By John Wagner and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 6, 2006 5:24 PM
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. today signed legislation intended to make Maryland a forerunner in stem cell research and to impose some of the nation's toughest air pollution standards for coal-fired power plants.
Ehrlich (R) had telegraphed his intentions on the stem cell bill, which will authorize $15 million for the research in the coming year, but his decision to sign the environmental legislation caught even its sponsors by surprise. Both bills had been opposed by a majority of Republican lawmakers.
The bills were among 16 signed by Ehrlich today; he is expected to issue his first set of vetoes Friday, leaving time for the General Assembly to consider override votes before adjourning Monday.
With the both the stem cell and environmental bills, Ehrlich said lawmakers had "followed my lead" on passing legislation acceptable to the administration. But Democrats said it was Ehrlich who had co-opted their agenda.
The stem cell bill sets guidelines for awarding grants to conduct research using both embryonic and adult stem cells, research that supporters say holds great promise for treatment of a wide range of debilitating diseases.
In the wake of a 2001 executive order by President Bush that limited federal support for embryonic stem cell research, four states have agreed to provide money to support the science, which is controversial because it involves the destruction of a human embryo.
Much of Maryland's money, to be awarded by a state commission, is expected to flow to researchers at Johns Hopkins University and University of Maryland, as well as to companies in Maryland's biotech sector conducting research on adult stem cells. The adult cells, while not considered as promising for some treatments, are less controversial.
Ehrlich said the bill passed by lawmakers "is very close to the approach" he put forward at the start of the legislative session.
Susan O'Brien, executive director of Maryland Families for Stem Cell Research, a group formed last year, said her organization was pleased with the outcome.
"It's been a very long journey with these families who only want hope for the future," O'Brien said. "We wish it had been done in 2005, but we're happy the bill passed and we're happy the governor has signed it."
Several members of O'Brien's group attended the ceremony, including a 6-year-old girl with juvenile diabetes, who sat in the lap of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) as Ehrlich and the legislature's two presiding officers signed the bill.
Under the Healthy Air Act, which Ehrlich signed with less fanfare, at least six of the state's oldest and dirtiest power plants will be forced to cut emissions that contribute to acid rain, asthma attacks, heart disease and other health problems. Maryland also will join a regional effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which studies have linked to global warming.
"Now we'll have a little healthier air and a chance to spend less on public health problems," said Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Prince George's), one of the bill sponsors.
The governor had proposed his own clean-air rules last fall that addressed nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and mercury, but left out carbon dioxide. His signature was somewhat unexpected because he characterized the measure last month as "a direct threat to electricity prices and supplies."
But the differences between the governor's regulations and the legislation were narrowed. The bill was amended to require a study on the impact of the carbon dioxide standards on the reliability of electricity and allow the state to withdraw from the regional partnership in 2009. Aides said the addition of the study was a key to Ehrlich's decision to sign the bill.
Supporters had a different take on the timing of the governor's signature and said they were disappointed that the administration did not invite them to the morning ceremony.
"I'm glad he felt pressure to sign it and follow the lead of the legislature," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's). "But that he did it so begrudgingly says to me he doesn't get it about the environment or people's health. He didn't want any spotlight on it."
Pinsky later took to the Senate floor to complain that he and other bill advocates had not been invited to the signing ceremony, which he learned about from an aide while driving to Annapolis this morning. Pinsky called the move "sophomoric."
Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said the lack of advance notice was not intentional. "It was an overnight decision," she said, adding that "it's a pretty good day in Annapolis when we have legislators arguing with 'yes.' "
House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert), who opposed the measure in the House, said the governor understood GOP concerns about increasing the cost of electricity, but that Ehrlich had to sign the bill to avoid being cast by Democrats as anti-environment in his bid for reelection.
"Considering the political environment we're in, he made the best decision he could," O'Donnell said. Still, Ehrlich chose a low-key approach, opting not to announce his decision in advance and to instead highlight the stem cell measure.
Spokesmen for both Democratic candidates for governor also chided Ehrlich for not acting last year on both issues.
"Our only regret is that Maryland families could have celebrated these victories last year, were it not for governor," said Scott Arceneaux, campaign manager for Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. "We have unnecessarily lost a year of cleaner air and critical stem cell research to politics."
Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, said he is "pleased that Mr. Ehrlich has reversed his position on the need for stem cell research and improving our air quality."