2005-01-01 20:57:48 UTC
by David Nitkin (Baltimore Sun Staff)
Originally published January 1, 2005
With a two-day special session of the General Assembly ending in
acrimony, the prospects of amicable relations between Maryland's first
Republican governor in more than 30 years and a Democrat-controlled
legislature are at an all-time low.
Ehrlich promised this week to veto the medical malpractice reform
legislation produced by weary and perturbed lawmakers who had canceled
vacations and caught planes to return to Annapolis for the
extraordinary session he convened.
The bill doesn't contain strict enough caps on malpractice jury awards,
the governor said. The plan to raise money to subsidize insurance
premiums of doctors - removing a 2 percent tax exemption for HMO
policies - is unacceptable, he said.
Some lawmakers, for their part, have vowed to attempt to override a
The state's constitution was designed to give broad powers to the
governor, House speaker and Senate president; agreement among the three
is needed for progress. But the relations of Ehrlich, House Speaker
Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller are
The timing of the current nadir, just two weeks before the start of the
regular 90-day session, spells trouble for whatever legislative agenda
Ehrlich decides to pursue during his third year in office.
"Never in the past three decades have I seen this kind of rancor in the
two branches of government," said John N. Bambacus, a former Republican
state senator and mayor of Frostburg who teaches political science at
Frostburg State University.
"I really believe the citizens of the state, while they may in one way
admire the governor's resolve, on the other hand are saying, 'Look,
folks, we expect you to act on this issue.'"
There is little time for Ehrlich to repair his relations with the
Assembly before members return for three months of work.
"He seems to be almost genetically incapable of compromise, which is
astounding," said Del. Kumar P. Barve of Montgomery County, the House
"He called us into town at a very inconvenient time, to solve a genuine
problem, and he is not willing to give an inch," Barve said. "He has
his eyes focused on his constituency base, instead of on the problem."
To Ehrlich, the condition was created by voters when they sent a
governor of one party and a legislature controlled by another to the
capital. Voters wanted change, he said, but the old guard is resisting.
"One person's dysfunctionality is another person's healthy
philosophical debate," Ehrlich said. "There's a different philosophy.
There is a different view of the world here. It's a view of the world
that is asking people downstairs [in the Assembly] to do things they
don't want to do."
Those divides rarely get traversed between the Ehrlich administration
and the legislature.
Since Ehrlich's election in 2002, the governor has repeatedly failed to
broker agreements that could lead to legislative approval of his
priorities. His slot-machine gambling plan has failed in the House of
Delegates for two years. Administration bills for tougher gun-crime
prosecution, faith-based initiatives, witness intimidation sanctions
and juvenile justice reforms all failed after what critics called
half-hearted lobbying efforts.
Ehrlich has had a few legislative victories, including passage of a tax
on sewer bills and septic bills to help pay for treatment plan
upgrades, and higher vehicle registration fees to finance road
The malpractice debate seemed an area particularly ripe for compromise.
Doctors and hospitals wanted lower insurance bills and limits on
lawsuits. Lawyers and victims wanted to make sure they received just
compensation for legitimate medical errors. The Assembly thought it was
passing a bill that balanced those needs.
"When you look at what the final product is, from a public policy
thing, I think the compromise is meaningful tort reform that doesn't go
overboard to gouge the consumer," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a
moderate Democrat from Southern Maryland and chairman of the Finance
But Ehrlich's insistence that a 2 percent tax on HMO premiums could not
be part of the solution to subsidize rising insurance bills means "he
backs himself in the corner politically, and it becomes a contest of
who is going to win, and it becomes very disillusioning to me,"
Republican Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip from
Southern Maryland, said an entrenched legislative leadership continues
to buck Ehrlich because it feels no pressure to change. Media criticism
is unfairly focused on the governor, he said, when it is Busch, Miller
and their lieutenants who should be faulted.
"I believe the legislative leadership has demonstrated a continued
pattern of behavior of obstructionism," O'Donnell said, acknowledging
that the governor will face difficulties in enacting an agenda during
the remainder of his term.
"For the next two years, we [Republicans] are going to keep our nose to
the grindstone, we're going to keep working hard and leave these guys
to continue to expose themselves as the obstructionists that they are,"
he said. "That will lead to change at the ballot box in 2006."
Miller, the Senate president, said he will be able to work with Ehrlich
as long as the issue does not involve what he called "major
The current stalemate, Miller said, is caused by a Washington culture
that Ehrlich, a former four-term congressman, has brought to Annapolis.
"The governor trained for eight years under Newt Gingrich. It was a
confrontational style. They were battling with the Clinton
administration continuously. The theory was government was an evil,"
Miller said. "There is a totally different philosophy here in
Miller said the strong constitutional powers endowed upon Maryland's
governor might have diminished Ehrlich's appetite for compromise. The
governor can reward friends and punish enemies with the most
far-reaching budget authority of any state chief executive.
"When you have a conservative philosophy and you have that much power,
you wield a big stick," Miller said.
Increasingly, Democrats are frustrated that Ehrlich appears more
focused on scoring political points through media appearances than on
reaching solutions to important problems.
The special session, said Middleton, "was just a wonderful press
opportunity for the governor. Lots of press conferences, and a very,
very heightened media attention."
It was during a televised news conference Wednesday night that the
governor announced he would veto the malpractice bill. At the time, the
final version had not yet been printed, and even lawmakers were not
sure yet what a negotiating committee had agreed to.
"He wants to look like the hero that is not taxing the people, even
though he passed the property tax, he passed the car tax - talk about
regressive - he passed the flush tax, he passed 10,000 fees that are
taxes," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat who
helped negotiate the final bill.
"If you look at the finished product, it is as good as you are going to
get if you are going to get 188 people to agree," she said. "This isn't
gridlock. This is pure, unadulterated politics."
It will be for voters to decide where the blame truly lies for the
But Bambacus, the former GOP senator, said he knows who will get the
"The governor, because he is the most visible elected leader in the
state, if he is seen as ineffective, it is going to be hard for him in
a one-party Democratic state for him to say it's the legislature's