FIRST, THE moment of dM-ijM-' vu: Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. launched into his annual State of the State address yesterday by asking for respect. Ring any bells? That's right, he sounded downright Schaeferian. Not necessarily the demanding-but-caring William Donald Schaefer. More like the angry, syntactically challenged version of Maryland's elder statesman. But at least, as he put it, the self-described "plain-spoken" governor feels "passionate about politics." Somebody better split these two up at Board of Public Works meetings. It's starting to get weird.
Still, it's a shame Mr. Ehrlich felt so testy about the General Assembly. It obscured his presentation of a legislative agenda that, while modest in scope and ambition, is not without merit.
Among the most promising of Mr. Ehrlich's ideas is the so-called children's initiative that would reform the beleaguered Department of Juvenile Services, increase funding for foster care and day care for the poor, and deinstitutionalize emotionally disturbed children. Mr. Ehrlich also spoke of investing in police-related technology such as a new DNA database of convicted criminals or an upgraded fingerprint identification system. Sounds great. The governor said he would like to put more restrictions on young drivers -- an idea that shouldn't find opposition in Annapolis aside from errant 16-year-olds.
The governor offered other proposals of merit as well. We hope lawmakers will pass the governor's bill to protect victims and witnesses (including the controversial "hearsay exception" that would allow out-of-court statements to be used at trial in certain cases). They should also back his efforts to help promote and finance nonprofit health clinics for the poor. Mr. Ehrlich's modest tax credits for film production and research and development are worthy, if not exactly groundbreaking, proposals. His lead-poisoning initiative addresses an area of great need (although his decision to cut Baltimore's budget for lead-paint enforcement suggests a flawed strategy).
The only outright clunker in the package is the governor's slot machines bill, which would enrich a few and hurt many. The legislature has killed this bill twice before. It's time to make it three.
As usual, Mr. Ehrlich articulated no grand vision for Maryland in the 21st century. Don't count on him to resolve the state's most nagging problem, its long-term budget deficit, anytime soon. And the Chesapeake Bay and issues of land use aren't getting much attention this year, either. In general, the governor finds the state of Maryland to his liking -- it's just opposing viewpoints he could do without. Mr. Ehrlich concluded with a list of what he considers his greatest accomplishments. It included new highway and transit spending, the "flush tax" and drug treatment for prison inmates. He called them the triumph of policy over politics. What he didn't mention was that these were all ideas with broad appeal to Democrats. They represented the triumph of moderation and compromise over executive obstinacy, a tactic Mr. Ehrlich might find gets him more R-E-S-P-E-C-T.