Ehrlich calls for change
In speech, governor takes credit for surplus, lauds state's compassion
By Jill Rosen and Jennifer Skalka
Sun reporters

January 27, 2006

In his final State of the State address before embarking on a re-election bid, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. called himself an "agent of change," claiming credit yesterday for a fiscal turnaround that he said transformed projected deficits into a healthy surplus and for pouring more money into education, transportation and the environment, while laying out his vision for the coming year.

Repeating a mantra that punctuated his half-hour speech, Ehrlich said, "We've changed Maryland, and there is more to do."

The governor applauded Maryland's compassion during Hurricane Katrina relief efforts and called for civility from lawmakers, appealing to them to support his proposals to legalize slot machines at racetracks, to crack down on young drunken drivers and to stop taxing the pensions of some military veterans - all plans he hopes will support his effort to win a second term.

Facing what's expected to be a bruising battle, Ehrlich - the state's first Republican governor in nearly four decades - asked an overwhelmingly Democratic General Assembly, which is overriding his vetoes at an unprecedented rate, to change the partisan tone in Annapolis. He once again made a pointed plea for respect, as he did during an impromptu preamble to last year's annual address.

"We can respect philosophical differences," Ehrlich said, urging lawmakers not to "engage in the Capitol Hill-type assassin politics."

"To the extent the culture gets sick, the state gets sick," he said.

In response, Democrats questioned Ehrlich's compassion and derided what they called his reckless spending. This month, the governor proposed the largest state general fund spending increase in more than 25 years, and legislative analysts say the state is still projected to spend more than it collects in taxes in coming years.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, called the speech "low on credibility."

"He brags about compassion," Frosh said, "but cuts poor kids and pregnant women off of Medicaid."

"You can't cut taxes and spend like a drunken sailor at the same time," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said. "If you did this in a family you'd be in the poorhouse."

Del. Anthony G. Brown, a Prince George's County Democrat who is running on the gubernatorial ticket with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, felt the governor's reprimand about civility was out of place.

"I'm not sure why he feels compelled to lecture us on civility, particularly in this forum," Brown said. "I think he's preaching to the choir."

Republicans, however, praised both the governor's remarks and his accomplishments.

"The governor outlined a great agenda and three years of accomplishments," said Sen. E.J. Pipkin of the Eastern Shore. "He's done a good job of getting the state's fiscal health in order."

Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus said the address "made us feel good about ourselves and about Maryland."

O'Malley, who listened to the speech from his seat in the balcony, left immediately afterward. His spokeswoman, Raquel Guillory, said he was off to a meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors in Washington.

"The State of the State is the governor's day," said Guillory.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who's also vying for Ehrlich's seat, slammed the governor for undergoing an election-year makeover.

"This is a major transformation of Bob Ehrlich, an attempt in an election year to buy votes," Duncan said. "He's going to revert back to the real Bob Ehrlich right after the election."

In his address, Ehrlich pushed for a bill that would take the driver's license from anyone under 21 convicted of driving drunk.

"This is one initiative remaining from last year's package of teen driving bills. Let's complete the job - for the safety of our kids and the nerves of our parents," Ehrlich said.

To underscore his support of a bill that would exempt military retirement income from state taxes for veterans with two decades of service, the governor invited to the speech a man he called "a certified American hero," a 72-year- old former Vietnam prisoner of war who works in the General Assembly mailroom.

"Passing this bill is not only the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do," Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich also again made a pitch for legalizing slots, a proposal the legislature has killed three years in a row. Slots opponents say there's little chance this year will be any different.

"The essential role of our horse industry should be recognized through passage of a video lottery bill. I ask you to consider - one more time - the economic impact of horses and the farm industry in Maryland," Ehrlich said. "Helping this vital industry survive in an intensely competitive environment will also allow us to fund new school construction so desperately needed in every part of the state."

Ehrlich also asked the General Assembly to place stricter limits on jury awards in suits stemming from medical errors by doctors, with the hopes of reducing the cost of malpractice insurance.

"I repeat my request for balanced, meaningful medical liability reform to help curb explosive growth in health-care costs," Ehrlich said. "Passing a short-term subsidy to fix a long-term structural problem will not stand the test of time. Even incremental progress here will reflect well on a state so proud of its health-care providers and institutions."

Known for his informal speaking style and his disdain for written speeches, Ehrlich stuck mainly to his prepared remarks as he recited a lengthy list of the state's accomplishments, laid out an agenda for the months ahead and asked the Assembly to work with him to pass the bills he backs.

But the governor broke from tradition - and the text - when he invited a guest to the podium to speak for a few minutes.

The governor spent a substantial portion of his speech promoting Maryland's Katrina relief efforts. "You know what the state of the state of Maryland is?" he asked. "It's compassion." Jefferson Parish, La., President Aaron F. Broussard profusely thanked the governor when Ehrlich stepped aside and gave him a chance to address lawmakers.

"I don't know how you can put a value on such a great humanitarian act as that," Broussard said. "I don't know how you can add all that up, but I know how we paid it back: You got it back in smiles, you got it back in hugs and you got it back in tears."

Ehrlich said he and Broussard "both broke down" when the parish president called to thank him. Broussard told the governor that he had declared yesterday in his parish Maryland and Gov. Robert Ehrlich day.

Broussard spoke of his area's predicament after the devastating hurricane - scarce food, water and medical care. "What were we to do?" he said. "Out of heaven via Maryland came this plane."

"There were so many tens of thousands of Marylanders who stopped their lives and picked up and went south for as long as needed to stay there because they needed us," Ehrlich said, pointing out that "the state of the state of Maryland" is compassion.

The emphasis on compassion worked for Stoltzfus, who said, "That was a profound and proper statement, I think."

Even a Democratic leader, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, welcomed the sentimental touch.

"I think people and legislators were looking for something positive today, too," Busch said. "We had a couple of tough weeks here with the veto override battles. ... It's a good opportunity for everyone to relax a bit and enjoy some of the benefits of the economy of Maryland when there is a surplus."
Sun reporter Kelly Brewington contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2006, The Baltimore Sun