Stem Cell, Clean Air Measures Signed by Ehrlich

Haley Koshko, 6, who has juvenile diabetes and could benefit from stem cell research, is passed back to her mother before Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signs a bill authorizing state spending on the research.
Haley Koshko, 6, who has juvenile diabetes and could benefit from stem cell research, is passed back to her mother before Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signs a bill authorizing state spending on the research. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By John Wagner and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 7, 2006

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed legislation yesterday 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 yesterday; he is expected to issue his first set of vetoes today, leaving time for the General Assembly to consider override votes before adjourning Monday.

With 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 for research using both embryonic and adult stem cells, research that supporters say holds promise for treatment of a range of debilitating diseases.

In the wake of a 2001 executive order by President Bush that limited federal support for embryonic research, four states have agreed to provide money for 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 the Johns Hopkins University and University of Maryland campuses, as well as to companies in Maryland's biotechnology sector conducting research on adult stem cells.

Ehrlich said the bill "is very close to the approach" he put forward at the start of the legislative session. The governor remained largely silent last year on legislation that would have steered funding only to embryonic research. That bill died on the final day of the session amid a threatened filibuster.

Susan O'Brien, executive director of Maryland Families for Stem Cell Research, said her organization was pleased. "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 governor has signed it."

Several members of O'Brien's group attended the ceremony, including Haley Koshko, 6, who has juvenile diabetes and sat on 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), a sponsor of the bill.

Utilities are preparing to meet federal air quality goals. The state standards push the companies more quickly.

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 had 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 said they were disappointed 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). "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."

House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert), who opposed the measure in the House, said that 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.

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