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Democrats Aim to Curtail Ehrlich's Power

Party Leaders Irritated by Recent Initiatives Push for Legislation to Rein In Governor

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2005; Page B04

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and his administration managed to spend much of the past few months irking the state's leading Democrats.

His appointees to the State Board of Elections tried to oust the long-serving elections administrator, a Democrat. His budget director broke with tradition and refused to share details of his proposed spending plan with lawmakers. And his insurance commissioner allowed HMOs to raise rates over Democratic objections.

_____Maryland Government_____
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Full Report

Now, it appears it's payback time.

In the month since the Democrat-controlled legislature returned to Annapolis, lawmakers introduced a slew of bills designed to undercut Ehrlich's power or reverse unpopular initiatives of the first Republican governor in a generation.

Among them: legislation to abolish the State Board of Elections, force more openness in the budget process and make the insurance commissioner an elected officeholder.

"This administration seems to be heading off in so many bad directions," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), when asked to explain the proliferation of bills.

But GOP lawmakers and administration officials see a different motive among Democrats, who lost the governor's office to Ehrlich in 2002 for the first time in more than three decades.

"It shows how much this entrenched majority is trying to hold on to their own power," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert), the House minority whip. "To me, it's an indication of why we need long-term change in the legislature. It's been single-party dominance for way too long."

Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said the governor is closely monitoring legislation that seeks to diminish his duties -- something Democrats sought to do last year, with limited success.

Perhaps the most troubling episode for Democrats was the administration's proposal to sell land set aside for preservation to a Baltimore contractor. The land deal in St. Mary's County eventually fell through, but Democrats have filed more than a half-dozen bills in response.

One with broad support among Democrats would amend the state Constitution to require the governor to gain legislative approval before disposing of state park or preservation land.

Democrats also are seeking to put the brakes on the administration's efforts to introduce an Asian oyster into the Chesapeake Bay. The Ehrlich administration hopes the new species would take the former role of the depleted population of native oysters -- as a moneymaker for watermen and a natural filter for polluted water.

DeLeaver said the administration is letting science dictate its strategy on the introduction of the new oyster. A decision was recently put off a few months longer because of delays in a study.

But Frosh and Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), who is leading the charge in the House of Delegates, want to make sure a final decision is not rushed. They fear that the species could upset the ecological balance of the bay.

"I don't know whether this is a political gimmick or well intentioned but misguided," Frosh said. "The risks are enormous, and the likely rewards are much smaller than promised."

Other pending bills would reduce Ehrlich's budgeting authority. One, for example, would restrict the governor's power to make budget reductions.

Another would force him to spend all the money the General Assembly allocates for subsidized child care. This year, the administration is planning to divert about $23 million earmarked for that program to fill a shortfall in foster care.

The legislation that seeks to abolish the five-member State Board of Elections could turn out to be among the most partisan battles of this year's session. All 33 Democrats in the Senate, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), have signed on to the measure.

The bill was prompted by Ehrlich's decision last summer to appoint a Democratic supporter of his to one of two seats on the board reserved for Democrats. The appointee, Gene M. Raynor of Baltimore, then worked with the Republican majority on the board to try to oust its administrator, Democrat Linda H. Lamone. The effort was halted by a judge.

The bill pending before the legislature would do away with the board and create an "advisory committee" with 12 members -- eight of whom the administrator would appoint.

The committee would not have any authority to remove the administrator. That would be delegated to a separate commission consisting of the General Assembly's top two leaders and five other state officials, only one of whom would be appointed by the governor.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger (D-Baltimore County), the bill's leading Senate sponsor, said it was drafted to "depoliticize the Board of Elections." But opponents of the measure, including Ehrlich, accuse Democrats of seeking political gain.

"You can see where it's coming from," said Marjorie J. Neuman (R), president of the Baltimore County Board of Elections, who said she was speaking only for herself. "It's a terrible bill."

Gilles W. Burger (R), head of the state elections board, echoed that view, calling the bill "absurd."

"I'm worried about the trust voters will have for us running impartial elections," he said.

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