Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., besieged for the past 90 days by Democratic critics in the State House, says he will take his vision for leaner government and conservative innovation directly to the voters.
Ehrlich's great escape from Annapolis is set to commence this week, when he travels to Montgomery County to address local Republicans. Later this month, he'll kick off a more formal tour of the state to mark his first 100 days in office, administration officials said yesterday.
"Starting this week, the governor is out and about, taking his message right to the people," Ehrlich's communications director Paul E. Schurick said as Ehrlich signed his first bills as governor. "We've been locked down in this building. It's time to get out. The flowers are singing, the birds are blooming. Time to get out."
Presumably, the people will be more receptive to Ehrlich's message than the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, which left town early yesterday after gutting all but one of Ehrlich's policy initiatives; it did approve a watered-down version of his proposal to expand charter schools. Lawmakers also voted to raise property and business tax rates to help balance the state budget, rejecting Ehrlich's plan to raise fresh cash by legalizing slot machines.
Ehrlich has vowed to veto the $135 million tax bill and replace the lost money by cutting state spending. With a $700 million shortfall looming when lawmakers return in January, Ehrlich said it is time to prepare Marylanders for the reality that more cuts -- to public schools, higher education, health care and other social services -- are on the way.
"Democrats have been saying mean things about me for 90 days. . . . [But] we don't take it personally," Ehrlich said. "The bottom line, though, is [today] our real work begins. This has been a picnic for 90 days, compared with what we've got to do in the next nine months."
Ehrlich wouldn't say when he would veto the tax bill or which programs he would cut. Aides said a list of "doomsday" budget cuts prepared by Democrats would provide a starting point. That list includes deep cuts for local government, higher education, police agencies, Medicaid and services for the developmentally disabled.
Democrats yesterday accused Ehrlich of scheduling the tour as a kind of return to the campaign trail, where he scored his last triumph, becoming the first GOP governor of Maryland in more than 30 years. Since then, victory has been more elusive for the administration.
"It's a mess. What a train wreck," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. "What we learned about him during this session of the legislature is that he doesn't have a lot of experience governing, so he's continuing to do what he apparently likes to do, which is to just campaign.
"That's not going to take care of the budget deficit and the many other problems the state faces," Crenson added.
But Republicans applauded the governor's decision to cut through the chattering haze of the State House and remind voters of why they elected him last fall.
Ehrlich often tries to speak directly to Marylanders, with frequent appearances on talk radio call-in shows. He scheduled a quick series of radio and TV interviews late last week after the dramatic defeat of his slots bill and another one as the session adjourned Monday.
He has also begun writing a newspaper column that appears in some of the state's smaller papers.
It's "important to get away physically from the insular world of Annapolis, where things tend to be about how many bills did you pass and how many deals did you cut," said GOP political consultant Kevin Igoe. "In the real world, people care about politicians standing on principle," he added.
For his part, Ehrlich said the tour is intended neither as a defense of his performance during the legislative session nor as a continuation of a political campaign.
"The campaign is over, over, over," Ehrlich said.
In addition to discussing fiscal matters, Ehrlich said he wants to push his plan for stiffening penalties against gun criminals, talk to people about the costs of drug addiction and stress the importance of devoting more state resources to drug treatment.
"That's his style of governance. He has always emphasized constituent service, staying close to the voters," Schurick said. "The need to improve schools, to get tough on violent criminals, the need to solve the budget problem with cuts and efficiencies."
Yesterday, Ehrlich signed 52 bills, many of them of merely local interest but some more substantive measures that won approval in the final hours before the General Assembly adjourned at midnight Monday.
Among the new laws is a plan to help more than 2,000 retirees from Bethlehem Steel near Baltimore whose health insurance was terminated March 31 as the bankrupt company prepared to sell itself to International Steel Group Inc. of Cleveland. Too young for Medicare, the retirees turned to Del. Peter A. Hammen (D-Baltimore) for help. Hammen crafted a measure to allow the retirees to receive affordable insurance through a special state program created for high-risk individuals.
As he scribbled his signature on a stack of approved legislation, Ehrlich was flanked by House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), who were barely speaking after a testy late-night feud that briefly endangered the state's $742 million capital budget.
Despite the battle between the two powerful Democrats, lawmakers managed to push through dozens of bills on the final day, including measures to help illegal immigrants afford a college education, to crack down on drunk drivers and to allow local governments to install speed cameras in residential areas.