Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took office in January with a promise to shake up state government. But with just 19 days to go in his first legislative session, most of the Republican governor's major initiatives have stalled -- or been substantially rewritten by the Democrats who control the General Assembly.
His far-reaching proposal to revolutionize public education by bringing more charter schools to Maryland, for example, died last week in a Senate committee. Yesterday, the full Senate passed a watered-down version favored by Democrats.
His initiative to aggressively prosecute gun crimes -- Project Exile -- is stuck in committee. Yesterday, the state's attorney who handles the vast majority of shootings boycotted a Project Exile "summit," saying Ehrlich's budget makes a mockery of the program by forcing her to fire nine prosecutors.
Ehrlich's plan to improve juvenile justice programs, a major part of his campaign for governor, is languishing in yet another committee. And his plan to legalize slot machines has been rewritten by the Senate.
As a Republican governor facing a Democratic-controlled legislature, Ehrlich expected to face partisan opposition. He recently won praise for his newfound willingness to compromise on taxes to solve the state's budget shortfall. And in an interview yesterday, Ehrlich said he is confident that his administration will "win more than we lose."
"This is divided government," he said. "We obviously are going to have some wins. We also are going to come up short."
But State House leaders say the problem goes far beyond differences in philosophy. Instead, they say, the new administration has proven to be remarkably lackadaisical about selling its ideas to lawmakers. Officials often show up for hearings unprepared to answer questions about their bills and fail to follow up, according to key Democratic lawmakers. Even those who share Ehrlich's goals say they have found him distracted and difficult to work with.
"It's just total lack of attention on their part. This isn't a process where you just wave a magic wand and the bill appears on the floor," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Frosh's committee is reviewing Ehrlich's Project Exile proposal, which would increase penalties for felons caught carrying a gun and repeal a state law that allows a three-judge panel to reduce mandatory sentences for certain gun crimes. Frosh said he has repeatedly asked the administration how often the panels actually cut sentences but hasn't gotten the answer.
Frosh is now considering amending the proposal to include gun control measures that the administration opposes, a plan that could force Ehrlich to veto his own bill. Ehrlich said he "would find that kind of political deal-making unfortunate."
Ehrlich made those comments at a summit intended to highlight the most important component of his Project Exile plan: an agreement by federal prosecutors to try local gun cases in Baltimore and Prince George's County to secure longer federal sentences for serious offenders. "This type of cooperation has been missing in the past," he declared.
Also missing was Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, the lead prosecutor in Maryland's most violent jurisdiction.
In a letter to Ehrlich, Jessamy said she could not "in good conscience participate in further public dialogue about reducing historic levels of gun violence in Baltimore" because Ehrlich's budget fell far short of her request and will force her to fire nine prosecutors. Ehrlich called Jessamy's absence "unfortunate"; aides pointed out that Ehrlich found $1 million to help Jessamy prosecute gun crimes despite a historic state budget shortfall.
While Ehrlich was at the summit, the Senate approved a bill aimed at increasing the number of charter schools in Maryland.
Though the bill, sponsored by Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's), would accomplish Ehrlich's primary goal of providing a mechanism for charter schools to flourish, Dyson said he was told that the governor is considering a veto. Dyson's bill would allow school boards to approve a charter school, with an appeal to the state.
Ehrlich wants independent authorities, such as state universities, to be able to charter the publicly funded, independently run schools. And he wants to bar charter school teachers from joining the state teachers union.
The measure now moves to the House, where it faces stiff opposition from House Ways and Means Chairman Sheila Ellis Hixson (D-Montgomery), who killed similar legislation last year.
Dyson said he doesn't know why the administration isn't working with him. "He's not going to get a better deal," Dyson said. "I really think it's a now-or-never situation."
House Minority Whip Kenneth D. Schisler (R-Talbot) said Democrats are playing their usual games with the governor's bills. "There's a great tradition in the General Assembly of playing brinksmanship with major administrative proposals. I see no difference this year," he said.
But Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas McLain Middleton (D-Charles), who is holding Ehrlich's juvenile justice proposal while he waits for more information, said the administration is mired in the battle for slot machines and unable to focus on anything else.
"The governor's legislative package is what measures his success," Middleton said. "I have no desire to see this governor fall flat on his face. But he just can't take it for granted that a committee is going to love his legislation to death."