Earlier this month, one of Maryland's largest lobbying firms invited its clients to Camden Yards for eggs, sausage and the opportunity to mingle with the most powerful men in state government: the Senate president, the next House speaker and the next governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).
Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver is a major force in state politics, lobbying on behalf of nursing homes and hospitals, the Jockey Club and the Baltimore Orioles, home builders and real estate agents.
But in eight years in office, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) never graced the firm's annual event, said partner Laurence Levitan. With the election of Ehrlich, who gave a rousing speech to the breakfast gathering about making Maryland more business-friendly, Levitan's clients believe they are about to come in from the cold.
"Glendening was pro-environment and pro-labor, and it's hard to be pro-business as well," said Levitan, a former Democratic state senator from Montgomery County. "So any business has to be feeling pretty positive about Ehrlich's election. They're looking forward to a friendlier environment, an easing of regulations."
As Ehrlich prepares to take office, his transition team has been meeting with lobbyists representing a wide range of interests, including large manufacturers and the state's Chamber of Commerce. As one business lobbyist put it: "Whenever there's change, there's opportunity. This is the opportune time where we can really mold things."
Most lobbyists understand that closing the state's record budget gap, projected at $1.2 billion next year, will occupy much of Ehrlich's time and political capital. For the time being, tax cuts are probably off the table.
Also, the leadership of the Democratic-controlled General Assembly has become more liberal, which could hamper Ehrlich's ability to deliver for business in the legislature. Indeed, while Ehrlich campaigned against raising most taxes and fees, many lawmakers are considering such measures to avoid program cuts.
But Maryland gives enormous power to the governor, and Ehrlich can reshape the state's regulatory environment through key appointments and executive orders. So campaign contributors and lobbyists have spent much of December drawing up their wish lists.
"It's Christmastime. We expect them to do that," joked Lt. Gov.-elect Michael S. Steele, who is heading up Ehrlich's transition team.
On a more serious note, Steele said Ehrlich will place far greater emphasis on economic development and is looking for ways to reduce state interference in what he called the state's overregulated business environment. Among the areas under review are Glendening land-use policies to reduce sprawl, environmental regulations, business fees and occupational licensing, Steele said.
"There are areas we've identified that need to be changed," Steele said, declining to be more specific. "Now, we will always be mindful -- don't let everyone get their heels up in their ears -- of protecting public safety and the environment. But we also recognize that the business community is the economic engine of this state."
For environmental groups and labor unions that benefited from Glendening policies, the Ehrlich-Steele rhetoric on business is worrisome.
"The onus is on [Ehrlich] to prove that he will be beholden to the actual voters who elected him and not just to corporations," said Tom Hucker, executive director of Progressive Maryland, a nonprofit group of labor and social advocates. "He hasn't taken any action yet, but certainly we are going to be watching to see if he is accountable to the public or to all the special interests that paid for his election."
Business leaders say they were long shut out by Glendening's administration and are pleased to have someone paying attention. Lobbyists have been more than willing to point the transition team in what they consider the right direction:
* The state's large poultry industry wants relief from environmental regulations on chicken waste that Glendening promoted to protect the Chesapeake Bay. During the campaign, Ehrlich said he would look into the issue.
* Pharmaceutical companies have met with key transition members to complain about a Glendening plan to slow increases in Medicaid spending by restricting access to certain prescription drugs that are relatively expensive.
* A group that represents doctors and that supported Ehrlich's candidacy wants the next governor to ensure that an expected bid by trial lawyers to make it easier to win big malpractice awards does not become law.
* Health insurance companies and small employers want the state to pare the number of medical treatments for which the state mandates coverage. Ehrlich has said he is willing to consider the issue.
CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, a nonprofit health insurer up for sale to a for-profit insurer based in California, is thrilled that Ehrlich will be able to pick a new insurance commissioner in the spring. The current commissioner, Glendening appointee Steven B. Larsen, has raised a barrage of questions about the deal and has been reluctant to approve big rate increases.
A number of industry lobbyists have been suggesting that the state's Public Service Commission -- which regulates electric, gas and telecommunications companies -- is anti-business and far too "activist." Ehrlich can reshape the commission with two appointments in the coming months, and Steele said the transition team is well aware of the way regulated industries view the commission.
Few of Ehrlich's supporters are as blunt as Wayne Frazier, a Baltimore contractor who headed up a group called Democrats for Ehrlich. Frazier said he and dozens of other black business owners have promised to raise $1 million in campaign contributions for the state GOP over the next four years.
But he expects something in return: more state business reserved for minorities and women. Glendening, Frazier said, too often granted waivers to rules that reserve a percentage of state contracts for minority-owned firms.
"We're saying to Bob Ehrlich: 'My friend, we supported you. Now we want you to enforce the laws and not allow any waivers to be granted,' " Frazier said. "I know I'm speaking boldly, but I put my career on the line for him, so, yes, I expect certain things to be done."
The change in tone between the Glendening administration and the Ehrlich transition was clear at a recent meeting at Maryland Chamber of Commerce headquarters. A group was putting together a presentation for the transition team on the chamber's health care agenda. Suddenly, one of the team members stopped the meeting.
"Do you realize what's happening?" the group's senior vice president for government affairs, Miles Cole, recalled the person asking. "We are preparing to talk to the governor about our needs because he wants to hear from us. That is a new phenomenon."
Staff writer Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.