School funding proposal in limbo

House, Senate split on how to enact Thornton panel plan

March 29, 2002|By Howard Libit and David Nitkin | Howard Libit and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The prospects of a plan to boost public school funding under a method devised by a blue-ribbon panel appeared dim last night, as key House of Delegates leaders said they remain firmly opposed to the proposal.

A late afternoon meeting between the House and Senate leadership failed to produce a compromise on when and how to enact recommendations of the Thornton Commission. The panel called for Maryland to spend an additional $1.1 billion annually on schools within five years, with more money going to the neediest districts.

Lawmakers say they are heading toward a deadlock on an interim solution: raising the state's cigarette tax and using most of the money to pay for education.

House leaders say they don't want to lock in a permanent formula that redistributes wealth without settling on a way to pay for all of it. Their Senate counterparts say the formula needs to be in place first, because a delay could kill its chances in the future.

"There are two houses in this bicameral legislature, and apparently the two houses are headed in fundamentally different directions," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat. "We're going to head our way, the Senate will head its way and we will have to try to make something work in a conference committee."

But delegates from Baltimore and Prince George's County began scrambling yesterday to salvage the Thornton recommendation, seeking support among their colleagues to urge Taylor to relax his opposition to the plan. They hope to deliver a letter to the speaker as soon as today.

"We're at the point where we can't afford to wait," said Del. Rushern L. Baker III, a Prince George's Democrat and chairman of the county delegation. "To delay it now would only seem to hurt the children and their education."

The leaderships of the House and Senate have tentatively agreed to a 34-cent-a-pack increase in Maryland's cigarette tax, with the bulk of that money going toward public schools.

Taylor and Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, say they want only to approve a short-term education funding package of as much as $70 million.

Approval of the Thornton recommendations should wait until the Assembly figures out during next year's session how to pay for it, House leaders say. "It's fiscally irresponsible to pass this plan," Rawlings said.

The Thornton plan also faces opposition from Montgomery County delegates - including Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee - because a larger share of state funding goes toward less affluent jurisdictions. Maryland's most populous jurisdiction says the plan treats them unfairly.

While the House leadership opposes doing anything more than a one-year spending package, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee is set to approve as soon as today a modified version of the Thornton proposal.

The plan being considered by the Senate would include the Thornton recommendations, with slight changes to provide Montgomery a little more money.

It also would include funding for separate measures to improve services for adult literacy and infants and toddlers.

The Prince George's schools would receive an extra $10 million, provided the Assembly approves legislation this year to restructure the county's embattled school board.

"We're going to move first," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who leads the Budget and Taxation Committee. "The house that moves first has done its job.

"We will have done the right thing," she said. "We will have moved a legitimate formula that contains more money for Montgomery County."

But Taylor insisted yesterday that a long-term Thornton plan cannot be passed this year.

"As long as the Senate insists on codifying into law the permanent out-year Thornton formula, I don't think I can get the votes," Taylor said. "If that's the case, we are going through an exercise in futility."

If the two chambers fail to reach a compromise on education funding, it also could endanger the cigarette tax - and a portion of those revenues are being sought to restore cuts made to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's budget.

Yesterday morning, Glendening met with fiscal leaders from the House and Senate, laying out a list of several items.

He hopes to see a $30 million funding increase for the University System of Maryland - compared with nothing in the Senate spending plan - as well as about $25.5 million restored to environmental protection programs.

The governor also urged that $15.5 million in construction funding be found for a new public policy building at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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