Final OK given to regents bill


With partisanship at a fever pitch in the closing days of the General Assembly session, legislators gave final approval to a bill- aimed at Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s chief fundraiser - to ban political activity by members of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents.

In marathon sessions, the Assembly also passed anti-air pollution legislation, a bill restricting the governor's Cabinet appointments, and a series of changes to voting laws that Republicans called naked grabs for partisan advantage in November's election.

The stark divide between Republicans and Democrats was on full display during the debate over one of the voting bills, when all 14 Senate Republicans walked out of the chamber in protest. It was a move without precedent in recent memory, observers said.

Although there is more than a week to go in this year's session of the General Assembly - where Democrats outnumber Republicans 131 to 57 - the mood in the capital was akin to the final day of the legislative year, with lawmakers scrambling to get amendments to the floor in time for bills being passed in a dizzying rush. Yesterday was the last day lawmakers could approve legislation with a guaranteed chance to override any of Ehrlich's vetoes, so legislators worked to get as many controversial bills as possible to the governor's desk.

With an eye toward highlighting differences with a Republican governor who is up for re-election in the fall, Assembly Democrats are gearing up for overrides. Still, legislative leaders insisted that policy, not politics, was behind the legislation passed yesterday.

"The legislature has done its job," House Speaker Michael E. Busch said at the end of the day, after weary lawmakers had left for the weekend.

Democrats said a ban on fundraising or running for office by regents is necessary to ensure that members of the board - one of the most prestigious volunteer posts in state government - are focused on the University System, not politics.

The regents bill comes in the wake of ethics complaints against two board members, Chairman David Nevins and former Gov. Marvin Mandel, both of whom are under investigation for possible violations of a ban against lobbying by regents.

But Republicans said the ban on political activity has nothing to do with those ethics flaps and everything to do with attacking another board member - Richard E. Hug, the finance chairman for the Ehrlich campaign. They tried unsuccessfully to rename the bill "The Richard 'Dick' Hug Campaign Finance Act."

"I don't think we should carry partisanship to this level, to get rid of a guy who's helping the Republican governor," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the minority leader.

Hug raised more than $10 million for Ehrlich in 2002, a record, and has exceeded it for the 2006 election.

Hug declined to comment.

Hours after the regents bill passed, Republicans walked out of the Senate during debate over a bill dealing with the location of polling places for early voting this year.

Republicans protested because they said a committee to negotiate a compromise between House and Senate versions of the bill contained only Democrats. They expressed concern that the new polling places were in predominantly Democratic communities and were not vetted by members of their party or local administrators.

Stoltzfus rose to say that in his 15 years in the General Assembly he had never seen fit to leave during debate. But yesterday he did. "You can conduct your business without us," he said.

After shutting their laptop computers, the Republicans briefly gathered in the lounge across the hall where they took turns verbally pelting the Democrats and nursing their wounds.

"They do these things to us, and it's just not fair," said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican.

An Ehrlich aide dropped by about 10 minutes into their vigil and invited the group up to the governor's reception room.

The governor, shirtsleeves rolled up, chomping on a hard candy, met them in the ceremonial room to tell them how proud he was of what they'd done.

"It's a shame it has to come to this but it does," Ehrlich said. "Minority rights have been discarded, overridden, ignored for too long."

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said that Republicans missed dozens of votes after they walked out.

"They took their toys and went home," Frosh said, adding that everyone knew that the governor would eventually veto the bill. "It's all theater."

The House's final passage of a bill that would force Ehrlich to re-submit his Cabinet members for Senate confirmation if he is re-elected raised more hackles by Republicans.

Del. Dan K. Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the measure would ensure that a newly elected Senate would have the opportunity to advise and consent on the governor's nominees. But Del. George C. Edwards, the minority leader from Western Maryland, saw it as a slap at Ehrlich.

"Maybe we ought to just put a bill in to abolish the governor," he said.

The House's 107-27 approval of the air pollution control bill yesterday was a major victory for a coalition of environmentalists, nurses, doctors and religious groups who overcame lobbying from the power plant industry and the Ehrlich administration.

The bill passed by a veto-proof margin in both chambers.

"This is one of the most progressive public health bills ever to pass through this house. I think we are going to see less taxpayer money spent on public health problems caused by air pollution over the next 15 years as a result of this bill," said Del. James W. Hubbard, a Democrat from Prince George's County and sponsor of the legislation, which he pushed for four years.

The bill is designed to attack the state's chronic air pollution problems by reducing sulfur dioxide air pollution from the state's largest coal-fired power plants by 78 percent by 2010; cutting mercury pollution by 80 percent by 2010; reducing nitrogen oxide pollution by 69 percent by 2009; and trimming by 2018 carbon dioxide emissions by 10 percent.

But Republicans said it would be too costly to the power industry and might exacerbate expected rate increases for BGE customers.

"It's going to be affecting cost, it's going to be affecting reliability and supply, which is the same thing you hear them in here pumping their chest about with this current situation with Baltimore Gas and Electric," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, a Washington County Republican. "They are sending mixed messages."

The cost of air pollution control equipment at power plants required by the law is expected to reach $1 billion or more. But advocates estimate that reducing this air pollution will save even more money by preventing many of the 700 premature deaths and 17,000 asthma attacks each year caused by pollution from Maryland's antiquated coal-fired power plants.

Sun reporter Kelly Brewington contributed to this article.

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