Proposal could ease local costs

March 03, 1995|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Sun Staff Writer

Unfunded state mandates are burdensome for local jurisdictions and the General Assembly can prevent some by approving a bill submitted by Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson, Frederick County school officials said yesterday.

But representatives from the State Board of Education said the bill, if passed, might tie their hands about making policy decisions.

"We are on the horns of a dilemma," said Robert Rice, executive assistant to the State Board of Education. "We are charged with caring for the educational system of the state and we have to do that with policy changes. With policy changes come costs on the local level."

The bill, which is before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, would prohibit the State Board of Education from adopting programs that would cost local jurisdictions more than .025 percent of the state's per-pupil cost.

It is similar to one submitted last year by former Sen. Charles H. Smelser, a Democrat from Uniontown who had served as chairman of the Senate's capital budget subcommittee.

Mr. Smelser's bill, which placed a $1 million limit on the mandate and allowed a waiver to be granted by the General Assembly, passed both houses of the General Assembly but was vetoed by the governor.

During last fall's election, Senator Ferguson, a Republican from Taylorsville, won the seat Mr. Smelser vacated when he retired from the legislature.

"If the bill passes, I'll give Charlie Smelser all the credit," Senator Ferguson said yesterday. "If it doesn't, I'll take all the blame."

Mr. Smelser, who was unavailable for comment, declined to testify on the bill, Senator Ferguson said.

"He told me he did all the hard work last year," Senator Ferguson said.

Senator Ferguson's version of the bill replaces the dollar limit with a formula that takes an average of the per-pupil cost of the program from each jurisdiction and compares it to the statewide per-pupil cost.

If the program costs more than .025 percent of the statewide per-pupil cost, it would have to be paid for by the state.

The state spends $5,987 per pupil, said Stephen Hess, Frederick County's director of Criterion-Referenced Evaluation and Testing. Therefore, the average cost of a new program could be no more than $1.49 per student, he said.

The legislative waiver has also been removed, Senator Ferguson said. "The amendment changes the bill so that it only deals with dollars," he told the committee.

Senator Ferguson acknowledged that one of the reasons the bill had been submitted last year was because several local jurisdictions had opposed the high school public service program.

The formula also allows adjustment for inflation and balances any potential cost differences between large and small local school systems, Mr. Hess said.

"In any large district, the cost for a program could be $1 million [because they have more students]," he said. "One district could overrule all the rest. This lets the small ones be on the same playing field as the large ones."

The Maryland Association of Counties also supported the bill.

"Our line is simple," said Michael Sanderson of MACo. "The county groups have been consistently before you about unfunded mandates. We feel this bill would put a red flag in front of government, including the legislature."

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