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February 9, 2004

General Assembly Journal - Part 5

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

February 3, 2004

On January 31, Gov. Robert Ehrlich fulfilled his annual constitutional mandate to address the Maryland General Assembly on the state of the state. Last year, I talked about the pomp and ceremony that accompanied this highlight event. This year, I thought I’d focus on the people and their reactions.

The session opened with the obligatory quorum confirmation. Once the House of Delegates was present and accounted for, the Senate was ushered into the House Chamber. Unlike last year, the attendance was less impressive. Several prominent House members were not on the Floor for the speech.

Also missing from the Floor were several high-profile county and municipal officials. I’ll speak about Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley later, but the other county executives and mayors were up in the gallery, not on the Floor.

Last year, Governor Ehrlich was criticized for the informal and rambling nature of a good portion of his talk. Heed my Weldon’s Rule of Politics # 3: The members of the Governor’s political party will praise his speech; the opposition party will criticize it.

That said, even I thought the speech last year was lacking something. The Governor appears very comfortable in the House Chamber, attributable to his eight years as a delegate representing Baltimore County.

A common criticism was that he spent too much time revisiting old memories and relationships, and not enough time laying out a cohesive vision for the future of Maryland.

This year’s speech was very different. I spoke to members of the Governor’s personal staff, and they indicated that he started work on this speech in December. The speech was built on the concept of the Governor’s five pillars: fiscal responsibility, education, health and the environment, public safety, and commerce.

Every aspect of his remarks related to these policy priorities. He has arrived at the comfort zone regarding his governance model. He still sprinkled in some personal references, but he should not change his essential nature. Governor Ehrlich is comfortable in his skin, and no one can argue that his charm is catching on with Marylanders.

Many of the policy initiatives the Governor outlined were met with rapid enthusiasm by Republicans, but only got a lukewarm acknowledgement by Democrats (remember Weldon’s Rule # 3). Some proposals, like slots, actually received groans and muttering.

One interesting observation related to how some Republicans reacted to the concept of fee increases to fund transportation initiatives. I watched several of the “ultra” conservative movement when that section came up.

Their reaction was less than enthusiastic, and that presents a challenge for the Governor as the budget debate looms over the General Assembly. Prominent Democrats (read the Speaker, the President of the Senate, and committee chairs) will demand that Republicans cast YEA votes on the various fee and non-tax revenue bills proposed by the administration.

Another strategy of the majority will be to amend the fee increase bills to include the word tax. The logic here is that the Governor has stated his opposition to tax increases, so make it tough for the Republicans by calling all revenue increases taxes.

The truth is that Governor Ehrlich has always made his opposition to a sales or income tax increase a matter of public record. He has also advocated the use of fees as a way to pay for the actual cost of a service designed to benefit the user.

Now, back to the speech, and the reaction to most of the Governor’s agenda. As I mentioned, the Republicans jumped up on every applause line, the Democrats sat on their hands.

One area received general applause, though. When Governor Ehrlich talked about the need to avoid the culture of division so prominent on Capitol Hill in Washington, almost everyone applauded, and most even stood to clap.

The casual observer would think that everyone in the Chamber, delegate or senator, Republican or Democrat, supported the idea of retaining a spirit of camaraderie in Annapolis.

Unfortunately, the spirit of togetherness only lasted as long as the speech. On my way out of the Chamber, I stopped to talk to David Loos of The Frederick News Post, Laura Ernde of The Hagerstown Herald Mail, and the NBC 25 crew. One of the things we do is try to get our “spin” on the record back home to influence how you perceive the event after the fact.

While talking to NBC 25, I overheard Doug Duncan and Mayor O’Malley being interviewed for Washington and Baltimore network affiliates. Duncan accused the Governor of being insensitive to the needs of the poor and needy, and O’Malley accused him of lying.

Actually, O’Malley didn’t accuse Ehrlich of lying. What he ACTUALLY said was that the Governor was not telling the truth. You decide! The lesson to take from this is that while good people can have honest differences of opinion over public policy, politically motivated people depend on the politics of personal attack to cover their lack of factual evidence.

My goal is to never become so jaded by this process that I am unable to see the logic in an opposing policy argument. If Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Duncan are unable to raise themselves from the political gutter long enough to have a legitimate policy debate, Lord help us in 2006!

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