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Whose crisis is it anyway?

ONE IMPEDIMENT to a solution to the Baltimore City schools funding crisis is the testy relationship between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. The two upwardly mobile politicians from opposing parties don't much like each other, and rarely pass on an opportunity to needle one another as they await a potential head-to-head matchup in the 2006 election.

The tension was on full display last week, as the mayor and governor pointed fingers at each other over who should assume the blame and responsibility for the school system's $58 million deficit.

In a radio interview Friday, O'Malley conceded that he and Ehrlich had not spoken directly about the crisis (before a conference call last night that was so noteworthy that the governor summoned cameras to record it), and that he was dealing with state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

"That's where most of my communication with the governor takes place, at the Cabinet level," the mayor said.

He then challenged the state to provide financial assistance, as he did a few days earlier in offering an $8 million loan from a city reserve account.

"Maybe someone will step up in this city-state partnership -- either from the foundation community or the state -- to meet the city halfway," O'Malley said.

Of course the state would be stepping in at some point with funding, Ehrlich said in an interview later in the day, but only after a state-level review to determine responsibility and accountability. Seeming to relish being in the driver's seat, Ehrlich got off some shots of his own at the mayor.

The solution would not be brokered among political equals, the governor said, asserting who was in charge because the state contributes much more money to Baltimore education than the city does.

"Given the ration of 3-to-1 funding, I'm the general partner, and the city is the limited partner," Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich conceded that his dealings with O'Malley were less than positive -- "Of course it's not a great relationship. You know that," Ehrlich said -- but he said the main problem was that the city was suing the state over the selection of a social services chief.

The governor said he could put those problems aside. "Now that we've been invited in, nothing with regard to that relationship is going to impact these negotiations," he said. "In fact, it is so much larger than that."

But at the same time the governor was trying to sound mature, the state Republican Party was distributing copies of quotations that made O'Malley sound like a vacillator who was shirking his leadership responsibilities.

The party statement repeated a Jan. 15 O'Malley quote saying "we need to get our own house in order" before asking for emergency state assistance.

But 28 days later, according to the statement, the mayor changed his message. "I would hope the governor might step up," O'Malley said. "I'm somewhat exasperated."

The first line in the party's release was an Ehrlich quote: "In times of crisis, leaders lead."

Small issues a big deal in the state of Maryland

Need more evidence that Maryland is a small state with political leaders sometimes consumed by trivial pettiness? Look no further than last week's Board of Public Works meeting.

That's where the governor, the comptroller and the speaker of the House of Delegates engaged in a lengthy debate on what seemed to be the most important issue of the day. No, it wasn't how to solve the budget shortfall or whether to legalize slots. This was a fight over whether Anne Arundel County should build two athletic fields on a 12-acre farm in Broadneck.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer led the questioning about a county decision to build lighted ball fields at the farm. State funds were approved three years ago, but the former owner said she was promised when she sold the land that only an equestrian center would be built. Ehrlich sided with Schaefer, and together they voted against a $250,000 state bond to buy the land -- derailing the project.

The 2-1 vote was a defeat to House Speaker Michael E. Busch, the Anne Arundel County Democrat who secured state money for the project in 2001 and worked on the project as a county employee.

Before the hearing, Busch, the state's chief opponent of the governor's slots plan, met with Ehrlich and Schaefer, who favors slots, to make the case for the athletic fields. Later, he called the board's involvement "inappropriate."

"The Board of Public Works is way out of its scope, second-guessing public policy made by local elected officials," Busch said.

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