ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich stopped by Walter S. Mills-Parole Elementary School here Tuesday to generate support for his Office for Children, Youth and Families, which is set to terminate this year if legislation is not approved to continue the program.
Ehrlich plans at least two more news conferences around the state during this last week of the 90-day General Assembly session to promote bills “that are on the verge of passing or should be passing, but are not,” Ehrlich told Capital News Service Tuesday.
He plans to visit Rod ‘n’ Reel Restaurant in Calvert County Wednesday to promote slot machine legislation and Thursday he’ll stump for a witness intimidation bill.
Ehrlich has already “streamlined” the Governor’s Office for Children, Youth and Families and it now really makes sense, Ehrlich told CNS.
At the school, he spoke to about 50 students, asking them about the importance of the after-school program, which receives funding through the governor’s children’s office.
Students answered that they finish their homework, use computers and do fun activities.
“Do you think the General Assembly should keep this office?” Ehrlich asked.
“Yes,” the elementary students agreed.
The House and Senate have passed bills to continue the office, but both chambers have significantly different ideas about its continued role.
The governor wanted to elevate the office to Cabinet-level, but the House altered the bill to eliminate the secretary’s office and move its programs to the State Department of Education, Department of Human Resources and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
That plan, said Ehrlich earlier in the day, is “terrible. It’s either negligence or political.”
The other agencies, he said, “are not set up to handle this.”
The Senate version of the bill extends the office another year to give the governor time to make the office better — a plan Ehrlich said he prefers.
House and Senate critics said the office does not do anything. It channels money to a local managing board, which distributes it to different children’s programs.
“All of what was supposed to go (on) in there goes (on) at the local level,” Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, has said. “That’s important. That’s where the services are. People don’t go to the state for that, they go locally.”
“We believe the (local managing boards) is the only function part of it,” said Delegate John Bohanan, D-St. Mary’s, last week. “The rest of it is policy.”
But, Ehrlich does believe the office is important to fund those programs.
“It’s unclear what would happen to the funding.”
Today, Ehrlich will take up the cause of the embattled slot machine bill, which is failing for the third year running. It has Senate support, but the House has made changes that are unacceptable to the upper chamber.
Thursday, he’ll promote the also imperiled witness intimidation bill, which would make it a felony to threaten or to solicit someone else to intimidate a potential witness to a crime. It would boost the penalty from five to 20 years in prison and impose a maximum $5,000 fine.
“The world is for the bill,” said Ehrlich. “There’s only one person standing in the way.”
The obstruction is House Judiciary Chairman Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George’s, who said he has held the bill because it unconstitutionally allows “hearsay” into criminal trials by allowing a witness’s previous statements to be used in court if he or she is no longer available to testify in person.
Ehrlich said he understands that committee chairmen often allow disliked bills to die quietly in a drawer, but this should not happen with witness intimidation.
“This is an issue of such overwhelming import, given the increasingly violent nature of gangs.”