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Diverging state agendas

The Greater Baltimore region approves of the way President Bush is doing his job, favors legalizing slot machines in Maryland and would vote for Mayor Martin O'Malley for governor in a 2006 Democratic primary.

Greater Washington? It gives a thumbs-down on Bush, is equally split on slots and would back Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan over O'Malley to lead the state.

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As Baltimore-area lawmakers increasingly look to bolster their influence in Annapolis by aligning with their Washington-area counterparts, distinctions in voter opinion could play an important role. Though the regions - the state's most urbanized - share many concerns, a recent poll by The Sun shows a divergence in agendas that could effect the outcome of debates on transportation funding, education policy and other issues crucial to the city.

"Where you see regional differences, the legislative delegation is going to follow," said Steve R. Raabe, executive vice president of Bethesda-based Potomac Inc., which conducted The Maryland Poll for the newspaper and its Web site, Sunspot.net.

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Regional differences are becoming more significant because Greater Washington has emerged as an entity that is "tipping the political balance in Maryland and flexing its muscles more," Raabe said.

"The more Baltimore-centric legislative proposals are, the more difficult it is for them to be carried on a statewide basis because the power isn't there," he said.

In the General Assembly, where committee chairmen are influential, legislators who advocated for Baltimore no longer head key committees.

For example, budget committees in the House of Delegates and the Senate used to be headed by Del. Howard P. Rawlings and Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, respectively, both of whom protected city programs and helped the mayor execute his agenda. But with Rawlings' death last year and Hoffman's 2002 election defeat, those chairs are now filled by legislators from the Eastern Shore and Prince George's County, representing a loss of political influence for Baltimore.

"If you look at the strength of the legislative delegations over the past 20 years, you'll see a great shift away from Baltimore City," said Donald F. Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "The potential is always there for geographic rivalry, and that is going to occur if the regions and various counties feel that they're being slighted in some way, usually having to do with money."

How differences in opinion between residents of the state's two most populous areas affect the behavior of Annapolis legislators remains to be seen. But the Sun poll, a telephone survey of 1,200 randomly selected likely voters conducted Jan. 2 through Jan. 5, reveals that despite being overwhelmingly Democratic, the regions are worlds apart.

Sixty-nine percent of those polled in Greater Washington said they favor the Intercounty Connector, a road that would connect Interstate 270 in Montgomery County with Interstate 95, while less than half - 48 percent - of Greater Baltimore supports the highway. Baltimore lawmakers view the $1.7 billion project warily and worry that it will drain city transportation funding.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat and Senate majority leader, said that he supports the ICC but wants to make sure that the Ehrlich administration takes a "more balanced approach" to its transportation policy.

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"We would not like to see a large amount of future transportation funding tied up in paying for the ICC while Baltimore City has an incomplete subway system and difficulty transferring people east to west," he said. "There are transportation needs here."

A little more than half of those in Greater Baltimore approve of the way President Bush is handling his job, while in Greater Washington 36 percent approve, according to the poll, which has a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has much more support in Greater Baltimore, his home region, where 61 percent approve of his job performance. Less than half of those in Greater Washington, 47 percent, feel the same.

The poll defined Greater Baltimore as the city and Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Baltimore counties. Greater Washington included Charles, Frederick, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. (Howard County was included in both regions based on demographics and its proximity to Baltimore and Washington).

The polarity of opinion also extends to key issues of this year's legislative session, such as slots and the death penalty.

A majority of Greater Baltimore respondents support legalizing slots, with 57 percent in favor and 36 percent opposed. And 57 percent of them also said they endorse the death penalty.

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The state's most enthusiastic slots supporters are in Baltimore County, where 63 percent favor them.

Meanwhile, Washington-area respondents remain split on both issues. Forty-five percent support slots; an equal number are opposed. And 43 percent favor capital punishment, while 45 percent are against it.

The poll also found that a majority in Montgomery (52 percent) and Howard (51 percent) counties are opposed to slots.

Respondents in predominantly black Prince George's County showed the highest opposition to the death penalty, with 50 percent indicating that they did not support capital punishment. Much of the differences derive from underlying demographic differences in income, education and regional orientation.

Raabe said those in Greater Washington tend to be more highly educated and affluent and tuned into the national political process. The Baltimore region is traditionally more working class, more conservative and composed of "Reagan Democrats" who have no problem with voting Republican, he said.

But where the regions agree, alliances could form. Both ranked education and the state's fiscal problems as the two most important challenges facing Maryland. And the regions were very similar - 64 percent in Baltimore; 68 percent in Washington - in their support of a 1-cent sales tax increase to fund the Thornton bill to improve schools.

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"Education is one issue in which the legislators are looking for unity and commonality," said David Kahn, legislative aide to Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, chairman of the Prince George's County delegation. "On other issues, the hope is always that there can be a meeting of the minds, but it also depends on whose ox is getting gored."


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