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GOP Ads Aim to Shore Up Vetoes

Malpractice Bill, College Funding Top Priorities

By Matthew Mosk and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 7, 2005; Page B01

Maryland Republicans unleashed a barrage of advertisements yesterday targeting conservative Democrats, part of a broad effort to head off the General Assembly's threat to override Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s vetoes of key legislation.

The ads, which will run in newspapers and on radio stations into next week, focus on two bills: one that would reduce malpractice premiums for doctors and another that would guarantee increased funding for higher education.

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Democratic lawmakers support paying for both policy initiatives with tax increases on businesses, highlighting a deep divide between Ehrlich (R) and the Democrats who control the General Assembly. The governor vetoed the higher education initiative last spring and said he will veto the malpractice measure by Monday. Lawmakers plan to vote Tuesday on whether to revive these and other bills.

The ads interchangeably name three state senators from Anne Arundel County, accusing them of supporting "raising taxes on Maryland's small businesses -- a tax hike that could cost thousands of jobs."

"Aren't Maryland families taxed enough?" the commercials ask.

Democrats said they believe the ads will backfire, and leaders said they will muster the votes to push through both measures when the General Assembly convenes Tuesday, one day before the formal start to the 2005 legislative session.

The malpractice bill, which lawmakers approved last week during a special session the governor convened, would create a special fund to help offset doctors' insurance costs. The fund would be supported with revenue from a 2 percent tax on HMO premiums. Ehrlich vehemently opposes the tax, which he said would be passed onto consumers.

The higher education measure, which limits tuition increases while committing revenue from a temporary corporate tax increase to Maryland's university system, was approved by the legislature last spring and vetoed by Ehrlich. The governor yesterday promised a substantial increase in funding for public colleges and universities. [Story on Page B3]

The Republicans' decision to emphasize taxes is not unique to the clash over vetoes. The tax issue helped Ehrlich win the governor's mansion in 2002 and is emerging as a foundation of his reelection bid in 2006. It could also become part of a wider GOP strategy to unseat lawmakers in regions where the governor is popular, party officials said.

The ads cost roughly $25,000 and were produced by MH Media of Washington. They name Sens. Philip C. Jimeno, James E. DeGrange Sr. and John C. Astle. In 2002, Ehrlich won nearly 65 percent of the vote in Anne Arundel. Astle was out of town and could not be reached. The other two senators said they are not intimidated by the ad campaign.

DeGrange called the ads "comical" and said he still supports the malpractice bill. He said he believes his constituents will dismiss the ads as politically motivated. Jimeno, who voted for the malpractice bill last week, said that he is undecided about the override and that the ads will play no role in his deliberations.

"If they think this is productive, I think they're sadly mistaken," Jimeno said. "This is all part of an ongoing program for them. They never get out of campaign mode."

Jimeno said he found the ads disingenuous because taxes and fees that Ehrlich has supported, including an increase in vehicle registration fees and a surcharge on water and sewer bills, will actually have "more of a direct impact on the wallets of my constituents" than the HMO tax.

The state Democratic Party joined that line of attack, releasing a statement late yesterday that calls the Republican ad campaign "misleading."

"The truth is that Governor Ehrlich has raised more taxes in his first 16 months than the past two Democratic administrations did in 16 years," said Terry Lierman, the party's state chairman, referring to the fee increases as well as to Ehrlich's decision to raise the state's property tax rate by a nickel.

Democrats also countered that the ads will not affect the legislature's position on bills the governor has vetoed. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said the tactic will "backfire on the governor and the party one thousandfold. It's going to decrease the willingness of the Democrats in the General Assembly to work with this administration."

Miller predicted that his chamber would hold onto the votes needed to revive the medical malpractice bill, if Ehrlich rejects it as promised. The measure passed the Senate 32 to 13 during last week's special session. To override on Tuesday, Democrats will need 29 votes.

"The public likes consistency in elected officials," Miller said. "You can't say you're for a bill one day and two weeks later vote against it without some valid reason. This bill was a wonderful bill two weeks ago, and it's still a wonderful bill."

Besides Jimeno, Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore County) said he was still considering his position yesterday and would have preferred that the malpractice bill include more comprehensive legal changes and a smaller tax on HMOs.

"To pass an endless tax has me concerned," Brochin said.

For good reason, said John Kane, chairman of the state Republican Party. There will be more commercials down the road, Kane said, and they will target anyone whose position on taxes conflicts with the governor's.

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