ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich signed into law a major piece of environmental legislation Thursday that he had previously declared to be unnecessary, surprising members of the General Assembly and incensing the bill’s sponsor, who was not invited to the event.
The Healthy Air Act, which seeks to restrict emissions of coal-fired power plants, was signed at a festive affair which drew a large crowd for the signing of an entirely different bill – a measure that sets aside $15 million for stem cell research. As Ehrlich, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Southern Maryland, signed the bill, supporters and sponsors crowded behind them for the traditional photo op.
But then without fanfare, the Healthy Air Act was passed along the desk for the three to sign without its sponsors or supporters there to bask in the limelight.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, the act’s architect, said he learned about the signing of his bill as he was driving on Route 50 to Annapolis. By then, it was already underway.
“(Ehrlich) signed it without telling anybody because I think he was embarrassed,” said an enraged Pinsky after the signing. “They have no class.”
Pinsky carried his anger to the Senate floor, standing up during the morning session on personal privilege.
“It was sophomoric and abominable,” he said. “It showed no respect, not just to me, but the whole Legislature.”
Ehrlich refused to take questions at the signing, but his spokesman, Henry P. Fawell, said the governor had decided to sign the bill in the “last few days.”
“The merits of the bill are more important than the timing of the delivery,” he said.
The Healthy Air Act limits the amounts of carbon dioxide, mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that coal power plants in the state are allowed to emit. Except for the inclusion of carbon, the act is similar to rules that Ehrlich has already promulgated, which is why he has said he believes the law is unnecessary.
The signing is the latest development in a controversy over bills that were passed Friday evening by the legislature, the Healthy Air Act being the most notable among them. Legislative staffers found the doors of the governor’s offices locked when they tried to deliver the passed legislation. Some of the bills were slipped under the locked door.
The Friday deadline was important because bills sent to the governor after it could be vetoed and there would be no time remaining in the session for the Assembly to override the veto.
“Why did they lock the door and hide in the corner for three days,” said Pinsky, gesturing angrily toward the governor’s second-floor office in the State House. “And then at the last moment he signs it.”
Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch, counsel to the General Assembly, sent a letter to Miller Monday saying that the bills should be considered delivered Friday.
But, the governor’s counsel is looking into the matter as well and has not yet made a determination. “Our position is that (the bills) were presented and received Monday,” Fawell said, calling the disagreement a “minor political drama.”