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Senator changes his vote

March 12, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

A Washington County senator changed his vote Thursday after heavy lobbying by Gov. Robert Ehrlich and helped thwart an effort to curb the governor's budgetary power.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, was one of four senators who switched their votes from two days earlier to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment on the floor of the Senate. The amendment would have given the Maryland General Assembly the power to shift money between programs in the budget.

Maryland's governor has more power than any other governor in the country because he crafts a spending plan the legislature can cut but cannot add to.

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A longtime supporter of shifting some of that power to the legislature, Munson said he changed his mind after a face-to-face meeting with Ehrlich that ended moments before Thursday's session began.

Munson provided a handwritten explanation of his decision. Written on two pieces of pink memo paper, the note read:

"I had a heart-to-heart talk with Gov. Ehrlich about the constitutional amendment, SB 370. The governor is deeply offended by this bill because he feels it has turned into a potent political weapon that has been turned on him. For him it's an attempted slap in the face. I didn't become a senator to undermine Gov. Ehrlich and the long-term interests and needs of Washington County so I voted no."

In 2002, Munson changed his mind and voted to raise the cigarette tax after a powerful budget committee chairwoman threatened to cut money for two Hagerstown projects.

At risk then was $12.4 million for the University System of Maryland Hagerstown Education Center and a $2 million subsidy for air service to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, which was eliminated the following year.

Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, D-Montgomery, who sponsored the amendment, accused Ehrlich of using the very budget power under scrutiny to change votes.

"The governor has lobbied this bill pretty hard in the last 24 hours. He has threatened people with projects, which is exactly the reason we need this bill," Hogan said.

Munson and two other vote-switchers, Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr. and Sen. Richard F. Colburn, said the governor did not threaten any of their pet projects in the budget.

Colburn, R-Eastern Shore, said he reminded Ehrlich about some transportation projects he would like to see in the budget but got no promises from Ehrlich for his vote.

Giannetti, D-Anne Arundel/Prince George's, said he had changed his mind on the issue before the governor approached him.

"I don't horse-trade with the governor," he said.

It was the second time this session that the Democrat sided with Ehrlich on a major policy issue. Giannetti's decision to oppose an assault weapons ban earlier this year has effectively stalled the legislation in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, said that by rejecting the proposed amendment, "the Senate is sticking with fiscal responsibility."

"The same folks who spent the state into a $2 billion deficit were asking for more power over the taxpayers' money with this amendment," he said.

Before the Senate voted on the proposed constitutional amendment Thursday, Ehrlich made a rare appearance on the Senate floor to congratulate former Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee, Cardinal William Keeler and the family of the late Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings. The three were honored with First Citizen awards Thursday.

As the group was gathering for a picture, Ehrlich said, "My only admonition to you all is vote right."

Although he did not mention the constitutional amendment, Hogan said it was implied.

"I thought it was very inappropriate," he said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's/Calvert, said Ehrlich did not mention the bill.

Miller thanked Hogan for trying to pass the bill "to try to make this a better place."

Until Thursday's vote, it appeared the constitutional amendment was headed for approval in the House. It would have then gone on the November ballot for voters to decide.

The legislature has tried to shift the balance of power many times since the current process was set up in 1916, Miller said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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