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Ehrlich Vetoes Bill Extending Rights to Gay Couples
Increase in Minimum Wage Among 24 Measures Rejected

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 21, 2005

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoed a bill yesterday that would have granted rights to gay partners who register with the state, concluding after weeks of intense deliberations that the legislation threatened "the sanctity of traditional marriage."

The emotionally charged bill was among 24 that Ehrlich (R) rejected yesterday afternoon, including legislation to raise the state's minimum wage by $1, allow early voting in elections and heighten oversight of the state's troubled juvenile justice system. Another measure sought by gay rights activists that would have extended a property transfer tax exemption to domestic partners was also scuttled.

Ehrlich's decision to side, almost without exception, with business interests and social conservatives surprised some analysts, who thought he might try to burnish his credentials as a moderate by allowing some of the session's more controversial bills to become law.

Most of the legislation vetoed yesterday had been strongly opposed by Republican lawmakers. But Ehrlich's appeal to swing voters was key to his 2002 election in a state where registered Democrats still hold a nearly 2-to-1 advantage.

"I think it's just breathtaking that he's casting his lot with the right wing of his party," said Tom Hucker, executive director of Progressive Maryland, an advocacy group that pushed for the minimum wage bill as well as legislation Ehrlich vetoed Thursday that would have effectively required Wal-Mart to spend more on employee health benefits. "He ran for governor as the moderate, affable son of an automobile dealer who would stick up for working-class families."

Ehrlich said in a statement that his office's review of the bills had been "both thoughtful and deliberative" and that he was "confident that decisions made today are in the best interest of good policy, sound government and fiscal responsibility for Maryland's citizens."

In recent weeks, he has signed hundreds of bills passed by the Democrat-controlled legislature. And aides said that next week, Ehrlich plans to sign a measure that would add sexual orientation as a protected class under Maryland's hate crimes law -- a move opposed by most in his party.

But it was Ehrlich's decision to veto the bill conferring rights on gay couples that attracted most attention yesterday.

A leading Republican lawmaker praised him for making "a principled decision."

"I know the governor wrestled with this decision because he may be sympathetic to some of the intentions," said House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert). "But sometimes bad laws are the result of good intentions."

Modeled after laws in California, Hawaii and other states, the legislation would have granted nearly a dozen rights to unmarried partners who register with the state. Among those: the right to be treated as an immediate family member during hospital visits, to make health care decisions for incapacitated partners and to have private visits in nursing homes.

In his veto message, Ehrlich said he is "sympathetic to the needs of mutually dependent couples and [wants] to support compassionate efforts to expedite health-related decisions for Marylanders in need."

He said, however, that the bill's requirement that couples register as life partners "will open the door to undermine the sanctity of traditional marriage."

Ehrlich suggested that most goals of the legislation could be accomplished with existing legal tools, such as advance medical directives, which allow residents to designate someone to make health care decisions for them.

Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, a gay rights group that lobbied for the legislation, said that the bill had nothing to do with marriage and that some of the rights could not be secured under existing law.

"Phone calls are pouring into our office from people across the state who are shocked, hurt and dismayed at how such a moderate piece of legislation conferring basic human rights could be rejected by a supposedly moderate governor," Furmansky said.

A woman who could have benefited from the bill, Stacey Kargman-Kaye of Baltimore, said yesterday that she was heartbroken. "I don't understand how a human being who has a significant other and children could not see the need for this," she said.

Kargman-Kaye, 37, said that after she emerged from heart surgery five years ago, a nurse literally pushed away her longtime partner, who was there to support her, "because we're not considered a family in the eyes of Maryland."

A group of conservative activists had launched a petition drive in recent weeks that sought to repeal the bill if it became law. They argued that it was part of a "homosexual agenda" advancing in Annapolis. Maryland allows residents to put legislation passed by the General Assembly to a public vote if enough signatures are gathered.

Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr. (R-Anne Arundel), a leader of the petition drive, said organizers would soon decide whether to continue, in case lawmakers override Ehrlich's veto in January. Dwyer said he was "very pleased that the governor has sent a strong message about the morality of the state."

Leading members of both parties predicted that supporters would likely struggle to find the three-fifths vote needed to override Ehrlich, especially at the beginning of an election year. "It would put a spotlight on some people who may not want to be spotlighted," O'Donnell said.

Ehrlich's 24 vetoes yesterday followed a public ceremony Thursday to veto the high-profile bill that would have effectively forced retailing giant Wal-Mart to spend more on employee health benefits.

Ehrlich also sided with business interests in rejecting a bill yesterday that would have raised the minimum wage to $6.15 an hour, $1 above the federal minimum.

In his veto message, Ehrlich said "employers have few options to recover the increased costs imposed by government. They can either pass along these costs to consumers or they can cut their costs by firing their employees."

Ehrlich also vetoed a bill that would have created a legislative oversight committee for the state's troubled Department of Juvenile Services, which oversees youths in the criminal justice system. It was one of several bills he has vetoed that would curb his powers.

Ehrlich's vetoes, embraced by his GOP base, were providing fodder for the leading Democratic contenders in the 2006 governor's race.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley called Ehrlich's actions "the Friday afternoon massacre." Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan also took aim at Ehrlich's veto of a bill that would have allowed Montgomery County police to use speed cameras.

Staff writer David Snyder contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company