Education tax dilemma

October 26, 1997|By Barry Rascovar

EARLIER THIS YEAR, Annapolis politicians confronted the dreaded "T" word, as in "taxes" (they lowered them). In a few months, lawmakers and the governor will confront another of those alphabet labels, the amorphous "E" word, as in "education."

Education is one of those motherhood and apple pie issues. How can you oppose it? Education, like spinach, is good for you. Consume enough of it and you will be strong -- an employed, informed citizen with a bright future.

The problem is that providing quality education for Marylanders costs money, lots of money. Every enhancement to a school or college is expensive. Much of this cost is on-going, and ever-rising, in the form of salaries for instructors.

School buildings, too, are expensive. Maryland appropriated $150 million for new schools this year and barely touched the most pressing needs.

College buildings are wildly expensive, especially science structures. For instance, a badly needed expansion to accommodate researchers in the health-sciences building at the University of Maryland, Baltimore's campus would cost $83 million; a new health-sciences library to meet the growing demand there would cost $32 million.

State government in Maryland is spending close to $5 billion on public education this year. And it isn't enough. Not even close.

This puts Gov. Parris Glendening and Maryland legislators in a difficult bind. To meet demands of educators at schools and colleges would devour the state treasury. Take a look at what's happening on the public schools front.

Every county executive is pressing for more state aid.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan wants $100 million more a year in school allocations, with the lion's share flowing to his wealthy subdivision.

The governor has proposed sending $250 million (over five years) to his home county of Prince George's to help end court-ordered school busing. P.G.'s county executive Wayne Curry says that's a starting point.

Meanwhile, the P.G. school board, which is good at spending taxpayer's money without worrying about how to raise it, wants $500 million over five years -- half from the state and half from the county. Even state superintendent Nancy Grasmick has proposed a $45 million-a-year plan.

All this would be on top of what could be a $150 million to $200 million school construction program for next year -- and $50 million a year in extra aid Baltimore City's bankrupt schools will receive over the next five years.

But that is just a portion of the dilemma. Higher education could prove nearly as costly.

Lawmakers say they want to start pumping more money into the University of Maryland to raise the appallingly low level of state support. This could be a lengthy game of catch-up, with state funding rising substantially each year. Pretty soon, that projected $150 million surplus some lawmakers are expecting will have been spent several times over.

The good news is that Annapolis is finally in a financial position to pour more money into education, though not nearly as much as educators think is appropriate. Other priorities, such as the environment (a Pfiesteria-prevention program for the bay) and public safety (a $100 million maximum-security prison) could come first.

There is also sentiment for reserving money while fiscal times are good. A very costly income-tax cut is being implemented over five years. Budget bureaucrats and even Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller talk of curbing new spending so the state can absorb the loss of $120 million next year and $450 million in 2002 when the 10 percent tax cut is fully in place.

Add into the mix the 1998 elections in which all 188 legislators and the governor (and the county executives) are up before voters and pressure increases to approve lots of new money for popular programs like education.

Yet they must balance re-election imperatives against the need for fiscal prudence.

This is especially delicate for Governor Glendening, who knows he risks being labeled a big-spending liberal by Republican Ellen Sauerbrey next year. He also knows he faces two generally conservative budget committees in the House and Senate.

Maryland's public schools and colleges will probably wind up with more cash in their budget accounts next spring, but it surely won't feel like Christmas in April.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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