For the second time in as many days, General Assembly leaders have charged that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is ignoring laws it passed, this time a measure rescinding Maryland's participation in a contentious trade agreement pending in Congress.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch insisted in a joint letter yesterday that the governor withdraw Maryland's agreement to participate in the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
"Maryland law now requires that the state be removed as a signatory to the CAFTA agreement pending before Congress. It has come to our attention, however, that, to date, Maryland remains listed as a signatory to the agreement," Miller and Busch wrote. "It is therefore necessary that your office immediately contact the U.S. Trade Representative to have our state removed from the list of signatories."
Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Ehrlich has not decided whether to comply.
"The administration is currently reviewing the legislation and is in discussions with the U.S. trade representative, and will respond when deemed necessary and appropriate," she said.
Ehrlich agreed in 2003 to include Maryland in a part of the trade agreement that would eliminate barriers preventing companies in participating states and member nations from competing for state government contracts.
Amid concerns that jobs would be lost and that protections for Maryland workers and environmental standards would be eroded, the General Assembly voted this spring to remove Maryland from the pact.
The law also prohibits the governor from entering into such agreements without its approval.
Ehrlich's veto of the measure was overridden by the legislature at the end of its session this spring.
Earlier this week, Miller and Busch accused Ehrlich of skirting another law, which required him to keep open offices that enforce minimum wage, prevailing wage and child labor statutes. Administration officials argued that the law exceeded the General Assembly's budget power and was not binding.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat who sponsored the trade agreement legislation, said he has grown frustrated over the past three weeks as he has repeatedly asked the administration to follow the law.
Ehrlich is thwarting the General Assembly's will, Pinsky said.
"I've stressed the timeliness of this because Congress is debating it ... and it could become law," Pinsky said. "I'm not sure they understand the importance. Hopefully, it's because of a lack of understanding and not foot-dragging and ideological reticence."
Some states removed
At the request of several other governors, the U.S. trade representative has removed their states from the pact. Trade officials have been aware of the Assembly's vote for two months but have kept Maryland in the pact.
U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the House Trade Subcommittee and a CAFTA opponent, said the treaty could come up for a vote by the end of the month. He said he suspects that the Bush administration has enough support to secure passage.
The Maryland congressman strongly criticized the agreement Wednesday, saying it lacks key provisions to require member nations to improve workplace standards.
He dropped an effort to amend the deal to exclude Maryland after U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman agreed to remove the state if no member nation in Central America objected. A spokeswoman for Portman confirmed yesterday that talks had begun.
Cardin said the agreement could not invalidate Maryland's environmental or labor standards. But if Maryland's laws conflicted with the treaty's provisions, another nation could try to impose sanctions on the United States through the World Trade Organization whether or not the state is listed as a signatory, he said.
The potential effect of having governors sign on to CAFTA - besides providing a public relations boost for the Bush administration - is that lawmakers in participating states could face greater pressure to change their procurement rules to avoid such conflicts, Cardin said.
Warning about risks
In a speech to the National Conference of State Legislatures in April, Peter F. Allgeier, then the acting U.S. trade representative, said Maryland would risk economic losses and retaliation from foreign governments if it didn't participate in the treaty.
"Maryland suppliers could now lose out on government contracts overseas," he said. "What goes around, comes around. If the Maryland legislature causes a breach of U.S. commitments under our international agreements, our trading partners could retaliate. In all likelihood, our trading partners would respond by excluding Maryland businesses from their procurement contracts."
The risk of getting caught up in international conflicts over labor standards and trade rules is the reason the governor should not be allowed to enter into such agreements without the legislature's approval, Pinsky said.
"We don't think it makes much sense to allow unilateral power for one branch of government to do that," he said.