Vote denies book funds

House panel moves to cut money for nonpublic schools

$8 million was proposed

Issue still on agenda of full Assembly

March 10, 2001|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

In a surprising setback for Maryland's nonpublic schools, a House committee voted narrowly last night to cut the $8 million Gov. Parris N. Glendening had proposed to help private and parochial schools purchase textbooks.

After a day of intense lobbying by both sides in the highly charged issue, the Appropriations Committee, on a 14-12 vote, rejected an effort by the panel chairman, Del. Howard P. Rawlings, to preserve $5 million of the spending.

The committee's cut is hardly a final resolution of the issue, because the House of Delegates and the Senate must agree on whether to send more money to nonpublic schools before the state budget for next year is approved early next month.

After a contentious debate last year, the General Assembly approved spending $6 million on private school textbooks.

But some legislators voted for the money believing that it was a one-time-only expenditure, and key lawmakers had predicted for weeks that the spending might be eliminated this year.

Patricia A. Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, which lobbied strenuously against the spending, said she was thrilled by the decision but noted there will be many more votes on the issue.

"It's a tremendous step," Foerster said after watching the close roll call. "We're counting on our friends in the full House to take the same action."

Richard Dowling, a lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference, which pushed hard for the textbook spending, said he was surprised by the outcome after counting votes on the committee earlier in the day.

"We're going to keep our oar in the water for sure," Dowling said. "But I'm most disappointed in those who said they would vote with us, but lied to us."

Hours before the House committee voted, a Senate budget subcommittee took an opposite tack, approving $5 million for textbooks for private and parochial schools. The full Senate budget committee will take up the issue next week.

The textbook vote was the high point as the Appropriations Committee cut nearly $200 million in Glendening's $20 billion budget for next year - barely enough to bring the spending plan within the legislature's self-imposed spending limits.

Among the biggest cuts were reductions in some of the governor's top priorities: higher education, Smart Growth land preservation and mass transit.

Overall, the committee scaled back Glendening's 14 percent increase for state colleges and universities to what they said was a more affordable 10 percent increase.

Del. Nancy K. Kopp, a Montgomery Democrat who heads the subcommittee that oversees education spending, said the 10 percent increase - while it helps bring the state's higher education system into parity with its competitors - will be largely eaten up by mandated pay raises and growth in other routine expenses.

The panel also cut $30 million from the governor's proposed $69 million increase in mass transit spending.

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery Democrat who heads the subcommittee that recommended the cuts, said the cuts will slow progress on the mass transit system, but will not stop it.

"Almost everything statewide is going to be delayed, not cut or dropped," Franchot said.

Although the committee talked mainly about reductions, in one case a key legislator, Kopp, complained about an area that she said had been short-changed by the governor - juvenile justice.

Looking to find more money for what many lawmakers say are under-funded programs in the state health department, some committee members had discussed during the past few days cutting the 4 percent pay raise negotiated with state workers back to 3 percent.

Such a cut would have saved the state about $22 million.

But the committee retreated from the idea after receiving a letter from Glendening and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. urging the panel to consider other ways to generate revenue, such as a proposed amnesty period for delinquent taxpayers.

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