~ Bay Weekly Interview ~
with Sandra Olivetti Martin Gov. Robert Ehrlich
"On the environment, we had a very good year."
The sounds of urgent dealing echoed through the Maryland State House this week, bouncing off marble floors and rising high into the rotunda. Rarely, if ever, has the General Assembly become so roiled so early in January. It was the last day of the contentious special post-Christmas session called by Gov. Robert Ehrlich to deal with what he called a crisis in medical malpractice.
From noon until dusk, lawmakers debated overriding the governor's veto of a malpractice bill not to his liking. All the while, the governor's men buttonholed, arm-twisted and hustled votes to his side. From his office, the governor lobbied by phone. The Senate looked to be a lost cause, but Ehrlich had a glimmer of hope in the House, press secretary Greg Massoni confided.
Ultimately, the delegate they were counting on flipped. The Democratic-held House overrode the governor's veto by the slimmest possible margin, 85 votes.
As light faded from the short January day, the governor called a press conference to blast the Assembly for setting up a "superfund for trial lawyers." He promised what he called real medical malpractice insurance reform in the new General Assembly session with a bill of his own.
Bay Weekly editor Sandra Martin took stock of the action from a governor's office anteroom. Ehrlich never broke away from his meetings, instead speaking with Bay Weekly by phone the following morning
Bay Weekly Governor, today begins a whole new session. Is there a message you want Marylanders to hear from you going into this General Assembly?
Gov. Ehrlich There will be lot of activity, a lot of initiatives, a lot of debate on children. It's the year of the child, and a lot of our initiatives pertain to children, from school construction to restructuring of agencies whose jurisdictions impact children. There'll be a lot of youth safety, a lot of policy time given over in particular to kids in at-risk situations.
Bay Weekly As the father of two young boys, you must hold those issues dear to your heart.
Gov. Ehrlich Whether it's been a good day or a bad day, coming home and having Drew tackle me is my therapy. Then watching them sleep at night: That's every parent's favorite time.
Bay Weekly I've a couple of environmental questions, issues our readers care about deeply, but I know you're a sports fan, so first let me pitch you a softball.
Now that you're at the midway point in your term, do you think that you've merited re-election? Are you indeed seeking re-election?
Gov. Ehrlich That decision will be made in a year. We've just completed a study of promises and commitments we made to people in our campaign and where we are on them. We made 101 promises — on policy issues, taxes, education, restructuring government — and we're going to do a midterm report.
We're a work in progress. But so far we've lived up to about two-thirds of what we promised. We've done a lot. This past year in particular was good, very positive, on the environmental front. It was a very, very good year.
Bay Weekly Is there a short list of reasons why Marylanders should elect you to a second term?
Gov. Ehrlich Absolutely not. We're two years in. The decision on whether to run again has not even been made. It will be made in a year.
People should decide on an elected official's tenure in office, particularly on how seriously he or she has taken commitments made in campaigning. Commitments are important around here. We remember our commitments. We measure them and report on them.
Bay Weekly Will this session be important in terms of giving people clear understanding, and perhaps appreciation, of you as governor?
Gov. Ehrlich The daily press focuses disproportionately on legislative initiative and keeps score. They just count how many bills you put in, amended, passed and killed. According to their scorecards, my first session was very mediocre, my second very good.
But there's another nine months, and a lot of the governor's work is done in them: appointments, regulatory issues, judgeships, decisions made on the Board of Public Works.
Bay Weekly Do you plan a larger role in shaping the future of the Republican Party in Maryland?
Gov. Ehrlich I am a Republican, and I guess I'm the titular head of the party. But politics, party activities, do not take up much of my time. Generally, to the degree I'm successful, Republicans are viewed in a more positive light.
But both Republicans and Democrats have party infrastructures. I'm not the Republican state chair. It's John Kane's job. We're the government, and they're the party.
Bay Weekly Which branch of the party was responsible for the recent advertisements targeting Anne Arundel Democratic senators John Astle, James DeGrange and Phil Jimeno on medical malpractice?
Gov. Ehrlich The party made decision outside our knowledge.
Bay Weekly This week's Baltimore Sun poll shows what our readers keep telling us: citizens' deep interest and deepening anxiety about the Bay. Despite the good news of the widely recognized Bay Restoration Fund, they're still worried. Does this concern you?
Gov. Ehrlich They should be worried. That's a good thing. It concerns me, too, and takes up an extraordinary amount of my time, which is also a good thing.
In 10 years, we stopped the bleeding, but we have not begun serious revitalization. This administration has made progress on many fronts. Just look at what we were able to get passed in the past year: the Bay Restoration Fund, Bay grasses, Brown Fields, Priority Places. It's substantive; it's good solid policy. But you measure Bay restoration in five-, 10-, 20-year increments, not in months.
The challenge is balancing what we have to do, on one hand, to grow as a state, attracting good jobs and maintaining prosperity, and on the other to deal with the consequences of growth in context of our waterways and education.
Bay Weekly Might slots return to the debate this year?
Gov. Ehrlich It's never far from the debate, and so many positives are associated with saving horse racing that we will continue to drive this issue.
For example, horse racing is an environmental issue as well. Maryland has 700,000 acres taken up with horse racing activities. Our horse-related assets amount to $5.2 billion. As racing suffers, as we lose our best and brightest to surrounding states, marginal farms in the outer suburbs will be sold for inappropriate development, increasing pressure on the watershed.
So saving the industry not only preserves our very glorious past — and present. There are also economic and environmental aspects to protect.
Bay Weekly Might slots bring any money for the Bay?
Gov. Ehrlich So much money will be produced that there could very well be. We have obviously tried to relate the issue to school construction, paying for the Thornton Mandate [for funding grades K-12] and education generally. Education programs connected to the Bay could fall under that funding.
Bay Weekly Help us understand how that environmental commitment meshes with appointments — most recently former delegate Ron Guns' appointment as Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Bay watchdog — that seems to favor business over the environment?
Gov. Ehrlich He was a very popular legislator, very widely respected in the General Assembly and a Democrat. We have bipartisan government in my administration, as many Democrats as Republicans. Beyond that, his views on conservation, the environment and sporting activities are widely respected, and we're happy.