The Maryland General Assembly opened yesterday with Democrats pledging to work with the first Republican governor in three decades, but quietly acknowledging that partisan tension and a staggering fiscal crisis could leave the legislature in gridlock.
"It's so nice to be here among friends," proclaimed Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., smiling and hugging lawmakers as he made his way through both chambers of the Democratic-controlled legislature.
Already, though, Democrats have started to voice concerns over some of Ehrlich's Cabinet nominees and legislative priorities. And both parties are dealing with internal disagreements about how to proceed in a dramatically altered political climate.
So it was that on the opening day of the state's 417th legislative session, numerous lawmakers were questioning whether they would be able to agree on a budget in the 90 days allotted them. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) would not rule out the need for a special session to finish the state's business, and some Republicans were also pessimistic.
"There's a lot of uncertainty -- a lot of reaching out to try to find landmarks to see where everyone is," said Del. Jean B. Cryor (R-Montgomery). "A lot of times you come up here and you feel like you're following a script. But this year, you're not quite sure if this is going to be a comedy or a tragedy or how it's going to end."
Only once since 1916 has the General Assembly missed its deadline to adjourn. The year was 1992, a recession was in full throttle, and lawmakers who didn't relish the idea of raising taxes and cutting services to fill gaping budget holes deadlocked.
Thirteen years later, lawmakers once again face difficult choices as they struggle to close the projected $1.2 billion revenue shortfall in next year's budget. Ehrlich wants to plug part of that hole by legalizing slot machine gambling, a proposal that may already be facing trouble as an array of powerful interests vie for a slice of the profits.
What's more, the next 90 days could bring partisan fights over such issues as gun laws, abortion and the death penalty.
Compounding the volatility are wholesale leadership changes in the General Assembly. The speaker of the House of Delegates is new; so are four committee chairmen in the state Senate; one of every three delegates is a freshman; and one-quarter of the Senate is new.
Democrats command an overwhelming majority in both the House and the Senate, and their leaders are sending mixed signals about their willingness to work with Ehrlich.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) invited Ehrlich to address his chamber yesterday. The two men became friends when they served together in the House of Delegates from 1987 to 1995, and yesterday Busch called the state "very fortunate to have [Ehrlich] as our governor."
A beaming Ehrlich, who spent the past eight years in Congress, responded, "Coming back here is really coming back home."
But a day earlier, Busch told a crowd of Democrats that Ehrlich's talk of bipartisanship should not be trusted, that the incoming governor was already gunning for Democrats in the next election and that his secret agenda was to cut taxes for the rich. Busch backtracked a bit yesterday, saying that "just because we have different points of view doesn't mean we don't respect the office or the person who holds the office." Ehrlich's bid to legalize slots faces its toughest battle in the House, where Busch is adamantly opposed.
As Ehrlich strolled into the state Senate yesterday, Miller warmly referred to him as "the president of my fan club," referring to flattering public comments Ehrlich has thrown his way lately. But Miller acknowledged that he had not extended a formal invitation to Ehrlich to attend the session, which caused Ehrlich to joke in the House that his Senate invitation "must have been lost in the mail."
Ehrlich hinted yesterday that he had to cut a deal with Miller to hold up some of outgoing Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening's final appointments to a variety of state boards and agencies. "He was incredibly accommodating in that regard," Ehrlich said.
But just a few hours after Miller gave a floor speech telling members that "our collective goal must be to put aside our differences," the Senate president derided Ehrlich's appointment of his campaign manager to head the state budget office, calling Chip DiPaula a political hack.
Republicans expressed frustration over what they consider a veiled threat to hold up the cabinet nomination. "Most Maryland citizens think a brand-spanking-new governor ought to be able to hire whoever he wants," said House Minority Leader Alfred W. Redmer Jr. (Baltimore County). "Maybe [Miller] is not as interested in working with the new administration as he's indicated."
The next 90 days will determine not just how well Miller and Busch will work with Ehrlich, but how the two legislative leaders will work with one another. If Tuesday's Democratic luncheon was any indication, the chambers may be heading in different directions.
Busch has been exploring alternative revenue options to slots, such as closing corporate tax loopholes and expanding the sales tax to cover currently exempt services, which range from dry-cleaning to legal work. At the luncheon, Miller abruptly asked Busch whether he had a veto-proof majority in the House, then pulled him aside for a private chat.
Miller said he warned Busch that if slot machine gambling was not approved, he had better have the votes lined up to overcome a promised veto from Ehrlich of most tax increases. Otherwise "education funding is going to be the big loser," Miller recounted.
Republicans have their own internal divisions. Many campaigned against slots, and one of the leading opponents is Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset). That complicates efforts by Ehrlich to influence GOP members.
Lobbyists, too, are trying to adjust to the changes that have swept the General Assembly. They spent yesterday cozying up to lawmakers at private receptions. "I spent 20 years educating everybody, and now they're all gone," said one health care lobbyist. Another lobbyist, a former Democratic lawmaker, gave Ehrlich a high-five and said, "You're the man!"