Facing a legislature dominated by the opposing party, Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. implored members of the Maryland General Assembly yesterday to soften partisan differences and help him implement an agenda that includes legalized slot machines, cleaner sewage plants and more biotechnology investment.
"It is a citizen legislature. It is not Capitol Hill. It should never be Capitol Hill," said Ehrlich, a former four-term congressman, in his second annual State of the State address, delivered shortly after noon yesterday to a joint session of House and Senate members.
The governor used his 31-minute speech to outline policy goals for the 90-day legislative session now under way and to issue a call for calm in a General Assembly that has been riddled with partisan bickering during its first two weeks.
"Today, I ask all of you to join with me in ushering in a new era of bipartisan cooperation," he said.
Democrats in the House and Senate have already overridden three of the governor's vetoes, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller weakened Republican voices by reducing the number of votes needed to end filibusters.
Those actions come a year after the legislature rejected Ehrlich's choice for environmental secretary and killed many of his bills - including a slots-at-racetracks plan.
"In the past, that would not have happened," said Ehrlich, a former state delegate, in an interview after his speech. "I'm sure every state legislature suffers from the same disease, but this is such a wonderful place."
The cross-party relationships he enjoyed as a back-bencher in Annapolis in the 1980s are "not encouraged in Capitol Hill, and I would hate to see that happen here," the governor said.
The foyer outside the House of Delegate chambers was transformed into a marble-lined spin room after the speech, It rapidly became clear that differences would not be bridged easily.
"His goal was to put forth an agenda, along with a soothing tone, and I think he accomplished that," said Kevin Igoe, a GOP strategist.
Accord is brief
But leading Democrats embraced the governor's offer for a few moments, before shifting into criticism of Ehrlich's failure to solve the state's fiscal problems and reneging on promises to public schools.
"There's a big difference between bipartisan cooperation and rolling over and accepting untruths as truths," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. "Many of the things that are being purported by the governor are simply not true.
"He is either being poorly advised, or he thinks the rest of us in the state are so disengaged in the real business of governing that no one is going to call him on it."
Speaking from an outline he refined over several weeks, Ehrlich focused on issues that he said formed the "five pillars" of his administration - fiscal soundness, education, helping vulnerable Marylanders, public safety and safer neighborhoods, and improved transportation and better jobs.
He only briefly mentioned public schools and the slots plan he supports to pay for a landmark education funding initiative adopted in 2002 without a funding source.
"We should pass a clean bill" to legalize video lottery terminals, also known as slots, he said. "A decade of discussion is long enough."
Ehrlich plugged his plan to help protect the Chesapeake Bay by improving 66 waste-treatment plants through a $2.50-per-month charge on households connected to sewage systems. The administration's revised land-purchasing guidelines and a bill to redevelop contaminated industrial sites known as brownfields would also help, he said.
The governor asked the legislature to pass his anti-crime program, which includes new laws to protect witnesses from intimidation and a plan to provide more offenders with substance-abuse treatment rather than incarceration.
He said he would introduce a proposal "within days" for "a new revenue stream" to satisfy an unmet need estimated at $300 million yearly in highway and mass transit construction, and he repeated his pledge to build the controversial Intercounty Connector highway in Montgomery County.
"A small band of opponents wish to derail the ICC despite strong bipartisan support," Ehrlich said. "They will fail. Trust me, they will fail."
Later in the speech, the governor repeated his willingness to negotiate on slots and other issues, but he indicated his opposition to sales and income tax increases would not bend.
"I will advocate for my positions in a straightforward manner. I will negotiate in good faith. And I will seek common ground wherever and whenever possible," Ehrlich said. "But I will not hesitate to hold firm on the promises I made to the citizens of Maryland when they elected me their governor."
Democrats replied that the governor had already broken several promises. The budget he proposed this month does not include the full level of funding anticipated by the schools program known as the Thornton Plan, because the attorney general's office ruled that a $45 million component was optional.
"He stood up there and said one principle he is not going to bend from is his commitment to honor campaign promises. And yet, the budget breaks them completely," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.
"They are not fully funding Thornton. We will wait to see what the transportation dollars are. He's going after local governments. He is going after higher education."
Budget and Management Department Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. accused Duncan and other critics of "hollow political rhetoric."
"This governor is leading and he's acting," DiPaula said. "Counties throughout Maryland received an average 7.5 percent increase in funding. It's hollow rhetoric to call a 7.5 percent increase a cut."
Short on specifics
House Speaker Michael E. Busch called Ehrlich an "affable guy" who "says all the right things," but said the speech was short on specifics on higher education, transportation and other issues.
Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, agreed: "The significant thing in the speech is what he didn't say. I would say it's a missed opportunity."
Ehrlich's peace offering is "laughable," Franchot said, coming from an ally of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
"He was with the most partisan faction in Congress," he said. "And his staff have imported those tactics to Annapolis. It's hardball all the way."
But Del. George C. Edwards, the House Republican leader from Garrett County, said the governor's exhortations should be accepted at face value.
"I think he's reaching out and saying we have work to get done, so let's get it done," Edwards said.