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Ehrlich's Holiday Session Spurs Cries of Grinch

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2004; Page C05

Angry Maryland lawmakers accused Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday of being "Governor Grinch" for dashing their holiday plans by summoning them to Annapolis for a Dec. 27 special legislative session on malpractice insurance reform.

"To be called in at this late date, at this particular time of year, when he knows everyone has plans to be with their families, it is outright obnoxious," said Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld (D-Montgomery), who said she probably will have to rip up plane tickets she bought to travel with her family to California to visit her ailing father.

Ehrlich called for a special session Dec. 27, prompting some lawmakers to dump holiday travel plans. (Michael Williamson - The Washington Post)

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Ehrlich (R) said Friday that he will use his constitutional authority to call in the General Assembly next week for its first special session in more than a decade. The lawmakers will vote on a plan that aims to avert a crisis among physicians who are facing an average 33 percent increase in malpractice insurance rates. Doctors who fail to make increased payments this month could have their insurance canceled starting Jan. 1.

Numerous Democratic lawmakers decried the decision, in part because the governor has failed to reach a firm agreement with House and Senate leaders on a critical aspect of the solution -- namely, how best to pay for a fund that would help subsidize the increased costs that some doctors say are driving them out of business.

Historically, governors have waited until they have cemented an agreement with top lawmakers before committing to the expense and burden of bringing 188 legislators to Annapolis for a vote. The decision is even more unusual because Ehrlich has scheduled the session less than a month before the General Assembly is to convene, on Jan. 12.

"I think it's a terrible decision," said Del. John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery). "There's nothing we can do now that can't be accomplished 15 days later."

Ehrlich supporters said yesterday that any added burden on lawmakers who have to scratch travel plans is temporary and outweighed by the need to resolve the malpractice insurance situation before more doctors lose their practices.

"Although it may not be the time period of choice, it is what it is," said House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert), who said he will cancel plans to see his baby granddaughter in Pennsylvania. "I say we should stop whining about this and get it done."

Ehrlich's aides also defended the timing of the session yesterday, saying the decision to convene was made collectively by the governor, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).

"All three of the principals agreed that this was too important an issue to put off," said Shareese DeLeaver, an Ehrlich press secretary.

Still, the timing was enough to prompt Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery) to paint Ehrlich with the "Grinch" label after he had to cancel a Christmas trip to Arizona. And it stirred speculation among several members that the governor selected the date with careful calculation.

A constitutional quirk means lawmakers will have to take up votes to override any of Ehrlich's vetoes during the special session, and several lawmakers said they wondered whether the timing was intended to tamp down Democratic numbers to thwart an override.

"Given the timing, I can only question the governor's motives," Madaleno said. "You have a lot of people who won't be available, and that may make it tough to overturn those vetoes."

O'Donnell dismissed the idea as part of "a never-ending stream of conspiracy theories," and some Democrats also doubted that was the governor's reasoning.

"The thought crossed my mind," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore). "But let's be honest. That kind of calculated use of the legislative process has not been much in evidence on their part over the last two years."

Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George's) said he would like nothing more than to be present to vote on the veto overrides -- especially one on legislation that would raise corporate taxes to help put the brakes on rapidly rising state university tuition rates.

But he said he has invested $5,000 and a year's worth of daydreams in a Caribbean sailing trip that he is not about to cancel.

"This governor should have sought an agreement long before this," Niemann said. "I don't think it's fair to burden the entire legislature because they couldn't get their act together."

Rosenberg, who is a law professor at the University of Maryland, said nothing in the constitution requires lawmakers to show up for the special session, but he thinks their constituents expect them to be in Annapolis when the time comes to vote.

"It's easier for me because I didn't have any travel plans," he said. But when Busch called Friday night to notify him of the plans for the special session, Rosenberg said, "there was no need for him to remind us of our obligation to show up."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company