Governor accused of reneging on school aid

Children's advocates say pledge wasn't tied to slots

February 28, 2003|By Michael Dresser and Alec MacGillis | Michael Dresser and Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Children's welfare advocates accused Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday of going back on a campaign promise to fully fund a new education-aid formula even if the General Assembly refuses to approve his plan for slot machines at Maryland racetracks.

The advocates made their complaints as Maryland's college presidents convened to urge state lawmakers not to reduce higher education funding further, but they stopped short of directly endorsing slots as an alternative.

Meanwhile, an increasingly impatient legislature waited for details of the governor's revised slots legislation, which is apparently undergoing a wholesale revision.

An Ehrlich spokesman said new numbers on how slots proceeds would be divided among education, local government and horse racing interests could be available as soon as today.

Even with the plan being rewritten, the slots fight has turned into a bare-knuckled brawl over Maryland's most important spending priorities.

This week, the governor has been telling legislators that if his slots plan doesn't pass, the state won't have enough money to implement the recommendations of the Thornton Commission, which were adopted by the General Assembly last year to create school funding equity between rich and poor jurisdictions.

Children's advocates say Ehrlich appeared before them as a candidate in September in Columbia and was asked specifically whether he would fund the Thornton formula with or without the passage of slots legislation.

Four people who were at the event said yesterday that Ehrlich unequivocally said that funding of Thornton would not be contingent on the passage of a slots bill.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, agreed that the candidate made such a promise. He said Ehrlich's goal is to fund Thornton, but that without slots "it might not be the Thornton we know today."

Fawell said the governor's promise not to raise taxes takes precedence over his vow to fund Thornton regardless of the outcome on slots.

Fawell said that if the Assembly does not approve slots, it will have to make "Draconian cuts" to the budget that will have a severe impact on vulnerable populations. "That is clearly not a preference to the governor," he said.

Children's advocates said Ehrlich's use of Thornton as a hammer over the legislature violates the promise he made at the Maryland Children's Action Network Convention on Sept. 12.

"He said that, yes, he would make sure Thornton was fully funded, regardless of slots," said Zattura Sims-El, program director of the Baltimore Education Network. "We were very specific and careful in the asking of the questions."

Sims-El said she sees Ehrlich's answer as promises made "with no intention of keeping them."

Charlie Cooper, vice chairman of the Maryland Education Coalition, rejected the contention that Ehrlich's tax promises take precedence. "Education is mandated in the [Maryland] Constitution, and the level of taxes isn't," he said.

A Republican lawmaker dismissed the complaints as "much ado about nothing."

"Certainly, everyone is well aware of the fact that Bob Ehrlich is a Republican, and Republicans do not like taxes and particularly tax increases," said Sen. Richard F. Colburn, who represents the Eastern Shore.

As the link between Thornton and slots gained more attention, the debate's implications for higher education were on display at the State House.

Leaders of the Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, College Park and many other public and private colleges came to Annapolis to support Ehrlich's higher-education budget, which calls for an 8 percent reduction in funding, and to fight further cuts.

The educators told lawmakers they can barely handle the reduction the governor imposed as part of his effort to make up for a $1.3 billion budget shortfall.

What alarms them, they said, are additional cuts of about $38 million that are being considered by some lawmakers as a possible alternative to Ehrlich's slots plan.

"The threat of further cuts has elevated our concerns to the level of alarm," said Frostburg State University President Catherine R. Gira. More cuts, she said, would mean more layoffs and employee furloughs.

As they argued for Ehrlich's budget, the presidents declined to explicitly endorse the centerpiece of his plan, slot machine revenue. The presidents acknowledged that slots revenue would reduce the budget pressure on colleges and help stave off deeper cuts. But that did not mean they were implicitly arguing for slots, the presidents said.

"We have the responsibility to identify our role in the services we can provide the state. We don't see it as our role to identify to the state how it collects revenue," said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland.

The college leaders' refusal to publicly support Ehrlich's revenue plans contrasts with the position of state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who testified on behalf of slots this week. The presidents noted that other options for avoiding higher education cuts exist, including closing corporate tax loopholes or cutting other areas of the budget. But they said they didn't want to favor one option over another.

William R. Brody, president of Johns Hopkins - which receives about $17 million in state aid - said, "It's not our job. The legislature and the governor have to decide how to generate revenue and allocate expenses."

Some presidents said they were not opposed on principle to slots as a revenue source for education.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.