Mayor's threat of lawsuit draws fire from legislature and governor

May 16, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- Key state legislators reacted with anger and astonishment yesterday at Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's threatened lawsuit over state spending for public schools.

Even Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who backed a similar 1983 suit when he had Mr. Schmoke's job, called the mayor's gambit "a mistake."

"It's a slap in the face," said Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

"Unbelievable," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, subcommittee chairman in the House Appropriations Committee.

"I'm sure [Baltimore officials] want and could use more money," said Del. Nancy K. Kopp, D-Montgomery, the House speaker pro tem. "But to say that the legislature and the governor have not made equalization of education funding a priority over the last few years is just factually inaccurate.

"To say nothing has happened is just to ignore history. It simply is not true," she said.

The governor and legislators predicted that opponents of more aid to the city and other poor jurisdictions will use such a lawsuit as an excuse to suspend all new aid until the suit is settled.

"I'm one of those people who believes that we have to provide special assistance to the city, but when they do things like this, it makes it hard for us to be their friends," Mr. Maloney said.

Mr. Schaefer said much has changed since the unsuccessful 1983 lawsuit he backed.

He noted that two major school funding programs have sent millions of dollars in state aid to local government, and that the General Assembly has become much more attuned to the problems of the city than it was when he was mayor.

"It was necessary for me to file suit -- we weren't getting anything extra," he said.

Now, the governor said, the city would be better off if it continued to work with the legislature, not against it.

The governor and several lawmakers noted that a deeply divided General Assembly just barely approved a tax increase on Marylanders a month ago that, among other uses, will be spent specifically on grants to help Baltimore and several poor rural counties.

Despite serious financial problems, the legislature also fully funded an $184 million increase in state aid for education that is heavily weighted toward poorer jurisdictions.

About $110 million more in so-called "APEX" spending on education will probably be added to the fiscal year 1994 budget next year.

Lawmakers also noted that the General Assembly is so aware of Baltimore's special problems that it has tried to lighten the city's load by taking over the city jail, taking over the Community College of Baltimore, providing extra money for the court system and the zoo and other functions.

They also seemed miffed because the mayor talked about suing the state at a time when other major jurisdictions are considering increasesin their local piggyback income tax rates.

The city has rejected that method of raising revenue from its own residents.

Several lawmakers suggested that the lawsuit -- which could cost as much as a half million dollars to fight -- stands little chance of success.

"I think maybe the mayor jumped the gun a little bit," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore, vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

"Unless there are different grounds on which to sue, I'm not sure it is a good use of resources."

But not all lawmakers thought a lawsuit was a bad idea.

"I think this governor has been very sensitive to the problems of Baltimore City, and I must say the speaker and the president of the Senate have been. But one thing is for sure: these gentlemen will not be in those positions forever," said Del. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat.

"If a suit is brought to bring some kind of equity and parity, and will assure it even after the present governor and leaders of the House and Senate are gone, then I think we need to do that," he said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said, "Courts are the place to address grievances. Anyone who reviews the Kentucky and Texas decisions [on school funding lawsuits] by the courts recognizes that Mayor Schmoke's concerns are valid. He should find out what the courts have to say."

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, could not be reached for comment.

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