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Ehrlich visits city

August 28, 2004|by TAMELA BAKER and GREGORY T. SIMMONS

tammyb@herald-mail.com
gregs@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - He's not facing election again until 2006, but Gov. Robert Ehrlich was hard on the campaign trail Friday anyway, carrying a message of "aggressive activism" and attempting to persuade local groups that it's time to be more vocal with their state representatives about their concerns.

During a luncheon with the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, Ehrlich bluntly told the business community that business interests in Maryland have "not been a feared agent" in Annapolis. "Your opponents play hardball," Ehrlich said. "You don't."

He later stopped short of advocating a doctors' strike during a discussion of medical malpractice concerns with a group of local physicians at Robinwood Medical Center.

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When one of them suggested a work stoppage as a way of forcing the General Assembly to deal with escalating malpractice insurance costs, Ehrlich said that "as governor, there's no way I can encourage that in good faith."

Secondly, he said, a work stoppage philosophically goes against the physicians' pledge to provide care.

"But I do encourage dramatic action that focuses attention in Annapolis. And that does focus attention in Annapolis." Ehrlich added that he came to the county Friday to lobby for a special session of the General Assembly to deal with malpractice before the regular legislative session in January.

Ehrlich said medical malpractice is the most important issue facing the state, and that a task force is at work trying to find solutions. In the meantime, he's been meeting with physicians such as those at Robinwood to hear their ideas.

"I want structural reform now," he said. "I'm a bottom-line kinda guy. I want a resolution I want a bill now."

The governor's visit to Washington County began with a mid-morning visit to Citicorp Credit Services north of Hagerstown.

During a question-and-answer session before about 100 Citicorp employees, Ehrlich addressed a range of issues, including his thoughts on the presidential election, his education plan and talk of statewide budget surpluses.

To a round of applause, Ehrlich told the crowd that he had a conversation earlier in the day about the possibility of bringing professional auto racing's NASCAR Busch Series to Western Maryland, possibly including Washington County.

Ehrlich told the group he still is committed to the $1.3 billion Thornton Commission public schools funding plan, although he said that without slot machines revenue or another source, cuts will have to be made.

Slots, in fact, came up at nearly every stop.

Speaking to about 200 Chamber members at lunch, Ehrlich called House Speaker Michael Busch's slots bill "a transparent gambit as phony as it comes." That bill calls for a constitutional amendment to allow a referendum on legalizing slot machines. Even if there were a referendum, he said, "you'd still have to have a bill" to legalize them. And he noted that the bill wouldn't generate "close to the 85 votes" needed to get an amendment through the legislature.

Asked later whether the bill is a power play on the part of the speaker, he at first said no, but then reversed himself. He said if the speaker were interested in "a real discussion" on slots, he was ready to talk. But he said Busch had given no indication that he was interested in such a discussion. "He never has."

Ehrlich also reminded Chamber members that his was a pro-business administration.

"Business can be the dominant force in Annapolis if it ever gets its collective act together," he said. "Take advantage of the present situation in Annapolis or you may as well close up."

For his part, Chamber President Brien Poffenberger was ready to take up the gauntlet.

"We had a more animated conversation about that during lunch," Poffenberger said. "I asked him to give me an example of a Chamber that's doing it right, and he couldn't name one."

Poffenberger, who assumed the president's job earlier this month, said he wants to mold the Chamber into one Ehrlich can point to as an example.

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