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Schaefer quietly ends Ehrlich's grace period

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer took his muzzle off yesterday, ending a self-imposed six-month post-inauguration moratorium on criticism of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

But charmed by first lady Kendel Ehrlich and paid off with a coconut custard "bribe," the notoriously grouchy Schaefer didn't bite anybody at yesterday's meeting of the Board of Public Works.

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He did get in a growl or two. and he warned Ehrlich that he needs to pay more attention to the Chesapeake Bay and to raise the gasoline tax by 10 cents a gallon.

The board's first gathering since the six-month promise expired passed with friendly banter rather than the vituperation Schaefer brought to meetings during the four years he served on the board with Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

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When Schaefer arrived, Kendel Ehrlich - known to the comptroller as Guenivere - was there to greet him with a taste of Annapolis' new culture of culinary corruption.

"Get me the attorney general. This I think is a bribe," Schaefer said when presented with the coconut custard.

"It is," the first lady replied.

"I accept this bribe with all the good feeling," Schaefer said before presenting the Ehrlichs with an apple cake.

"Go easy on him today," Kendel Ehrlich urged Schaefer as she left the room. "Bye, honey, have a good day," she told the governor as the audience of state officials laughed.

But Schaefer vowed that all that kindness wouldn't stop him.

"I had six months of absolute silence and love and joy, and now I'll get to be my usual self," the comptroller said.

With that he launched into a now-familiar defense of Ehrlich, blaming the state's fiscal woes on Glendening.

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Schaefer reserved his harshest comments for former University of Maryland System Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg, who recently wrote a letter blaming Ehrlich for recent double-digit tuition increases at state colleges.

"He and the former governor spent money far beyond the capabilities of the state to pay for it," Schaefer said, calling Langenberg's criticism "a low blow."

Inevitably, the comptroller got around to Ehrlich, warning him of trouble ahead on transportation and the environment.

"You've got potholes out of your ears. You've got bridges falling down," Schaefer said. He told Ehrlich he would need to propose a 10-cent-a-gallon increase in the state's 23.5-cent gasoline tax to meet the state's transportation needs.

Ehrlich has not ruled out such a tax increase but said yesterday that such a move is not his preferred option for dealing with the state's transportation needs.

Schaefer also told Ehrlich that he needs to "pay more attention to the Chesapeake Bay."

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"The Chesapeake Bay is starting to slip back," Schaefer said.

Ehrlich replied that upgrading sewage-treatment plants to control nitrogen and phosphorus pollution of the bay is one of his top priorities and that he plans to meet today with U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert to discuss funding for such projects.

The board members took a break from their usual agenda to preside over a $500 million bond sale to finance the state's capital construction projects.

When the computer-base bidding was complete, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter prevailed with a bid of 3.707347 percent, the third-lowest interest rate in state history, Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp said.


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