Maryland Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. outlined his top priorities yesterday for the coming legislative session, a modest and conservative agenda that fulfills key campaign promises.
Ehrlich, the first Republican to win the governor's office in 36 years, also announced the senior members of the team that will help him formulate policy and sell it to the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. Two of the three men he picked are old hands in state politics, having served in the House of Delegates, and two are well-known Democrats.
With the state's budget crisis and Ehrlich's proposal to legalize slot machines expected to dominate the legislative session, advisers said, Ehrlich will introduce relatively few initiatives, primarily addressing gun crimes, charter schools and faith-based social services.
Although most of the ideas are not new and enjoy some measure of bipartisan support, some Democrats are already gearing up for a fight.
Newly elected House Speaker Michael E. Busch (Anne Arundel) strongly opposes Ehrlich's plan to legalize slot machines as a way to help close the budget gap. And yesterday, he said some of Ehrlich's other proposals need fleshing out.
"Take faith-based initiatives -- what does that mean?" Busch said. "Is gambling a faith-based initiative? We want to work with the governor and do what's best for the citizens of Maryland, and we will scrutinize every piece of legislation that Governor Ehrlich brings over here."
Pushing the governor's agenda will be a bipartisan team. Ehrlich tapped Del. Joseph M. Getty (R-Carroll), a lawyer who served as his campaign's political director, to head up a new policy office in the governor's office. Lobbying the legislature on Ehrlich's behalf will be Kenneth H. Masters, a Catonsville lawyer and former majority leader who served in the House from 1979 to 1995. Viewed as a fiscally and socially conservative Democrat, Masters supported Ehrlich during the campaign.
Figuring out how to sell Ehrlich's policy to the public will be Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's campaign spokesman and a former chief of staff to Democratic governor William Donald Schaefer.
As promised during the campaign, aides said, Ehrlich will pursue legislation to make it easier for religious groups to receive state money to provide social services -- a goal mirroring President Bush's agenda. The first step: Ehrlich will audit "barriers faced by faith-based institutions."
On the education front, aides said, Ehrlich hopes to enact a charter school law, which has come close to passing in past years. Charter schools are publicly funded and operate outside the school district's control. They have grown in popularity across the nation. Ehrlich's office said the legislation, which is needed to secure federal funding for charter school start-up, will target failing public schools.
Ehrlich also hopes to make good on a campaign promise to create a program similar to Virginia's Project Exile, which refers convicted felons caught carrying a gun to the federal court system.
The initiatives, previewed for the Republican caucus this week along with Ehrlich's staff choices, won positive reviews from the conservative wing of his party.
"This is a Republican agenda," said Sen. Larry E. Haines (R-Carroll), adding that he was not upset by the choice of two Democrats to help sell it. "The base of the party is going to be delighted."
Getty said the governor-elect's priorities grew out of campaign promises and were not selected "with regard to how certain people might see it." He said Ehrlich deliberately picked two legislators so that his office "is working on a peer level" with lawmakers.
Busch noted that Ehrlich had chosen "familiar faces." Meanwhile, the speaker will focus on health care and the environment. Busch said he wants to fix the state's health care system -- chiefly looking at ways to reduce costs for small businesses and scrutinizing a proposal to convert the state's largest health insurer from a nonprofit to a for-profit company.
Busch could also make life complicated for Ehrlich by pushing through construction standards to make buildings more energy-efficient. The plan would likely infuriate builders and developers who contributed heavily to Ehrlich. But a veto would anger environmentalists and give the Democrats ammunition to attack Ehrlich.