When Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) was asked recently about a pair of bills that would raise the minimum wage, he said he preferred the Senate's approach to the House's -- but didn't say whether he would sign either one.
His position on state funding of embryonic stem cell research? Ehrlich is reserving judgment until a bill hits his desk. On a bill allowing gay couples to make health care decisions for each other? He's monitoring it closely.
Gov. Ehrlich has not tipped his hand on raising minimum wages.
Ehrlich has refused to be pinned down on many of the most divisive issues facing the General Assembly this year, which some analysts say is smart politics: He avoids making enemies over legislation that might never reach his desk.
But Democratic lawmakers say they are finding the practice maddening, offering them little direction or leadership in the final two weeks of the General Assembly's 90-day session. Some gubernatorial intervention, for example, could help keep a prolonged and emotional debate over stem cell funding from unfolding on the Senate floor, said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).
"We don't even know if we go through all these machinations, if the governor is going to sign the bill," Miller said. "In the past, it's been a team effort."
The frustration some Democratic leaders are expressing may, in part, be the product of two-party government in Annapolis, something lawmakers grew unaccustomed to in more than three decades of Democratic rule. In 2002, Ehrlich became Maryland's first GOP governor in a generation.
Past governors often weighed in on legislation, tipping off lawmakers to bills they did not like or ones they wanted altered. As a result, vetoes occurred less frequently. In only three of his eight years did Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) veto more than 10 bills on policy grounds, and he averaged 14 over two terms. Ehrlich vetoed 22 in 2003 and 19 last year.
But Glendening and other past Democratic governors did not often face legislative proposals that put the chief executive in a political bind, said Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director.
As a result, Schurick said, the governor's office has opted to move more cautiously, monitoring the progress of more than 2,000 pieces of legislation and gauging the viability of the important bills before stepping out with a public position.
"The closer they come to passage, the closer we come to taking an official position," Schurick said.
This approach does not apply only to controversial measures.
The governor, for instance, has yet to take a stand on the renaming of Baltimore-Washington International Airport for the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
As Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver explained the governor's nuanced stance: "He's open to it, but he shares concerns that some people have regarding marketing and advertising."
Ehrlich has signaled reservations about legislation that would raise the minimum wage in Maryland from $5.15 an hour to $6.15, suggesting the bills could hurt small businesses. But he has not ruled out letting one become law.