Standing before a mural of a billowing American flag, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) marked Veterans Day in Charlotte Hall by promising military retirees that the General Assembly would soon pass a long-awaited tax break for their benefit.
But the solemn day was not free of politics. Ehrlich said he expected that the Democratic majorities in both houses of the state legislature would embrace their own version of the bill to ensure that the Republican governor does not get credit for the popular measure as he runs for reelection.
"There's no doubt in my mind the bill will pass, but it won't have my name at the top," he said in an interview after singing patriotic songs with a crowd of more than 200 people gathered Friday morning at the Charlotte Hall Veterans Home.
Of the 475,000 military veterans in Maryland, roughly 46,000 would qualify for the tax break the governor plans to propose in January. The legislation would gradually eliminate the income tax on military retirement benefits over five years.
Veterans are traditionally counted as conservative, independent swing voters -- just the people Ehrlich needs to attract in a state where Democratic voter registration leads Republican registration by nearly two to one.
"I don't care who gets the credit," Ehrlich said.
George W. Owings III, state secretary of veterans affairs, chimed in that "these veterans would know."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said Democrats welcome the governor's support for the proposal that stalled in a House committee last session.
"I hope everyone will be on board this year," he said. "The question is how to pay for those benefits."
Ehrlich estimated the tax break would cost $2 million, an amount he characterized as minuscule.
The son of a Marine, Ehrlich told the veterans, many in wheelchairs, that the holiday was held to honor past sacrifice, but also to support U.S. troops overseas.
"The future of freedom is again at risk, from our highest ideals to your ability to go to the mall this afternoon," Ehrlich said.
"The one thing I will not put up with as the leader of this state is anyone arguing with me about the premise [of the war on terrorism], because the premise is quite clear," he said. "We have people who want to kill us, and they need to be taken down in order to save this country."