By Rolando Garcia
ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich paid a brief visit to the Senate chamber Thursday, and his exhortation to “vote right” seems to have worked – a constitutional amendment that would have weakened the governor’s budget authority was killed after four senators switched their votes.
The amendment would have allowed the General Assembly to move funds within the budget as long as total spending did not exceed the governor’s original request. Now, the Assembly can only cut from the governor’s proposed budget.
The amendment was set to pass after it won the support of 30 senators on a procedural vote Tuesday, but failed 25-20 on final passage, falling short of the supermajority of 29 needed to approve a constitutional amendment.
If passed by the Assembly, a proposed amendment must be approved by voters to become law.
Both supporters and opponents of the bill said Ehrlich’s arm-twisting made the difference.
“The governor has lobbied this bill pretty hard. He has threatened (senators) with projects,” said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, D-Montgomery, the bill’s sponsor, referring to the common practice of governors punishing unfriendly legislators by withholding funding for projects in their districts.
The defeat ends another battle in the long-standing struggle between the Assembly and a governor who wields greater constitutional authority than most other state executives. The proposed amendment has been rejected by the Senate three previous times in the last 10 years.
Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, said he reluctantly switched his vote after personal pleas from Ehrlich.
“(Ehrlich) reminded me that I asked him to run for governor and said I should give him the chance to impose some fiscal responsibility,” Colburn said.
The lobbying by the governor and his staff was intense.
“I got a lot of phone calls at different times of the night that I normally don’t receive,” Colburn said.
Although he still believes the amendment is needed to make the Assembly an equal branch of government, Colburn said it came down to supporting a Republican governor doing battle with a Democratic-controlled Legislature.
Despite lingering concerns about the Assembly’s powerlessness in the budget process, Sen. Donald Munson, R-Washington, said he decided to switch after having a “heart to heart” discussion with Ehrlich. Passage of the amendment would have been a devastating political blow to the governor, he said.
“I was up all night over this bill,” Munson said. “The bottom line is I didn’t come here to be against my governor.”
Sen. John Astle, D-Anne Arundel, and Sen. John Giannetti, D-Prince George’s, also switched their votes to oppose the bill. They couldn’t be reached to explain their votes.
Ehrlich paid a brief ceremonial visit to the Senate prior to the vote, and although he did not directly address the amendment, supporters complained that he was lobbying from the podium, a breach of Senate protocol.
Amendment supporters said it would bring Maryland in line with most other states where the Legislature can alter the governor’s proposed budget.
Opponents warned allowing each lawmaker to become a budget writer would lead to runaway spending, make the Assembly subject to more pressure from special interest groups and give too much power to the Legislature’s two budget committees.
Now, if it wants to increase funding for a particular program, it must cut from another, then suggest the governor reallocate the money to the favored program. If the governor agrees, he sends the Assembly a supplemental budget.
Hogan said he will try again to push through the amendment.
The measure was also introduced in the House, where it has 88 co-sponsors, enough to pass. It was heard Tuesday by the House Appropriations Committee.