Last month, Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. surprised environmentalists by announcing he would not only embrace but also lead an effort by Democrats to pass a constitutional amendment curtailing his authority to sell state-owned parkland.
But after caucusing with the governor's top lobbyist yesterday morning, Republicans in the House of Delegates continued to question the wisdom of a constitutional change that would go before voters in 2006, when Ehrlich (R) faces reelection.
Too much detail, Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell says.
(Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
"We're not sure we want that level of detail in the Constitution," said House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert).
With the end of the General Assembly's 2005 session less than a week away, those championing new land sale limits are battling reluctant Republicans -- and the clock.
"We're pushing as hard as we can," environmental advocate Dru Schmidt-Perkins said yesterday between conversations with lawmakers. "There are hurdles. But we're optimistic."
The Maryland Senate unanimously approved the one-line addition to the Constitution, which would require the governor to get the legislature's permission before selling any environmentally sensitive state property.
But passage in the Senate came only after Republicans there reversed course. They vigorously opposed the measure during committee hearings, where they alleged it was little more than a political ploy.
They accused Democrats of pushing the amendment to galvanize Election Day turnout of voters disenchanted with Ehrlich's land policy and to put more focus on a controversial proposal, pushed by his administration, to sell 836 acres of St. Mary's County woodlands to a Baltimore business executive at a cut-rate price.
In the House, there has been some softening of Republican opposition, but nothing resembling the wholesale reversal in the Senate. There the measure remains before two committees, and a vote on the House floor is not expected until Saturday at the earliest -- two days before the session ends.
During a hearing yesterday in the House Appropriations Committee, Republicans peppered the initiative's sponsor, Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), with many of the same questions the governor's lobbyist had raised during the morning Republican caucus meeting.
Del. Nancy R. Stocksdale (R-Carroll) asked why the change was needed, because she had been told that lawmakers in St. Mary's had been notified well in advance of the proposed land sale.
That brought a rebuke from Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-St. Mary's), who said the governor's failure to notify him was "one reason I was particularly frosted by the process here."
House Minority Leader George C. Edwards (R-Garrett) asked Frosh why "we need to add this little bit of clutter to the Constitution."
Frosh held up a copy of the Constitution, a maroon bound volume the size of a John Grisham novel, and said it is a mistaken impression that the state's guiding document is "written on parchment and kept under glass somewhere in the State House."
In fact, he said, its hundreds of pages include such arcana as Baltimore's off-street parking rules.
Frosh said a recent opinion from the Maryland attorney general's office said a constitutional change is not merely clutter -- it is the only way to give lawmakers authority to overrule the governor on a land sale. Placing that stopgap in legislation could face a court challenge, the opinion says, because the legislature lacks veto power over the governor.
"Events of the past year have made clear that our open space, our parks, our forest can be sold off," Frosh said. And before that occurs, it "ought to be the subject of considered discussion by the General Assembly."
At a news conference later in the day, Ehrlich said he remains committed to supporting the proposed constitutional amendment and lobbying for its passage in the House as well as the Senate.
That message apparently has not resonated, even among such House Republican leaders as O'Donnell.
"The governor's office knows we're in a different posture than the Senate," O'Donnell said. "They're not pressuring us. They're leaving it in our hands."