ANNAPOLIS – The General Assembly roared to life last week after nearly three months on autopilot, leaving much of Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s legislative agenda behind.
Some of the Republican governor’s major initiatives appeared at last to be gaining momentum as the weekend neared and the Democratic-dominated Legislature scrambled to pass hundreds of backlogged bills.
But in some cases, passage hinges on whether the legislative process can move quickly enough to meet the midnight deadline Monday, the last day of the 90-day session.
The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Thursday approved Ehrlich’s proposal to nurture Maryland businesses by giving tax breaks for investment in and development of new technology. The bills had collected dust since their committee hearing in early February.
The upper chamber is expected to approve the bills, which would then head to a House committee; then to the House floor. The route seems more circuitous than it sometimes is, particularly at session’s end, said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset.
“I’ve seen bills that start out with half a day left and make it through both houses,” Stoltzfus said.
But final passage depends on what the House wants to do with them.
“It’s premature with the (research and development) tax credit,” said House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery County. “I think some of it is going to do fine.”
Despite the fast-approaching deadline, Ehrlich said he was confident most of his initiatives will ultimately pass.
“Just about everything is alive,” Ehrlich said in an interview Tuesday with Capital News Service.
But his critics say that if his bills fail, the governor has no one to blame but himself.
“There really has been an absence of hard work on the part of this administration in terms of crafting a legislative package and working to make what he did put forth pass,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert.
“The basic rule with the governor’s agenda is that he’s always done well when he’s shown flexibility in negotiating,” Barve said. “The trouble with the governor is that he is so frequently inflexible that his own agenda is in trouble.”
He cited Ehrlich’s bills to restrict teen drivers, which were expected to pass, as an example of the governor’s ability to work with the Legislature.
The House was set to give final approval to a bill to help law enforcement in identifying criminals. The bill would allow collection of DNA samples of convicted felons.
The General Assembly is also expected to approve Ehrlich’s plan to issue $2.4 million in bonds for seven primary care clinics in medically underserved areas.
In other cases, passage depends on whether the presiding officers, both Democrats, want to see Ehrlich get his way.
The Legislature’s approval of a medical malpractice overhaul during a Christmastime emergency session left the governor’s follow-up initiative out in the cold during the regular session.
The House dismantled the governor’s medical malpractice bill, then stitched it back together along with parts of other health bills, leaving out a key provision of Ehrlich’s: a cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice settlements.
The governor “was sabotaged by the (House) speaker and by the (Senate) president,” Stoltzfus said. “His initiative did not succeed, but that’s because of the lack of reliability of the leaders of both houses.”
With other initiatives, Ehrlich will only get part of what he wanted.
On Wednesday, a key component of the governor’s public safety initiatives, a bill to curb intimidation of witnesses to violent crimes, was revived. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Delegate Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George’s, allowed a successful vote on an amended bill, which he had held up for weeks.
Patricia Jessamy, the Baltimore state’s attorney who joined Ehrlich to fight for the bill, said she would rather have had no bill at all than the amended version, which she called “a toothless tiger.”
The governor’s slots initiative — which would yield $100 million a year for public school construction — was still in limbo. On Friday, the House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing on the more-expansive Senate version but did not schedule a vote. If it does, it would be up to House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, to set up a conference committee. Busch has opposed bringing slots to Maryland in each of the last three sessions.
“You’ll see a theme emerge here, by the way, which is working with the Senate as opposed to the House on a variety of fronts,” Ehrlich said.
Ehrlich had tried to meet with Busch Friday morning but was told the speaker was too busy, said Paul Schurick, the governor’s communications director.
Despite ongoing divisions, Ehrlich and the General Assembly have been able to reach accords on major legislation, said Blair Lee IV, a political commentator and Silver Spring developer. Among those are the “flush tax” to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and the vehicle registration fee increases of previous sessions.
Even if Ehrlich sees most of his initiatives fail this year, Lee said, he can still claim victory in the 2006 governor’s race for balancing the budget without raising taxes.
But being able to play nice isn’t why Ehrlich is in the governor’s office, said Lee, who describes himself as a lifelong Democrat and who has run Democratic campaigns.
In 2002, Marylanders voted not so much for Ehrlich as they did against “the Democratic star system where you just line them up to vote,” Lee said. That star was then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
“The finish line is not (Monday),” Lee said. “The finish line is November 2006.”