A risky election-year gamble

Education aid: With no money source, the Assembly prepares to pass a billion-dollar program.

April 04, 2002

MARYLAND lawmakers want it both ways: They approved the fifth year of an income tax cut at a cost of $177 million -- and now they're about to pass a billion-dollar education aid bill.

The exercise doesn't compute. Unless you factor in election-year pressure.

So, as the Assembly heads for the conclusion of its 2002 session, legislators must at least approve a study of the state's revenue structure. That would provide a sort of fig leaf for the naked passing of a huge spending commitment without a funding source.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman of Baltimore, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Budget and Taxation, says a part of the bill will be covered by a 36-cent increase in the cigarette tax. That measure, passed by the Senate and pending in the House, would cover only $78.5 million or so of the education plan's first-year cost, estimated at well over $210 million.

Nevertheless, the Senate passed an aid formula committing Maryland to spend that much more each year for six years until it reaches the target.

The Thornton Commission recently reported that equalizing per-classroom spending in Maryland would cost the state $1.1 billion per year. That figure rose to $1.25 billion or so when Senator Hoffman, in search of votes to pass that bill and the cigarette tax increase, gave Montgomery County senators more for their schools -- their price for supporting Thornton.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. wants to defer the Thornton bill until the revenue study has been completed.

But a growing number of his colleagues will follow the Senate. They would apparently rather explain how Maryland can vote a $1 billion spending plan into law with no clue how to pay for it.

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