ANNAPOLIS – Maryland legislators will begin their annual 90-day session on Wednesday already starkly divided over issues from last April and facing the task of spending an estimated $1.5 billion budget surplus in an election year.
Amidst heavy lobbying by both sides, Democratic leaders in the General Assembly have made overriding Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s veto of the Fair Share Health Plan, dubbed the Wal-Mart bill, a top priority in the first week.
“I’m big-time concerned,” Ehrlich, a Republican, said on WBAL radio Tuesday morning about the possibility of an override. “I’d hate to be embarrassed in front of the country and the world.”
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert and Prince George’s, called for five of Ehrlich’s vetoes to be overridden when the Assembly takes them up on Thursday. Democrats have also targeted Ehrlich’s vetoes of an increase in the minimum wage and three election-related bills.
“It’s just an instance where we disagree on policy issues with the governor,” said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, D-Montgomery. “Unfortunately, every issue will be seen through the prism of the election.”
Indeed, there is no more contentious issue between Ehrlich and the Democrat-controlled Legislature than the Wal-Mart bill, which has been furiously lobbied by its labor backers and business opponents.
The bill Ehrlich vetoed after the last General Assembly adjourned in April would require businesses in Maryland with more than 10,000 employees to put at least 8 percent of their payrolls towards employee health benefits. Wal-Mart, a persistent target of largely unsuccessful union organizing drives, typically provides less.
“This is not about healthcare at all,” Ehrlich said on WBAL. “This is about political power and the demonization of Wal-Mart.”
But unions have been mounting a vigorous effort to gather the necessary two-thirds majority in each house to enact the bill over Ehrlich’s veto. “We believe that large employers should in fact pay their fair share,” said Fred D. Mason Jr., president of the Maryland State and D.C. AFL-CIO.
“The Wal-Mart bill is terrible public policy,” argued Senate Minority Whip Andrew P. Harris, R-Baltimore and Harford counties. “If you think that healthcare is expensive now, just wait until the government gets a hold of it.”
Despite the early contention over veto overrides, the coming session could be more productive than most because both sides will be trying to impress voters with the way that the budget surplus is spent, said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University.
All of the action will inevitably be seen through the filter of the upcoming gubernatorial elections as parties and candidates jockey for political position.
Republicans will be working to keep Ehrlich’s public image positive as he faces reelection in November. Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley will face each other in the September Democratic primary for the right to challenge Ehrlich.
“This governor has performed well and I don’t think the legislature can do anything to undo that,” said Harris.
Democrats are quick to point out that Ehrlich has been governor for three years in which taxes and college tuition have increased – and not just the last few weeks, which have been filled with promises of big spending increases and tax cuts.
The governor has an ambitious legislative agenda, said Henry Fawell, Ehrlich’s spokesman, and has already outlined several budget increases for education.
Public school funding would increase by $462 million, with an additional $261 million for construction and repairs to existing facilities. The University System of Maryland’s budget would also increase by $172 million under Ehrlich’s proposal.
Slot machines will be up for debate for the fourth year in a row.
Ehrlich’s attempts to push legislation legalizing slots through the Legislature have been repeatedly thwarted by Democrats in the House of Delegates. Now, with a large budget surplus taking the pressure off for increased revenues, a slots proposal may face an even tougher battle.
“Absent a budget crisis, nobody is really serious about slots,” Barve, the House majority leader, said. “People support slots as an abstraction, but when it comes time to actually put them in, they always balk. Nobody wants them in their neighborhoods.”
A poll of Maryland voters conducted by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies found that while Ehrlich’s approval rating has improved to 55 percent, support for slot machines has dipped to 49 percent.
Only 3 percent of those surveyed listed slots as the most important issue in the upcoming session.
“People are just tired of hearing about it,” Crenson said.
Ehrlich also vetoed a bill at the end of last year’s session that would have raised the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15.
“I don’t think that’s even an issue, people pay that much anyways,” said Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., D-Anne Arundel.
Proponents of the minimum-wage increase see the veto as another way that the governor’s policies are specifically harming lower-income workers.
“Those are some of the most vulnerable workers around,” Mason, the AFL-CIO leader, said. “It’s simply the right thing to do to raise the state’s minimum wage.”
Additional issues expected to dominate the coming session include stem-cell research, the use of eminent domain for economic development and the monitoring of sex offenders.
-30- CNS 01-10-2006