By Mike Torralba and Sarah Abruzzese
ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich scrapped the prepared opening of his State of the State address Thursday and instead criticized what he said was a lack of mutual respect that has invaded Annapolis.
Ehrlich asked lawmakers to show “respect” as they deliberate the legislative package he promoted in the 47-minute address.
“‘Respect’ is working with even flawed administration bills,” Ehrlich said.
He alluded to the recent special session in which the Democratic-led General Assembly overrode a record number of his vetoes — and enacted its own version of an overhaul of medical malpractice laws. He decried lawmakers’ playing “games with substituting a member’s bill in order … to embarrass the governor.”
“It’s Capitol Hill assassin politics. It has no place in the state Legislature,” said Ehrlich, a former delegate and congressman.
Ehrlich didn’t name names but said his admonishment was directed to “a very few people here.”
Republican lawmakers reacted warmly to the governor’s remarks.
“I think he was right on target with what Marylanders are thinking about what is going on down here,” said Senate Minority Whip Andrew P. Harris, R-Baltimore County. “People are being disrespectful. I think he is right on target.”
Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford, agreed with Ehrlich that respect has become scarce in the State House.
“Things used to be different,” she said. “You had respect for the office no matter who was there.”
Jacobs described Ehrlich as “the new kid on the block, and the Democrats don’t know how to act.”
Delegate Jon S. Cardin, D-Baltimore County, reiterated Democratic complaints that Ehrlich had kept lawmakers in the dark about his budget for too long this year, but praised the speech.
“I thought as always he was very eloquent, very well spoken,” Cardin said, adding that respect is a “two-way street.”
Democrats agreed in principle with Ehrlich’s opinions on “respect” but diverged with Republicans on who should compromise.
“I thought there was a conciliatory tone to (the speech). We hope it will set the stage for a cooperative effort between the governor and Legislature,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel. “But actions that play out in the next couple of weeks will determine whether a cooperative effort will continue to exist.”
“I think (cooperation) is good. The problem is he’s hired people from Capitol Hill,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert. “I think the governor likes me; I like him,” Miller said. “But the barbs are going to continue.”
Miller was one of several Democrats Wednesday who accused Ehrlich of turning the office of Maryland Insurance Commissioner Alfred Redmer into a political tool by ordering him to instantly approve rate increases by health-maintenance organizations without legislative notification.
Ehrlich, the state’s first Republican governor in a generation, described his first two years in office as “very successful” for improving public education, transportation, safety and the Chesapeake Bay.
Delegate John R. Leopold, R-Anne Arundel, expressed pride in the governor’s successful restoration of the Transportation Trust Fund.
“Those transportation projects are extremely important,” Leopold said. “We cannot continue to raid the special funds to balance the budget.”
But Ehrlich has also seen some of his hardest-fought legislation die. His previous two attempts at legalizing video slot machines failed and he has conceded that he doesn’t greatly expect his slots bill to pass this time.
“The slots bill didn’t pass because it was poorly drafted, said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, D-Montgomery. The governor has put “far too much emphasis on the racing community and not enough on education.”
But Thursday, Ehrlich emphasized his children’s initiatives, as well as the rest of his legislative package — but gave few new details.
Despite his ambivalence about resurrecting the slots question, Ehrlich said gambling revenues are vital to funding public school construction beyond the $155 million increase written into his proposed budget. He said slots revenue would also pay for mandates imposed by the Thornton plan for public school improvement.
Included in Ehrlich’s array of children’s initiatives: a restructuring of the Office for Children, Youth and Families; an initiative to reduce lead poisoning of children; and an extension of the minimum age for licensed drivers.
Ehrlich also used the speech to unveil a wage increase for state employees who are paid less than their peers in the private sector and other segments of government. That’s aside from the 2 percent cost-of-living increase he budgeted for state employees.
The governor said he wants to revisit the medical malpractice issue to further insulate doctors from insurance-premium increases.
Also on his legislative agenda are better communication equipment for public safety agencies and steeper penalties for intimidating witnesses to crimes.
Ehrlich also wants tax breaks for movie production companies to shoot in Maryland, military retirees and private-sector research and development of advanced technology.
Ehrlich wrapped up his speech by restating his desire to move beyond “partisan gamesmanship.” But he said political disagreement is an important part of a healthy democracy.
“The press loves to play up divided government as though that’s bad, as if the competition for ideas is somehow negative,” he said.
“The end product of the past two years has been pretty good,” he said. “My simple and direct challenge to you today is to replicate this record of success.”