Education aid flies on political wings

April 09, 2002

STATE LAWMAKERS decided they couldn't go home in this election year without approving a massive increase in education funding - even if they couldn't find money to pay the bill.

It's a big victory for the Thornton Commission and its supporters, who loudly and properly asserted that children in poor school districts weren't getting the money they needed.

But promising more cash without guaranteeing its availability falls short of the common sense and political courage lawmakers needed in this instance.

Sure, the General Assembly tried to cover charges of fiscal irresponsibility by adding a political fig leaf: Each year, the $1.3 billion in additional education funding would depend on the availability of funding. But that requirement will never be enforced. Politics won't permit it - just as politics pushed the spending formula into law this year. But what is politics if not the sometimes messy art of public problem solving? After all, Marylanders often declare their willingness to pay higher taxes for public education.

Still, the Assembly could have made the trigger unnecessary. It might have decided not to go through with the fifth year of our income tax cut. But delegates and senators couldn't bring themselves to deny a tax cut in an election year.

Thus, passage of a landmark aid bill this year required contortions: cutting the budget, increasing spending, cutting taxes and raising taxes.

And it required some crafty political maneuvering. To wit: Montgomery County senators insisted on more money for their schools. Its lawmakers have been increasingly unwilling to see other counties, however poor, get so much more state money than Montgomery. Without Montgomery senators, the education bill wouldn't have passed - nor would the cigarette tax increase that partially pays for it.

The bill gained momentum in the closing days of the session as lawmakers sensed an unusual opening: Even legislators who thought the deal ill-advised said privately they'd vote for it. No one wants to be against public education.

So, they passed an increase in the per-package tax on cigarettes, covering $78.5 million of the annual cost. And the rest? A study of the state's tax structure will be produced by the end of this year.

Look for the education aid and tax issues to play immediate roles in the gubernatorial campaign. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend says she's against slot machines, thereby cutting herself off from a source of funds that would cover as much as a third of the billion-dollar annual cost of the education aid package. Her likely Republican opponent, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., says he's for slots revenue.

This new gambling may look like an attractive head start on the way toward raising at least $1.3 billion more, but it won't cover the full cost.

Responsibility for this important new spending will fall, one way or another, on the taxpayers. It's the right thing to do, but this isn't the right way to do it. Politics can be like that.

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