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Ill feelings at the top hobble Md. governing

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 veto.

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 critically fractured.

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 Democratic leader.

"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 construction.

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 Committee.

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," Middleton said.

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 philosophical differences."

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 Maryland."

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 failed initiative.

But Bambacus, the former GOP senator, said he knows who will get the most attention:

"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 fault."

Staff writer Stephanie Desmon contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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