Pressure to fund schools intensifies Budget surplus leads to a frenzy of lobbying

November 15, 1997|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

With the state awash in unanticipated revenue and an election year looming, the leaders of several large counties are mining Annapolis for their share of a politically valuable commodity -- school construction money.

Several key local officials are urging Gov. Parris N. Glendening to spend $200 million on school construction next year, which would be the highest outlay in a quarter-century and a figure that could prompt a record-breaking flurry of political deal-making as the money is allocated.

Spending of that magnitude may be necessary to placate the leaders of three of the state's biggest jurisdictions -- Prince George's, Montgomery and Baltimore counties -- whose support next year's election could be crucial to Glendening's re-election chances.

"I hope the governor's going to fund it," said Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. "All the counties need more money for school construction."

Glendening has not yet said how much he will include for school construction in next year's budget, although he set a preliminary target at $141 million in late summer.

But that figure doesn't even match the $150 million being spent this year, and lawmakers expect Glendening to increase the number significantly by the time he introduces his budget to the General Assembly in January.

Prince George's officials are looking for something in the neighborhood of $50 million. Montgomery has asked for $60 million. And Baltimore County is expecting $25 million.

If the other 21 jurisdictions are given the same amount they got this year, that would add another $72 million, bringing the total to more than $200 million.

"There's a growing need for school construction money in the state," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. "When I go to other counties, that's a need that jumps right out."

Even as the lobbying for school aid intensifies, some lawmakers are complaining quietly that Glendening has inappropriately politicized the process.

Glendening, following the lead of his predecessor, William Donald Schaefer, has increased the use of school construction funds as political chits to be played during the General Assembly's annual 90-day session.

Under Gov. Harry R. Hughes, who served before Schaefer, state officials doled out nearly every penny of school construction money before the General Assembly convened each January.

That process evolved under Schaefer, who held onto larger chunks of the construction money until the legislature's 90-day session concluded in April -- a move that gave him more political cards to play as legislators voted on issues important to him.

Similarly, Glendening has allocated just 55 percent of the school construction pie before the legislative session in each of the last two years, holding back a total of more than $100 million.

The use of school construction funds as political chits was never more obvious than during the debate over state funding for two football stadiums two years ago.

At the end of the 1996 session, Glendening increased the amount of construction money he was giving to Montgomery County from $20 million to $36 million. The price? Five votes from Montgomery delegates in support of the stadiums.

Glendening press secretary Judi Scioli brushed aside questions about political trading. "The governor has shown clearly a preference for using tax dollars for education," she said.

Yale Stenzler, an official with the State Department of Education who has overseen the school construction program under several governors, acknowledged that politics does play a part.

"There is some," he said. "I can't say there is none."

But he said budget constraints prevent building all of the schools needed around the state, forcing the governor and state officials to pick and choose among many deserving projects.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, head of the Senate committee that approves the state budget, said Glendening, by holding back decisions on 45 percent of the school funds, is leaving too much money unallocated.

"I can understand leaving a certain pot of this money fluid before you close the budget. But that's a lot," said Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat. "The politics is too tempting, I guess."

Other legislators, who declined to be identified, also grumble quietly about the politics involved in the process, and some lawmakers are searching for a way to change it.

The House Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing next week in an effort to shine light on the inner workings of the funding process.

State and local governments share the cost of school construction. Richer counties such as Montgomery pay a higher share of the cost. Poorer subdivisions, such as Baltimore City, pay a smaller portion.

While the General Assembly has to approve the overall budget for state school construction spending, the governor largely controls the process of distributing the money.

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