Tone changes in Annapolis

The Baltimore Sun

When a slate of bills sponsored by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. reached a state Senate committee last year, his supporters had to wait in a hallway for three hours before getting the chance to testify, only to be told by irritated Democratic lawmakers that they had heard about those issues "a zillion times."

Yesterday, after Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley delivered his first State of the State address, punctuated with pledges to partner with legislators, a bill that would create a new state accountability program was promptly heard by the Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee.

The first legislator to pipe up was Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the former Republican minority leader. "This sounds like good government to me," he said cordially.

Indeed, the tone in Annapolis has changed now that Democrats control the legislative and executive branches again.

Three weeks into the legislative session, lawmakers say O'Malley's honeymoon continues - in part because of the new administration's efforts to reach out.

His first State of the State address yesterday concluded with a call to come "together around the solutions about which there is so much consensus ... in both chambers and across party lines.

"The people of our state desperately want us to get things done again," he said.

Some observers noted that there have been few issues so far that would spur acrimonious debate, and that O'Malley's first legislative agenda - no slots or tax measures, for example - doesn't offer the promise of many priorities likely to do so.

So far, it's been the little things that have made the difference for some.

Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Democrat, said he called fellow Sen. David R. Brinkley of Frederick in December to congratulate him on his election as the new Senate minority leader. Brinkley thanked him, then noted that his phone call had come 10 minutes after O'Malley's.

"He's been great," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Democrat from Montgomery County. "Until the first vote, he's batting 1.000."

Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority leader from Southern Maryland, said Republicans are eager to cooperate with the O'Malley administration on shared goals, and said it had seemed that O'Malley wanted the same thing.

But O'Donnell said he was put off by several unflattering references to Ehrlich in the governor's speech yesterday.

"The references were clear," O'Donnell said. "That opening up of campaign wounds is not helpful, but I understand there has to be a certain amount of that."

Ehrlich and Democratic lawmakers frequently clashed over issues such as slot machines, with the second half of his term becoming particularly contentious as jockeying for the governor's mansion ramped up.

During his 2005 State of the State address, Ehrlich went off-script to ask that legislators "show respect"; the capital only seemed to become more fractured.

Republican leaders said they have made a concerted effort this year to move away from confrontational tactics, but remain wary that their voices could be silenced with Democrats in control.

Yesterday, though, they offered some of their most pointed criticism to date. Within minutes after O'Malley concluded his address, the Maryland Republican Party issued a press release that cast doubt on his efforts to reach across the aisle.

"The State of the State Address was more of what we have seen so far from this Administration: uninspired rhetoric and a co-opted legislative agenda," said GOP chairman James Pelura. "The Governor speaks of 'One Maryland,' but it is merely a code for 'One Party Maryland,' where difference of opinion is not allowed. Competing ideas and an open, healthy debate were short-lived in Annapolis and we have returned to an autocratic government."

Mostly, Republicans are concerned that the current lull in the state capital could lead to tougher choices in the years ahead, a view shared by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat.

While O'Malley alluded to the need for new revenue streams, there is likely to be little discussion this year on that front. He skipped over a reference to slots in his prepared remarks.

Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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