The Maryland Senate last night held up confirmation of 90 of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s appointees to state commissions after raising concerns about the number of mid-level state workers who had been fired by the Ehrlich administration.
"Our goodwill doesn't seem to be getting anywhere with this administration," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said. "We've decided we're going to be looking at things differently at this point."
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For Maryland, the action was unprecedented in recent memory. Until yesterday, the Democrat-controlled Senate had vigorously contested only a few of the Republican governor's nominees since he took office in 2003.
Ehrlich's appointments secretary, Lawrence Hogan Jr., said he did not anticipate the freeze on confirmations would last long.
"This is just a childish temper tantrum on the part of the Senate president," Hogan said. "He's holding 90 people hostage so he can get his way."
Miller's decision appeared intended to send a message to Hogan, whose name surfaced in e-mails -- made public Friday -- that had been exchanged between one of his deputies and longtime Ehrlich aide Joseph Steffen. Steffen was fired last month after acknowledging that he circulated rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D).
Specifically, Miller referred to a June 2004 e-mail, in which the deputy appointments secretary offered to provide Steffen with the names of Maryland Insurance Administration employees who served at the will of the governor and could be fired without cause. In the note, the deputy said Hogan was disappointed that more people had not been fired from jobs at the agency.
The suggestion that Ehrlich aides were targeting the state Insurance Administration for terminations has rankled some top Democrats in Annapolis, because the agency is independent by law and intended to be beyond the reach of political influence.
"The reason you have an independent insurance commission is to protect the consumers of Maryland, not to find jobs for your political friends," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).
After the Senate tabled the nominations, one Republican leader declared the decision an "act of war."
"It's a brand-new ballgame, apparently," said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (Somerset). "I just think it's unwise, just because you don't like something done by the governor's employees, to do something like this to send a message."
The appointees on the list for confirmation last night included Robert A. Rohrbaugh, a former president of the Montgomery County Republican Club and Ehrlich's choice to be Maryland state prosecutor, and former state senator Francis Kelly, a Baltimore County Democrat, whom Ehrlich wants to appoint to the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland.