About 50 Maryland college students mixed theatrics with civil disobedience yesterday in Annapolis to protest higher education cuts that could spark significant tuition increases.
The students directed their anger at Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is vacationing with his wife in the Bahamas, because he is contemplating further cuts to higher education in lieu of higher taxes.
Gathered in Lawyers Mall in front of the State House, they rallied around a 22-year-old University of Maryland, College Park student who was dressed as "Bahama Bob."
Wearing a wig nearly identical to Ehrlich's hairstyle, sunglasses, a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and sandals, Eric Swalwell led the students in mocking the governor's vacation.
"I am vacationing while you people work harder to pay tuition," Swalwell said to the occasional jeers attacking the governor.
The Republican governor has vowed to veto a $135 million package of higher corporate taxes and fees passed by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly last month. Ehrlich also is planning to make as much as $500 million in cuts to the $22.4 billion state budget for next year to avoid larger deficits projected for the future.
The University System of Maryland is planning to increase tuition by as much as 15 percent if Ehrlich follows through with his budget-cutting plans.
Even if Ehrlich doesn't make the additional cuts, the system is expected to seek a 9 percent tuition increase to make up for cuts to higher education approved by the legislature. That would be on top of the 5 percent midyear tuition increase approved early this year.
After poking fun at the governor, the students then marched into the State House insisting they be permitted to speak with Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.
"We are going to demand that Mr. Steele, who is in the building, come down here and tell us why he wants to raise our tuition," said Tim Daly, the University of Maryland, College Park's student body president.
But a dozen police officers and state troopers kept the students from marching up to Steele's second-floor office.
The students then decided to sit at the base of the stairs, clogging a large section of the first-floor hallway outside the chambers of the Senate and House of Delegates.
"I wanted to go to Maryland because of its programs. But it is enough of a battle for me to pay out-of-state tuition and for them to increase tuition more [that] I don't think I will be able to go there," said Candace Nenke, a freshman, as she sat on the floor.
After about 20 minutes - and no sign of Steele - the students employed a new tactic. Every student with a cell phone - about 30 - began calling the lieutenant governor's office.
"I'm downstairs in the lobby, can he come down and talk to us?" Alan Gerson, a University of Maryland freshman, asked a Steele staff member who answered the phone. Gerson was told he needed to make an appointment.
The sit-in continued for about an hour as the students took turns standing up to speak about how the proposed tuition increase would affect them.
Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat who represents College Park, also spoke to the students. "Now is the time for action and I am glad you are taking action," Giannetti said. "The word is going to get out. ... The students of the University of Maryland system are serious and these are serious cuts we are talking about."
The protest ended a short time later after the students wrote letters to Ehrlich and Steele. No arrests were made.
Outside the State House, however, a handful of College Republicans gathered to defend the Ehrlich administration.
The Republicans said House Speaker Michael E. Busch should be blamed for the tuition increase because the Anne Arundel County Democrat torpedoed the governor's proposal to bring slot machines to Maryland, engineering its defeat in a House committee.
"Busch raised your tuition, not Ehrlich," said Patrick Abbondandolo, a junior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, said the administration welcomed the demonstrations.
"It's a wonderful exercise and their right as Americans to assemble," Fawell said.