Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer paired up again yesterday, this time as two frugal shoppers scrutinizing the costs of desks, settees and sofas intended to furnish the state's new House of Delegates office building.
Seated in the ornate Governor's Reception Room on the second floor of the Maryland State House, Ehrlich (R) and Schaefer (D) shook their heads and frowned in disapproval at the $2.1 million furniture order for the four-story brick building, which is nearing completion in Annapolis.
The present and former governors, close political allies despite being from different parties, wondered aloud why the state's legislators were not willing to buy tables and chairs from the state-run company that employs prison inmates.
Ehrlich said he "respectfully disagreed" with House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who wrote a letter back in June explaining why the prison furniture, while "very nice," did not stand up to the aesthetic standards of the House's members.
"This isn't right," Schaefer scowled.
"I agree," the governor nodded.
"I think we ought to send the contract back," the comptroller said.
"I agree," Ehrlich nodded.
"They want to build a Taj Mahal, like that Miller [Senate Office] Building over there," said Schaefer, referring to the $24 million office built in 2001. "That's not right. It's not right."
"This is not right," Ehrlich agreed. "And on my watch, we're not going to approve something that isn't right."
Then, in their capacity as members of the Board of Public Works -- the three-member panel that must sign off on all major state purchases -- the two voted to reject the contract. A dissent came from Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), who declared the proposed purchase "fiscally prudent."
Ehrlich and Schaefer said their own offices are at least partially furnished with pieces from prison inmates. Even so, the desks proposed for the delegates, which cost $1,972 each, are not quite as elegant as the $25,000 Wye Oak desk the governor uses. (His desk was a gift to the state.)
It is unclear whether yesterday's vote will delay the December opening of the office building, which needs to be up and running in time for the General Assembly's annual session, which starts Jan. 11.
Busch said he is concerned. And a little annoyed. Especially, he said, because he sent a letter to Schaefer two years ago inviting one of the comptroller's top aides to review all the plans for the $29 million office building. More than that, Busch said, he wondered whether the governor knew it was his own secretary of general services who selected the winning bidder.
"Our only goal is to have the best product, at the best price, so we can conduct the business of the state come January," Busch said in an interview.
Ehrlich said he had his doubts. But he left open the possibility that he might reconsider, especially after the general manager of State Use Industries told him that his workers -- though long on free time -- probably did not have enough of it to fill such a massive furniture order.
"Get back to us in a week on what can be done," Ehrlich told him.
Until then, Ehrlich said, furniture for his former colleagues in the House of Delegates will have to wait.