The Legislature Does It Right

November 20, 1992

State legislators acted responsibly and quickly yesterday to terminate a school-aid program that had become enormously inequitable and regressive, rewarding rich school systems far more than poor school districts. By eliminating the state's role in paying Social Security costs for teachers and librarians, lawmakers returned that fiscal responsibility to local elected officials, who are in the best position to control costs in this area.

No one at the special General Assembly session was happy about cutting this $147 million aid program. But the open-ended nature of the aid -- it wasexpected to rise to $250 million by the end of the decade -- and the pressing need to balance the state budget made their action inevitable.

Much credit is due Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who quietly engaged in lengthy discussions with his colleagues to smooth the way for surprisingly quick passage of the bill in his chamber. Mr. Miller's decision to support House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and Gov. William Donald Schaefer on the local aid cut won't be popular back home in Prince George's County. Yet the Senate president rose above parochialism and courageously opted to do what was best for the state. It was his finest hour.

Less praiseworthy were the bitter words and delaying tactics from Montgomery County lawmakers. Their attacks on Baltimore City, which takes a fiscal hit almost as grave as Montgomery, were unwarranted. Representatives of both delegations ought to use the weeks before the General Assembly's January session to re-establish their common interests, which are considerable.

For nearly a decade, state commissions have urged the abolition of the Social Security subsidy to local schools. Rich counties benefit the most because they pay teachers high salaries that are subject to the highest Social Security taxes. Thus the state ended up giving most of this aid to well-to-do jurisdictions, exacerbating the gap between rich and poor subdivisions. That was hurting the state, lawmakers reluctantly conceded yesterday.

Legislators made a mistake, though, in failing to consider another item proposed by Governor Schaefer: a bill postponing the impact of a court ruling that could stifle consumer lending. A delay would have given lawmakers time to study the matter and draw up remedial legislation. But Speaker Mitchell refused to go along. It was not a wise move. If a credit crunch develops, it could snuff out a promising holiday shopping season. That would hurt Maryland's troubled merchants -- and the state's depleted treasury.

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