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Fireworks Fade as Md. General Assembly Convenes

Ehrlich and Democrats Strike Conciliatory Note

By Matthew Mosk and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 13, 2005; Page B01

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. opened the 2005 General Assembly session yesterday with a promise to reignite the fight over slot machine gambling, suggesting that he might win converts by dedicating gaming proceeds to the state's staggering school construction shortfall.

Unlike the past two years, Miller (D) launched into the long-running slots debate without Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) at his side. The governor said yesterday that he remains committed to legalizing slots in Maryland but is reluctant to recycle legislation that has consistently failed to win support in the House of Delegates.

Delegates stand for the Pledge of Allegiance as the Maryland legislature opens the 2005 General Assembly session in Annapolis. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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"The definition of a fool is someone who does the same thing repeatedly and still expects a different result," Ehrlich said in an interview.

The word "slots" did not cross Miller's lips during the formal ceremony that opened the 419th General Assembly session in Annapolis, and leaders of both chambers avoided rekindling discussion of medical malpractice, an issue that has fueled weeks of fractious debate in the State House.

Ehrlich said that he aimed to avoid getting bogged down in another divisive feud over slots and that he instead will roll out a series of initiatives related to child welfare and education.

"You're going to hear a lot about children and children's issues this year," Ehrlich said in a brief address to the Maryland Senate. "There's lots of common ground here. . . . Let's get some things done this year."

The softer focus represented a dramatic shift from just one day earlier, when Ehrlich and Democratic lawmakers concluded a hastily called emergency session in bitter disagreement over medical malpractice legislation. Democrats adjourned after overriding six Ehrlich vetoes, including his rejection of their malpractice bill.

Yesterday, the governor abruptly halted his attacks on Democratic leaders and instead described the vigorous debate between the parties as a healthy aspect of the "power-sharing era" that arrived with his election in 2002 as the first Republican governor in a generation.

Lawmakers also tried to strike a conciliatory tone. House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) told a packed chamber that its mission should be "to turn divided government into united government; to value policy over politics; and to always put the interests of the state and its citizens above the rancor of partisanship."

But there were potent symbols of the partisan divide throughout the day. Unlike in past years, Ehrlich addressed only the Senate, saying he had not been invited to speak to the delegates. And Republicans in the House broke from longstanding tradition and refused to vote for the majority party's selection for speaker.

Although there were some common themes to the agendas forwarded by Ehrlich and Democratic lawmakers -- education is clearly a priority for both this year -- there also were signs that Democratic leaders and Ehrlich have not papered over their policy differences.

Democrats outlined plans to extend health care services to the uninsured, improve pay and benefits for state employees and loosen restrictions on stem cell research.

The most direct challenge to the governor will come with legislation aimed at limiting his abilities to sell off state parkland. Busch told delegates he hoped to "bring a new openness to the process by which the government disposes of its assets," a reference to the controversy surrounding Ehrlich's attempt to sell a tract of state-owned woodland in St. Mary's County to a developer.

The governor has shared little of his agenda and has continued to keep secret his roughly $25 billion budget initiative, which he must submit Wednesday. He said he plans to "trot out" his legislative plan over the next several weeks, beginning today with a speech at Largo High School in Prince George's County, where he will present an initiative aimed at reducing teenage driving fatalities.

Ehrlich said school construction will be funded at a higher level, regardless of what happens with slot machine gambling. But he is not averse to the idea of linking the two.

Miller said that he plans to present the idea to Ehrlich in coming days and that he will point out that opinion polls have shown that support for slots increases significantly when proceeds are earmarked for education or school construction.

A report released last year by a state task force concluded that "Maryland faces a crisis in public school construction." It said that the state would need to allocate at least $250 million annually for the next eight years to meet its facility needs. As of last year, the state anticipated spending only about $100 million a year through 2009.

In interviews yesterday, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) agreed that education funding should be a top priority. But neither liked the idea of turning to slot machines for that money.

Still, few of the politicians who descended on the State House yesterday had an interest in engaging the subject of slots, or anything else that would be overly divisive.

Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset) said the aim of both parties was to be civil. Republicans would certainly adhere to that, Stoltzfus said, but quickly added: "We are going to be aggressive in the policy arena."

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