Ehrlich may give more aid to region

November 11, 2002|By LAURA ERNDE

WASHINGTON COUNTY - When Washington County sought the state's help with major building projects in the last eight years, there were only a handful of local people who could call or visit the governor and ask him to put money in the budget.

It mostly came down to party politics. Gov. Parris Glendening is a Democrat and most of the county's elected officials are Republicans.

Last week's election changed that important dynamic.

In January, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will become the first Republican in more than 30 years to hold the purse strings as Maryland's governor.


That alone gives local leaders hope they will have unprecedented access to the governor's office.

"Perhaps with a Republican governor the voice of our Republican Delegation will be heard with a little more attention," said Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner, a Democrat.

Ehrlich will be under pressure to please voters in rural areas who helped sweep him into the governor's mansion, said D. Bruce Poole, a Democrat who served in the House of Delegates with Ehrlich. Sixty-eight percent of the voters in Washington County supported Ehrlich.

"I think we'll have access to the governor we've never had before," said Robert Sweeney, who ran Ehrlich's campaign in Washington County.

Maryland's governor has more power than any other governor in the country because he alone creates the state budget. The Maryland General Assembly can cut, but not add to, that budget.

"He's going to listen to us. He's going to work with us," said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, chairman of the Washington County Delegation.

"We're going to be able to see the inside of the governor's office for a change," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

Glendening became known during his administration for using the power of his office, including his budget power, to push his agenda through the legislature. Lawmakers who opposed him did not get his ear.

"He used the budget as a very potent weapon against people who were against him," Shank said.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said he was one of the few Republican lawmakers who could get a meeting with Glendening. But when Munson questioned the University System of Maryland's downtown location, Glendening threatened to cut the project out of the budget.

Beyond party politics

At the same time, Ehrlich and local lawmakers will have to work beyond party politics. Even though the GOP picked up one seat in the state Senate and eight seats in the House of Delegates, Democrats still hold more than two-thirds of the 188 seats in the legislature.

While the election increased Washington County's clout with the governor, it appears to have dealt a serious blow to the county's voice in the General Assembly.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. was narrowly defeated by LeRoy E. Myers Jr., a GOP contractor from Clear Spring. Taylor has requested a recount following his 71-vote loss.

The county will lose another influential Democrat, Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington, who was defeated in her bid to unseat state Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington.

That leaves Del. John P. Donoghue as Washington County's only Democrat in the legislature. Donoghue could move up in the House leadership if Del. Michael Busch of Anne Arundel County, his good friend and colleague on the Economic Matters Committee, takes over the speaker's job.

But Donoghue doesn't count Taylor out yet.

Since 1994, Taylor has brought millions of state dollars back to his home county of Allegany and has been a strong voice for the needs of Western Maryland.

"I think it's going to be difficult losing a position like the speaker who is also my friend," Allegany County Commissioner James Stakem said.

Taylor tried to boost the economy of Western Maryland through his One Maryland program, which provided grants to "distressed counties" such as Allegany that have higher unemployment and lower incomes.

Shank said he admired what Taylor tried to do. But he said Ehrlich is in a better position to unite the state.

"Clearly, this election points to the fact that there isn't one Maryland. There are in fact two Marylands," Shank said.

Even if Taylor wins the recount, his power would be diminished by the state's $1.7 billion deficit, said John N. Bambacus, a former GOP state Senator from Frostburg. The state simply won't have the money to create the types of programs and projects that Taylor advocated, he said.

"Life goes on," he said. "Mr. Myers will be a back-bencher in the beginning, but I'm sure he'll eventually bring something to the table."

No blank check

Access to Ehrlich will help compensate for the loss of the House Speaker, many observers said.

But Republicans said they don't expect Ehrlich to write a blank check for the county.

"I don't think the people would want that," Shank said. "It's not going to be a simple question of doling out the dollars. What is going to be different in an Ehrlich administration is fairness."

Their newfound access to the governor will also put more pressure on local Republican lawmakers, some said.

"Washington County will have a substantially better chance of getting its needs met. Now it is really incumbent upon those legislators to deliver," said Suzanne Hayes, a member of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

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