Legislators override 6 more vetoes, bringing total to 13

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The legislature overrode six more of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s vetoes yesterday, bringing the total to 13, by far the most Annapolis has seen in decades.

And in this election year, more could be on the way.

Republicans say the legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, is defiantly blocking the governor's will in an effort to make him look ineffective and regain control of the State House for the Democratic Party.

"I don't feel good about that," said J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the Senate Republican leader from the Eastern Shore. "I feel the governor ought to have his opportunity to put his stamp on what goes on here."

Stoltzfus said he has researched the issue and found two overrides during Gov. William Donald Schaefer's eight years in office and none during Gov. Parris N. Glendening's two terms.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat, said the increase in overrides stems from an unwillingness by the governor to compromise with the General Assembly, not from the legislature's defiance.

When both the legislative and executive branches were controlled by Democrats, differences were often worked out in private meetings, longtime State House observers say.

Ehrlich's predecessor as governor, Glendening, "was extremely flexible in working with the legislature," Miller said.

Ehrich, Maryland's first Republican governor in nearly four decades, has faced consistent hostility from the legislature's Democratic majorities.

In an election year, the governor and Assembly leaders are staking positions they hope to use in campaigns. Democrats want to portray Ehrlich as a right-wight extremist out of touch with the majority of the state. The governor has argued that a liberal legislature is blocking the agenda that voters sent him to the State House to enact.

Ehrlich has in the past said that he considers veto overrides a personal affront that shows a lack of respect for the executive branch.

"What they're trying to do here is to hurt the governor," said Ehrlich press secretary Greg Massoni. "It's horrible politics, and it's irresponsible governing."

The governor vetoed 34 bills passed by the legislature last year on policy grounds, and Democrats immediately pledged to overturn his decisions on several of them. Veto votes must be the first order of business when the Assembly reconvenes, which is why the votes are being held now.

There is little middle ground between the two sides. Several of the overrides, such as the recent votes on an increase in the minimum wage and a bill requiring Wal-Mart to pay more for employee health care, reflect stark policy differences as well as politics. Others mark the dividing line between executive and legislative branch power, such as which branch should control the state elections system.

Yesterday's overrides will allow to become law measures to reform the state's juvenile justice system, reconstitute the Maryland Commission for Women and allow Baltimore to use surveillance cameras to discourage illegal dumping.

The Senate overrode vetoes yesterday on bills to move the Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor from the executive branch to the auspices of the attorney general; allow the Baltimore City Health Department greater access to state records of troubled children; require the state to create pre-delinquent diversion programs; and force the state to go before a judge if it is unable within 25 days to find a permanent placement for a juvenile in custody.

The votes were decided largely along party lines, with Democrats supporting the overrides and Republicans backing the governor. The House had voted earlier to override those vetoes.

The House took up two bills that had been approved by the Senate through override votes. One would allow the Baltimore City Department of Public Works to use surveillance cameras to catch people illegally dumping at certain sites. The other would give the legislature a greater role in appointing members of the Maryland Commission for Women. Some lawmakers objected to moves by the Ehrlich administration they saw as reducing the body's independence.

The House acted yesterday to override two more vetoes, which now require a decision by the Senate. Others could come up for votes as early as today.

A three-fifths majority is required in each chamber to override a veto, and Democrats hold sufficient advantages in both chambers to meet the requirement without Republicans.

Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip, said there are legitimate policy differences between the legislature and executive branch on some of the issues. But the fact that they have been resolved through overrides is proof of petty partisanship by legislative Democrats, he said.

"There were always policy differences, even during [Democratic administrations]," the Southern Maryland Republican said. "But in the past, those policy differences were resolved by working with the administration to fix the problems. Now, for partisan reasons, they're just cramming it down the governor's throat."

Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader, said the governor is responsible for the lack of cooperation: "Previous governors would work with us all during the interim to try to find a middle ground, and this governor doesn't," Barve said. "We worked together better, and I think if Ehrlich were more like that, we would be less inclined to feel we have to vote against him to express our views."

Massoni said the partisan nature of the veto overrides prevents the governor from seeing them as legitimate opportunities for discussion and compromise. If they reflected real philosophical differences, he said, moderate Republicans would be supporting the overrides and conservative Democrats would be opposing them.

"There's nothing wrong with sitting and having philosophical differences and discussing things," Massoni said. "But this is nothing more than a partisan witch hunt to hurt this governor, and the people are seeing through it."

andy.green@baltsun.com

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