Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s attempt to reconnect with voters in a visit to Montgomery County yesterday was greeted with applause from his GOP allies but protests from local officials and demonstrators furious about his pledge to veto new fees and taxes.
Outside the Indian Springs Country Club in Silver Spring, where the governor was scheduled to headline a $100-a-plate fundraiser for the Montgomery County Republican Party, about a dozen protesters gathered to denounce Ehrlich for threatening to cut the state budget rather than accept a $135 million package of tax increases targeting businesses.
Judith Arbacher of Silver Spring turned out with daughters Becca and Rachel to "hold Ehrlich responsible for the promises he made to fully fund education."
"Unless he can pull a rabbit out of a hat, his tax cuts for business are going to be saddled on the head of this 8-year-old and that 4-year-old," she said.
Across the way, about a dozen men and women in business suits waved signs defending Ehrlich's handling of the budget.
"I think instead of taxes being raised, we ought to live within our means," said Walt McKee, who runs an e-commerce business in Gaithersburg. He hoisted a handwritten sign reading, "Working Families Thank Governor Ehrlich."
Ehrlich has also registered dissatisfaction with a 5-cent property tax increase for homeowners -- a measure he initially proposed adding to the budget. But he cannot veto it, because it is tied to repaying the state's bond debt.
As he arrived at last night's fundraiser, Ehrlich said he was buoyed by the crowd that greeted him. "I saw a lot more supporters than protesters out there. I think we outnumbered them," Ehrlich said. "There's a lot of enthusiasm here for what we're trying to do."
But Democratic leaders in Montgomery County said Ehrlich's hard-line stance could bring deeper cuts in transportation and education.
Earlier in the day, County Council President Michael L. Subin (D-At Large) threatened to rename Ehrlich "Governor Gridlock" if he did not back away from plans to veto a vehicle registration surcharge aimed at funding local road and transit projects.
The vehicle registration measure was County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's top legislative priority this year, and yesterday Duncan (D) launched an all-out campaign to save it. He pulled together what he called the "No-Veto Coalition" and said the group would send a barrage of 10,000 e-mails to Ehrlich, urging the governor to back down. Ehrlich said he has not decided whether to veto the measure.
Ehrlich and state transportation officials have objected to the surcharge because they fear it could open the door for all counties to raise money by tacking local charges on to any number of state fees. Many lawmakers expressed similar fears, but Duncan's fierce lobbying led to the measure's passage in the session's final hours.
"Some cynics will say this is all about politics," said Duncan, who is widely believed to be considering a challenge to Ehrlich in the 2006 election. "In some senses, it is about politics. It's about keeping your promise to voters."
The Progressive Maryland advocacy group and PTA organizations have also begun encouraging parents to lobby the governor against vetoing the corporate taxes and cutting a landmark plan to increase aid to public schools
"When he ran for office, he publicly promised to fund education, even if he didn't pass slots," said Jon Gerson of the Montgomery County Education Association. "We want to hold him to that."
Last night, Ehrlich focused his political energy on getting out his message of leaner government and conservative innovation. The Montgomery County fundraiser was one in a series of events Ehrlich is planning across the state over the next few weeks.
Since he took office in January, Maryland's first Republican governor in more than three decades has been frustrated by a legislature dominated by Democrats. The General Assembly closed its 2003 session at midnight Monday after rebuffing most of Ehrlich's policy initiatives.
In particular, lawmakers rejected a plan to raise fresh cash by legalizing slot machines, choosing instead to raise $135 million by taxing HMO premiums, increasing the corporate income tax rate and closing a variety of "loopholes" that allow some companies to avoid paying Maryland taxes.
Ehrlich plans to veto the package. In addition, he has begun casting doubt on his commitment to increasing the property tax rate from about 8 cents per $100 valuation to about 13 cents. Ehrlich included the tax increase in a budget proposal submitted to lawmakers in March, a plan that won broad approval last weekend.
Now, however, Ehrlich is hinting that he may not vote for it when it comes before the Board of Public Works, a three-member body that Ehrlich chairs. This week, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) said in a radio interview that Ehrlich had taken the tax increase "off the table."
But yesterday, Ehrlich and other state officials agreed that the Board of Public Works has no choice but to approve the tax increase, because it is tied directly to repaying the state's bond debt.
"The property tax rate obviously has to reflect the dollars needed to back up our bonds." Ehrlich said last night.