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Ehrlich, lawmakers squabble through session

April 03, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

And in the rough and tumble world of state politics, sometimes the best you can hope for is to break even.

But even that might be a little more than Gov. Robert Ehrlich can pull off as the General Assembly enters its last full week before the closing gavel on April 11.

For Ehrlich, the legislative season got off to a rocky start when he lost a battle of wills with lawmakers over an emergency medical malpractice bill. And in some respects, things have gone downhill for Ehrlich from there.

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In a legislative session fraught with partisan squabbling, his attempts to get further malpractice law reforms have gained little ground. Aside from corrective bills to fix technical issues with the stop-loss fund, the one malpractice bill to win approval of the House was a bill termed "mild" by Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, and sponsored not by the Ehrlich administration, but by Baltimore County Democrat Robert Zirkin.

As of Friday, it was stranded in the Senate Rules Committee.

"You've seen no solutions (to the malpractice crisis) from the Senate and very little push from the governor," House Speaker Michael E. Busch said Wednesday.

Ehrlich's perennial quest for legalization of slot machine gambling got a similar reception.

Although both houses actually passed slots bills, any resemblance one bears to the other is purely coincidental. And with Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller digging in their heels over efforts to compromise, last-minute efforts to resuscitate slots this year appeared vain.

Several of Ehrlich's other initiatives are languishing in legislative committees. Last week, the governor got so frustrated with the failure of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario to let the committee vote on his bill to stiffen penalties for witness intimidation that he took his battle not only to the speaker of the House, but to the press.

Less than 24 hours after a potential witness in an assault case was shot in Baltimore, Ehrlich appeared with Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy in a news conference designed to pressure Vallario to move the bill, a cornerstone of Ehrlich's legislative agenda this year.

Ehrlich told reporters that while the bill had 118 co-sponsors in the House - and the support of every state's attorney in Maryland, as well as Busch and Miller - Vallario had failed to let his committee vote on whether to send it to the full House for consideration.

The hang-up for opponents of the bill is that it allows recorded statements made outside the courtroom to be used as evidence, which they say denies defendants the right to cross-examine witnesses.

But this "hearsay" rule exists in federal courts, and on Wednesday, Ehrlich threatened to take witness intimidation cases to federal courts if the bill dies.

"The general rule is that federal courts were not invented to try street crimes," he said. "But if the bill does not pass, we will go to the U.S. attorney and ask that appropriate cases be tried in federal courts."

"We want the bill included on a voting list" in the Judiciary Committee, Ehrlich said. "It needs to escape from the chairman's desk."

Following the news conference, Ehrlich said he was going to talk to Busch about getting the bill out of the Judiciary Committee - ironically, the committee on which Ehrlich served when he was a member of the House of Delegates.

"The chairman obviously is a very bright man," Ehrlich said, who "has on more than one occasion stuffed a bill in his desk."

Busch said Thursday he planned to "sit down with" Vallario to discuss the witness intimidation bill.

Ehrlich found himself embroiled this year in a battle with Miller over appointments, with Miller holding hostage some 200 gubernatorial appointments that require Senate confirmation until Ehrlich agreed to Democrats' choices for vacancies on the state Board of Elections.

And a bill forcing the governor to appoint the opposition party's choices to the elections board already has passed in the Senate and was moving through the House last week.

The impasse with Miller finally was breached on Friday, when one of Ehrlich's appointees, former Del. Frank T. Boston Jr., D-Baltimore City, resigned from the board.

But the lingering resentment was clear in Boston's resignation announcement, distributed by Ehrlich's office:

"A few individuals in Annapolis have chosen to question my affiliation with the Democrat Party," Boston said. "My Democrat credentials are unassailable. I served three terms as a Democrat in the Maryland House of Delegates from Baltimore City. I was Chairman of the Baltimore City Delegation for seven years. I spent 20 years on the Democrat State Central Committee, and was proud to serve as Chair of the House Democrat Caucus. I am deeply committed to the Democrat Party."

But on the plus side, several of Ehrlich's criminal procedure initiatives still are alive, as well as his proposals to tighten up restrictions on teen drivers.

Additionally, the parties demonstrated unusual unity over budget proposals this year, a fact House Minority Whip Anthony O'Donnell attributed to his belief that "the base budget that was sent to us was a good budget."

That base budget, the one issue on which both houses must agree before the General Assembly session can adjourn, was submitted by Robert Ehrlich.

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