the budget on the backs of the local government.”
Sticking by his campaign promises not to raise taxes to balance the budget, Ehrlich pressed lawmakers to support his environmental, health care and public safety agenda, all largely funded by surcharges, budget cuts and one-time revenue sources. The governor emphasized his commitment to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay through a variety of programs including the “flush tax” to fund upgrades at 66 of the state’s largest water treatment facilities. He also urged action to bolster the bay’s declining oyster population and pledged to work for significant reductions in nutrient runoff. With a $300 million increase in Medicaid funding in the next year’s budget, Ehrlich further urged lawmakers to support medical malpractice reform. Malpractice insurance costs have skyrocketed in recent years, increasing more than 30 percent in one year. The state’s largest medical insurance provider organized a protest last week to draw attention to the issue. The governor also lobbied for support of another campaign promise to curb criminal recidivism by improving and restructuring drug and alcohol assessment programs and increasing funding for residential treatment facilities. In light of the less-than-cordial climate in the State House thus far, Ehrlich appealed to lawmakers’ sense of pride in their offices and the importance of accomplishing the people’s business. Ehrlich recognized the importance of each legislator’s commitment to his or her constituents despite the pressures of partisanship and politics. “That real life experience is what makes the Maryland General Assembly one of the best legislative bodies in the nation,” Ehrlich said.