City school aid votes lining up Bill should clear without money for counties, leaders say

March 27, 1997|By Thomas W. Waldron and William F. Zorzi Jr. | Thomas W. Waldron and William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Eric Siegel contributed to this article.

After several days of intense back-room discussions, legislative leaders said yesterday that the votes are in place to pass the Baltimore school spending package in the General Assembly -- without additional aid sought by other jurisdictions.

House leaders said a majority of delegates now support the bill -- meaning that a rebellious effort by lawmakers seeking more state spending for Prince George's, Montgomery and other counties had failed.

But in a move to mend the regional schism, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. decided not to muscle the matter through the chamber, postponing a committee vote on the schools bill for a few days.

Instead, he called on Gov. Parris N. Glendening to try to please unhappy jurisdictions by submitting a supplemental budget request soon, one that includes more education money for areas besides Baltimore.

"I feel very confident that before we adjourn we are going to resolve this horrendous issue," Taylor said. "And we will be able to walk away from here with our heads held high."

In effect, Taylor was telling his members that while he can pass the city aid package without money for the counties, he believes that they deserve and will get some. But it won't be as much as some jurisdictions wanted. And the two matters should be considered separately, in his view.

Earlier in the day, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he was confident the Baltimore aid bill would also clear the Senate with no aid attached for other jurisdictions.

"I'm just comfortable that senators from all over the state recognize Baltimore City's unique problems and are willing to assist," said Miller, a Prince George's Democrat.

Although the presiding officers' assertions don't guarantee the bill will pass before the Assembly adjourns April 7, it was clear that the legislation's chances brightened dramatically yesterday.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke expressed cautious optimism last night.

"The bill is starting to move. Things are coming together nicely. I think ultimately we'll be successful," the mayor said.

But Schmoke said he was not prepared to declare victory until any differences in Senate and House versions of the bill were worked out.

At least one potentially divisive question remains unresolved -- whether to end the new school management structure in Baltimore after five years.

The bill would overhaul that structure, removing control of the system from the office of the mayor and handing it to a new school board appointed jointly by the mayor and governor.

At the same time, the state would increase education aid to the city by $254 million over the next five years.

The legislation would enact the terms of a court consent decree signed last fall to settle three suits over conditions in city schools.

But many legislators bristled that their areas were not receiving new aid as well. Prince George's County, in particular, protested that it has needs similar to Baltimore because of the county's large number of children living in poverty.

But legislative leaders and the governor had resisted committing to a major increase in aid to those other jurisdictions -- NTC particularly in a year in which an income tax cut is a chief priority.

In his request to Glendening, Taylor called on the governor to send down a supplemental budget quickly -- "so we can see all the cards" -- and said he expects that spending submission to include new aid for all parts of the state.

House leaders have proposed sending $26.5 million in new aid to the state's 23 counties next year, and Taylor is hoping Glendening will put at least that much in his supplemental budget request. Some counties, particularly Montgomery and Prince George's, have been holding out for tens of millions of dollars more.

As Taylor was calling on his committees to postpone the vote, Glendening was calling Del. Sheila E. Hixon, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, to take the vote. Hixon could not answer the phone at the time, but finally called the governor back.

"He told me that he wanted me to vote on it today -- and vote on it the way the Senate passed it out," she said. "I told him, 'Cas is sending you a letter asking you to work it out with the county executives.' "

Glendening repeated his support for the Baltimore school package last night, but remained noncommittal about when he would submit the supplemental budget.

Judi Scioli, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Glendening is waiting to see how the legislature "sorts out" several fiscal issues -- including two of his initiatives, an income tax reduction and an increase in the state's cigarette tax.

In addition, Scioli said, the governor remains committed to achieving some of his other pending legislative initiatives -- particularly his Thriving by Three program of insurance for low-income women and infants, and his anti-suburban sprawl Smart Growth plan, which would direct state spending to certain targeted areas.

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