Senate overrides Ehrlich vetoes

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For the first time in more than a decade, Maryland's Senate overrode a veto yesterday, bringing back to life three bills spiked by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in a move called a "slap in the face" by the governor's fellow Republicans.

The overrides won't become effective unless, as expected, the House of Delegates goes along. The House delayed action until today.

The House also is considering an override of another vetoed bill, but action on that legislation, which would increase some corporate taxes, was postponed by Democrats as a strategic move until late in the session.

"That's just a real slap in the face," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican and Senate minority leader. "It's a deliberate attempt to embarrass the governor."

Senators voted almost exclusively along party lines to override the vetoes of measures that would set energy-efficiency standards for nine types of appliances sold in Maryland; restore pension funds that 51 state employees in Baltimore City Child Enforcement lost when the agency was privatized; and prevent places that sell alcohol from opening within 300 feet of churches and schools in South Baltimore.

Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the actions were simply about good policy, not partisan politics aimed at the governor.

The overrides were the latest symbol of the growing tension between Democrats and Republicans in state government. Both parties have been flexing their political muscle with the 90-day legislative session into its first week.

A lot is at stake for the governor, lawmakers and constituents as the state's leaders wrestle with a projected $700 million budget gap and the need to resolve the state's problems while one party controls the executive branch and the other dominates the legislature.

Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University said "the two sides are going to be playing hardball."

Crenson said the votes signal to Ehrlich that he is going to have to bargain with the Democratic leadership of the two houses. "This is both a smack in the face and an invitation to the dance," he said.

Not since 1989 - when lawmakers overturned Gov. William Donald Schaefer's veto of a bill that gave optometrists the same authority as ophthalmologists to administer eye drops - has the Assembly successfully used its veto power.

Ehrlich said he was disappointed but not bitter over the vetoes, adding that there was not much he could do. The Democrats "wanted to make a statement, and they did," he said. "That's the end of that."

In the House, the political jockeying took an unexpected turn as lawmakers made the unusual decision of postponing action on a vetoed bill that seeks to increase state revenues through corporate taxes until nearly the end of the legislative session.

First, Democrats derailed a GOP push to force an override vote on a tax bill that would close a loophole that allows shell corporations to avoid paying Maryland income taxes by setting up business in Delaware and assess a 2 percent insurance premium tax on HMOs. Republicans had hoped to show Democrats as hypocritical because they criticized Ehrlich for rejecting the bill in the spring but were almost certain to vote now to uphold the veto.

At the suggestion of House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat, lawmakers postponed a vote on the tax bill until the 83rd day of the General Assembly - the day when the state's 2005 budget must be completed.

John S. Arnick, a delegate from Baltimore County, explained the rationale: "We're not gonna give up our trump card."

The Senate's actions yesterday included legislation that would require energy-efficiency standards for such products as ceiling fans and commercial washing machines. Proponents say the measure saves Marylanders money.

Sun staff writer Kimberly A.C. Wilson and David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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