'Politically correct' has new meaning in General Assembly

January 15, 2006|By TAMELA BAKER


That term "politically correct," which generally refers to taking pains not to offend anybody, can take on a whole new meaning when it comes to, well, politics.

For Republican party leaders in the General Assembly, it can mean maneuvering to get a place at the table in the Democrat-controlled legislature.

For Democrats, it can mean maneuvering to deny Republicans a place at the table in the Democrat-controlled legislature, and taking down the Republican governor while they're at it.

And if you're Gov. Robert Ehrlich, you take care to explain that there's a difference between following a particular political philosophy and being a rabid "party" animal.


Predictions that the upcoming election, in which every state office from governor to every seat in the legislature is in play, would make this year's General Assembly particularly divisive appeared to be correct as lawmakers descended on Annapolis last week.

Though everyone predictably pledged cooperation during opening-day speeches on Wednesday, just the day before Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller had promised fellow Democrats they would "bury" the Republicans face down - and that it would take 10 years for them "to crawl out," and called the past three years of the Ehrlich administration "1,090 days of absence of leadership."

On Wednesday, Miller called Ehrlich "a very special guest" at the Senate opening.

Ehrlich returned the compliment, insisting he and Miller had "a good relationship - it's interesting. It's never boring. Sometimes, it changes by the hour."

Earlier in the House, Speaker Michael E. Busch glanced over at Ehrlich and said, "Governor, I look forward to working with you, the Senate and Minority Leader George Edwards."

That was after Busch already had refused to recognize House Republicans who wanted to nominate Edwards for Speaker.

Several Republicans registered their displeasure by voting against Busch for speaker after the Democrats "announced their intent to stifle the minority," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington. Other Republicans, including most of the Republicans in Busch's own Anne Arundel County Delegation, abstained from voting at all.

The main event

Of all of the issues the General Assembly will consider this year, the impact of party politics in light of the looming election is "the biggest thing right there," Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Washington/Frederick, predicted before the session started. "It will be a session full of political wrangling."

The session opened against the backdrop of the ongoing investigation by a mostly Democratic legislative committee of the Ehrlich administration's hiring practices. There were conflicting reports last week about how long the probe would continue, with some lawmakers saying it could wrap up mid-session and others saying it could last beyond the session.

Mooney said he anticipates more "attacks on the governor," and because of what he called "that foolish investigating committee," there was talk by Democrats of a bill to end at-will hiring by the executive branch - "their own system," he said - which allows the administration to make personnel changes of certain positions.

The legislature dealt the governor a major blow by overriding two vetoes from last year - the so-called "Wal-Mart bill" and a rise in the minimum wage - that Ehrlich had vigorously defended.

The Wal-Mart bill forces businesses with more than 10,000 employees in the state to spend the equivalent of at least 8 percent of its payroll on health-care benefits.

Del. John Donoghue, the only Democrat in the Washington County Delegation and the only one to vote to override the veto of the Wal-Mart bill, defended the override during the floor debate.

"We've all heard that Wal-Mart is Number One," he said. "All we're asking for here is that in their quest to be Number One that they provide adequate health care for their employees without burdening taxpayers" who would end up paying for their health care through government programs such as Medicaid.

Other vetoes from last year are scheduled for consideration this week.

The last-minute maneuvering and vote-counting on the Wal-Mart bill brought back memories of last year's wrangling over medical malpractice law reform, in which the governor lost a bitter battle over a bill he had vetoed because he said it was long on taxes and short on reform.

Several local legislators, particularly Shank and Del. LeRoy E. Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, have charged Democrats with waging a "get-Ehrlich" campaign ever since.

Ehrlich on the hot seat

This week, Myers cited the fact that Maryland has a $1.7 billion surplus this year despite budget challenges Ehrlich inherited when he took office in 2003. Ehrlich's "success is very hard for the Democrats to deal with."

But one proposal that Ehrlich acknowledged to The Herald-Mail last fall definitely was calculated to target him appears to be dead.

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