When the General Assembly gave final approval last week to a bill scaling back the governor's capacity to shape the state's board of elections, it was the latest sign of a subtle but significant power shift underway in Maryland.
Not long ago, the Democrats who control the House and Senate were content to leave the bulk of governing authority to Maryland's chief executive. But they began reassessing that balance in 2002, when the top elected office swung to a Republican for the first time in a generation.
Now, with a week remaining in the 2005 legislative session, Democratic lawmakers are preparing to push through their most aggressive proposals yet aimed at curbing powers long afforded to the governor.
"What we're seeing is the inevitable fallout of two-party government in Maryland," said James Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland at College Park. "Strong governors always seem great as long as the governor is a member of your own party."
The effort to curb the authority of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has taken many forms. There's a proposed constitutional amendment to limit his ability to sell state parkland. There are discussions about cutting back the number of state workers he can hire and fire at will.
Democrats are trying to gain more say over appointments to key boards and commissions, including the one that oversees elections. There's even a measure -- which passed the House on Friday -- that would require the governor to get legislative approval before stating Maryland's posture on overseas trade policy.
Ehrlich has fought most of these efforts, telling reporters that they amount to a petty partisan backlash to his 2002 election victory.
"These guys have had a monopoly for 40 years," Ehrlich said last month during an interview on Baltimore radio station WBAL-AM. "Now they finally have divided government, two-party government. They have to share the sandbox, and they're not happy about it."
Lawmakers say the governor is correct that the once-cordial relations between opposing political parties in Maryland have cratered. But Democrats say the blame lies with Ehrlich, whom they accuse of abusing his office to try to sell off environmentally sensitive land and stack boards and commissions with unqualified partisans. They say he used his immense patronage powers to fire skilled workers and replace them with party hacks.
"It hasn't been a friendly time," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). "It hasn't been a session where you go home and go group to group and tell them all the great things you've done in Annapolis."
Ehrlich leveled a similar charge last year, after Democrats proposed a constitutional amendment to allow the legislature, not just the governor, to add spending projects to the state budget.
The governor warned Democratic lawmakers to "think twice" before trying to undermine his gubernatorial powers. The budget proposal failed.
This year few issues have generated more acrimony than the composition of the State Board of Elections.
By law, the governor is responsible for appointing all five members of the panel, including two seats reserved for members of the opposing party. Last summer, Ehrlich rankled legislative leaders by ignoring their recommendations and instead naming one of his close supporters to a Democratic seat. That appointee, Democrat Gene Raynor, then joined with Republicans in an unsuccessful effort to oust the state's elections administrator.