ANNAPOLIS – Saying that Maryland’s future has never been brighter, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. called on legislators Thursday to put partisan differences aside and address a series of issues ranging from slot machine gambling and horse racing to stem cell research and higher education funding.
In a 45-minute State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly, Ehrlich gave legislators a sweeping defense of his first three years in office, saying the state was in “serious trouble” when he took over in 2003.
But, listing what he regarded as his accomplishments, including a budget turnaround from a $4 billion deficit to $1 billion surplus; increased education funding; the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund; and thousands of new military-related jobs that will be coming to Maryland, Ehrlich said the state is now on the right track.
“Maryland is strong and prosperous, we are growing a vibrant, knowledge-based economy, and our future has never been brighter,” he said.
But Democrats like Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, dismissed Ehrlich’s speech as election year spin.
“I thought it was a potential copyright violation of ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ the black is white, and up is down stuff,” Frosh said. “He says that the University of Maryland is on a roll . . . it’s rolling down a hill.”
Other critics were less pointed.
“The Governor has taken credit for a lot of things that we in fact have done in the legislature,” said House majority leader Kumar P. Barve, D-Montgomery.
At the end of the speech, Ehrlich looked ahead to the remainder of the session, calling on lawmakers from both parties to work together to pass legislation for the good of the state. He has suffered repeated defeats at the hands of Democratic legislators in the first three weeks of this politically-charged General Assembly session.
“We only fail our citizens when politics trumps policy,” he said. “The majority of Marylanders do not even follow the daily dispatches from Annapolis. Most simply want safer streets, schools that work, a cleaner Bay and a job that pays the bills and enables them to put some money aside for a rainy day.”
Ehrlich, as he did in last year’s speech, admonished legislators for the “Capitol Hill-style” politics that he said have become all too common in the Maryland General Assembly.
“We can disagree on issues, they come and go. But the culture stays. And to the extent the culture gets sick, the state is sick because we are the representatives of the people,” he said.
Some Democrats were quick to argue that Ehrlich was playing politics, trying to make himself appear more moderate than he actually is by flaunting his proposed $2.1 billion budget increase.
“It was an election year speech and it was very upbeat, but it wasn’t truthful,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Southern Maryland. “You can’t cut taxes and spend like a drunken sailor at the same time. If you did this in a family, you’d be in the poor house.”
Republicans, however, were full of praise for Ehrlich.
“I think it was a wonderful speech. The Governor laid out a tremendous amount of work and good that’s been done over the last three years,” said House minority whip Anthony J O’Donnell, R-Southern Maryland.
Ehrlich also reiterated some of his key legislative initiatives for the session, which include several high-profile projects that will draw on the state’s large budget surplus.
He was greeted with soft chuckles from the lawmakers before him when he again prompted them to pass a bill that would legalize slot machines. Ehrlich’s previous attempts to push similar legislation through have been thwarted by the House of Delegates.
Revenue from the slot machines, Ehrlich said, would be used to fully fund public schools across the state as mandated under the Thornton plan. He also said the money would help save racing, which he called an “essential industry” facing intense competition from other states.
Public schools already account for a large portion of the governor’s budget, including proposed increases of $462 million to K-12 funding, $281 million for school construction and $172 million for higher education.
Ehrlich’s budget also contains $20 million for adult or embryonic stem cell research, which both Republicans and Democrats expect to be a contentious issue this year.
Republican senators have vowed to filibuster a Senate bill that would commit $125 million over five years to embryonic stem cell research specifically.
“I’m disappointed that he wasn’t in favor of embryonic stem cell research openly,” Barve said. “I mean, that is where the real hope of curing diabetes and heart disease and other diseases like that lies.”
Ehrlich also pushed for the passage of a bill that will mandate the lifetime monitoring of sex offenders who don’t receive a life sentence in prison and bar them from entering school or daycare property.
“There was a lot of integrity in this speech,” said Senate minority leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Lower Shore. “He has restored fiscal sanity in the state.”
Ehrlich brought with him Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, La., which was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina last year.
Broussard thanked Ehrlich for the aid that Maryland provided to the hurricane-ravaged parish. “I’ll always remember the state of Maryland for its heart,” he said.