ANNAPOLIS – A bill to expand lawmakers’ role in selecting state elections board members cleared the House Friday, while the board’s remaining Democrat announced his resignation.
Under current law, it’s too late in the session for Gov. Robert Ehrlich to immediately appoint a successor to the resigning member, Frank Boston Jr., but Ehrlich can do so after the General Assembly adjourns April 11.
The House voted 90-42 along party lines after numerous GOP attempts to cripple the bill.
The Senate last month approved similar legislation, setting up a showdown between the Democratic-controlled General Assembly and Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who might veto the bill. Both chambers appear to have enough votes to override a veto.
“I can guess what he’s going to do. I think you guess what we’re going to do,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert.
“The governor is clearly not enthusiastic about it,” Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said. “Only he can use the ‘V’ word, but it demonstrates to what lengths some lawmakers will go to protect their own power and corrupt the elections process.”
The acrimony gained new life when Boston announced his resignation. He became the remaining Democrat on the board after Gene Raynor resigned in January.
“I am disappointed that partisan politics have overshadowed the process for appointments to this important board,” Boston said in a statement released by the governor’s office.
Boston did not mention a specific reason for quitting, but said that “a few individuals in Annapolis have chosen to question my affiliation with the Democratic Party.”
The House Ways and Means Committee did away with many of the Senate bill’s provisions, including one that would have abolished the state Board of Elections and made the elections administrator subject to a Democratic-led state panel.
Instead, the House version would shift control of board nominees to the central committees of the political parties. No more than three of the five members on the board would belong to one political party.
Republican lawmakers have raised hackles with the bill since it first reached the Senate floor in February. They accused Democrats of railroading the bill — a charge House Minority Whip Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert, leveled again Friday. He asked why the bill was designated as “emergency legislation,” meaning it would take effect immediately upon enactment.
Delegate Obie Patterson, D-Prince George’s, replied that “there is chaos at the Board of Elections in terms of equal party representation.”
“It’s a three-member board now with no Democratic members. That’s an emergency,” Miller said in an interview.
The acrimony surrounding the bill has its origin in the elections board’s failed firing of Elections Administrator Linda Lamone last year. Democratic lawmakers, already upset that Ehrlich named Raynor to the board without consulting them, charged the ouster was a ploy to solidify GOP control over state elections. Lamone challenged her firing in court and held onto her job.
The fight over the bill is one of several manifestations of broader Democratic anger over the Ehrlich administration’s hiring and firing practices.
For weeks, Miller delayed approval of hundreds of the governor’s nominees for various state positions.
Ehrlich met Thursday with Miller, who “expressed willingness” to give the green light to the governor’s appointments, Fawell said.
After the Legislature adjourns, Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, will team up to investigate the administration’s personnel practices.
The investigation will be separate from the one being conducted by Ehrlich’s chief legal counsel, Jervis Finney, into the behavior of former state employee Joseph Steffen.
Steffen, once an aide to then-U.S. Rep. Ehrlich, has been accused of being given several state positions in order to root out Democratic employees.
He was fired after he admitted to spreading rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a probable Democratic candidate in the 2006 governor’s race.
Ehrlich has denied knowing about Steffen’s activities, saying no one has yet come forward to claim being fired for political reasons.