In his first two weeks on the job, Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has moved aggressively to make good on key campaign promises. He has lifted a moratorium on the death penalty. He has resurrected the intercounty connector project. And he has crafted a plan to balance the budget without raising taxes.
Ehrlich (R) even has kept his pledge to restore bipartisan fun to the job of being governor. Since his inauguration Jan. 15, he has shot hoops with Democratic lawmakers, hobnobbed with fight fans in Glen Burnie and joined a charity plunge into the frigid waters of the Chesapeake Bay wearing little more than tight shorts and a smile.
"We've had a good start," Ehrlich said in an interview.
But as Ehrlich prepares to deliver his first State of the State address at noon today, the Democrats who control the General Assembly are largely unimpressed. Ehrlich's administration has so far delivered more flash than substance, they say, and Ehrlich has yet to get down to the hard business of governing.
With nearly one-third of the 90-day legislative session over, Ehrlich has yet to introduce the bills that will make up his first legislative agenda, including a controversial proposal to legalize slot machines that is crucial to his plan for balancing the budget.
The bills, promised for days, are expected to be ready this week.
Meanwhile, Ehrlich has not named secretaries to run the health department and the Department of the Environment, two of the most important agencies in state government.
Ehrlich has filled the rest of his Cabinet, but his designees have yet to receive Senate confirmation, much less begin the difficult task of shaping the first Republican administration in Maryland in more than three decades.
As for Ehrlich's budget proposal, it is under attack in the House of Delegates, where a longtime friend of Ehrlich's, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), is determined to prevent an expansion of legalized gambling.
Busch and other Democratic leaders say Ehrlich's refusal to consider new taxes has produced an irresponsible budget that relies heavily on quick-fix accounting gimmicks and does little to shrink government bureaucracy, as Ehrlich promised to do during the campaign.
Without more cuts and a fresh source of revenue other than slot machines, Democratic leaders say, Ehrlich's budget would leave the state more than $700 million in the hole when lawmakers return next January, with no clear plan for producing the cash to pay for needed increases in transportation and public education funding.
"Ehrlich needs to stop campaigning and start governing," said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), who said Ehrlich's "strident" stand against taxes may explain why he chose his campaign manager, Chip DiPaula Jr., to serve as his budget secretary.
"I hope there's statesmanship in the State of the State speech, a recognition that governing is different from campaigning and that we need to take a more global view on issues like education and transportation. And stop pounding the table on slots," Franchot said.
Ehrlich said he has no plans to mention slot machines in the "somewhat nontraditional" speech he will deliver today in the House chamber.
Instead, aides say the approximately 45-minute address will focus on Ehrlich's broader vision for Maryland, as well as his legislative priorities, including proposals to create charter schools, stiffen penalties for gun crimes, clean up sewage treatment plants and increase services to the mentally ill, the developmentally disabled and those addicted to drugs.
Another initiative that Ehrlich discussed during the campaign, making state funds available to churches and "faith-based" organizations, may be handled by executive order rather than through legislation, aides said.
In a dramatic touch pioneered by Ehrlich's hero, former president Ronald Reagan, Ehrlich will introduce five "guests of honor" to help illustrate the problems he hopes to address while in office. Aides have dubbed it the "Faces of Maryland speech," and they say it will contain little that lawmakers and other political observers have not already heard him say.
Ehrlich aides rejected Democratic arguments that the governor has somehow fallen behind as he tries to stitch together a team to run Maryland's $22 billion state government.
The head of Ehrlich's transition team, James T. Brady, said the secretary of the environment will be announced in the next few days. Brady said he is still vetting candidates for the health department.
Ehrlich spokesman Paul E. Schurick said the administration is "very comfortable with the progress we've made and where we stand."
"Forty-eight hours after he was sworn in, Bob introduced a balanced, credible budget. We've filled 16 of 18 Cabinet positions with extremely thoughtful, talented people. And we should have our legislative package out this week. We're doing everything at our own pace," Schurick said.
Most Republican lawmakers are pleased, and they are impressed with Ehrlich's ability to maneuver politically. For example, Del. Carmen Amedori (R-Carroll) is delighted that Ehrlich is in a position to tell Democrats that voting down slot machines would mean cutting programs for the "needy and underprivileged."
"I think he's done a swell job," Amedori said.
Even some Democrats conceded that Ehrlich has exceeded expectations, which were lowered by his "frat boy" demeanor.
"He's doing what he said he would do," said Sen. Leo E. Green, a liberal Democrat from Prince George's County. "You have to give him credit for that."