Governor vows millions more to build schools Latest initiative in an election year

January 09, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron and Michael Dresser | Thomas W. Waldron and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Larry Carson and Candus Thomson contributed to this article.

Moving to capitalize on an election-year budget surplus, Gov. Parris N. Glendening is proposing a series of ambitious plans to boost state spending on education, libraries and health care.

The governor disclosed yesterday that he will propose "well in excess" of $200 million to build local schools next year, and he confirmed reports that he intends to significantly increase state aid to colleges and universities.

The spending announcements will continue today, when Glendening is scheduled to propose additional money for libraries, and next week, when he is expected to endorse an increase in state funding to operate schools.

The state's surplus, pegged at $260 million in a budget of around $16 billion, "gives us a unique opportunity," Glendening said yesterday in an interview.

"We have the surplus and the confidence looking at out-year budget forecasts to do something," he added. "I'm pleased we're in that position."

Even with the surplus, Glendening's proposals seem to leave him little room to push any major new tax cuts.

They also don't appear to allow accelerating the 10 percent income tax cut enacted last year. Some key legislators want to speed up the income tax cut, which is scheduled to be phased in over five years.

"I would urge caution on any gimmicks that cut taxes in an election year," Glendening said. "I think people are smarter than that."

Instead, the governor is expected to sock away about $100 million in his budget to use in future years when the state feels the full effects of the income tax cut.

Together, his initiatives call for at least $220 million in new state spending next year, with even larger amounts promised for future years.

Glendening will include the money in the budget he submits later this month to the General Assembly -- which can reject his proposals. Some lawmakers already have warned against committing too much new money to current programs.

"It's an election year. The governor would like to spend as much as he can making people happy. That's normal," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. "These are very good things. We just have to see how we can make everything fit."

Glendening's $200 million ballpark figure for the school construction was put at $225 million by sources familiar with his plans. That figure would represent a 50 percent increase over this year's spending.

The governor said well-maintained or new schools would, among other benefits, help convince young families to remain in older neighborhoods and not move to newer suburbs.

"I want to reduce class size," Glendening added. "And make the older schools as good as the best modern schools."

Some legislators believe $225 million would be too much for school construction and doubted local governments would be able to use all the money.

"I don't believe there's a capacity across the state to spend more than $200 million in a 12-month period," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "I really do think it's bordering on spending extravagance to be suggesting that all of a sudden we can go to $225 million."

But some county executives considered important to Glendening's re-election chances have been clamoring for a major increase in school construction funds.

Yesterday, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger called news of Glendening's plans "great" and expressed optimism that his county's allocation might come close to its full request of $33 million.

Higher education

As for higher education, the governor confirmed reports that he would add $64.5 million next year to state spending on colleges and universities -- the first installment in a four-year, $634.5 million program.

Glendening promised to put that money in future budgets no matter how the economy performs.

"If the economy goes up, we can fund this easily. If the economy goes down, it will be more difficult, but we will fund it," he told a news conference.

Glendening said the plan would raise spending on state higher education by 7.6 percent over this year and by 29 percent over the next four. He said the additional aid is intended to put Maryland back on the track toward national "eminence" -- a goal set by the General Assembly in 1988 but abandoned when the 1991-1992 recession forced large cuts in the higher education budget.

The governor said he was making a commitment to fully finance each year of his program because educators need to know what they will have to spend -- a premise heartily endorsed by university officials.

But the promise comes with one important caveat: Glendening would have to be re-elected to provide that money.

Both of his prospective Republican rivals, 1994 nominee Ellen R. Sauerbrey and Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, said yesterday that they would not commit to continue that level of financing if elected. Both questioned whether any governor could predict economic conditions three or four years out.

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