Curran faults Thornton law escape clause

Warning will complicate bid to cut school funds

$1.3 billion-a-year program

Governor, leaders to meet on plan's legal, fiscal woes

November 05, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

An escape hatch that lawmakers inserted in an expensive school funding plan is almost certainly illegal, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said yesterday, a finding that makes it more difficult for the state to back out of a $1.3 billion-a-year education program that no one can agree how to pay for.

Curran told lawmakers that a vote they are required to take in March - a resolution affirming or denying that Maryland has enough money to pay for the so-called Thornton Plan - would be an unconstitutional legislative veto of a state program.

"We want to make sure that as you go forward, you know it's suspect," Curran said at a joint hearing of three House and Senate fiscal committees in Annapolis.

The legal warning came during the latest in the series of briefings on the education plan, with increasing questions leading one top lawmaker to call on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the House speaker and the Senate president to sit together and sort out the mess.

"It's going to require some leadership from the second floor and the presiding officers," said Sen. Ulysses Currie, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Representatives of all three leaders accepted the challenge yesterday. But a solution to the school funding program remains elusive, with Ehrlich advocating slot machines at racetracks to pay for it and legislative Democrats insisting that revenue from expanded gambling is not enough and that new taxes are needed.

Ehrlich and nearly every other politician in the state ran for election as a supporter of the Thornton program, which, when fully implemented over six years, will have added $1.3 billion in additional annual funding. The state now pays $3.3 billion yearly for public education from a $10.7 billion operating budget.

The education bill is coming due at a time of revenue shortfalls, projected to hit $740 million next year. Some critics want it altered, despite Curran's warning that changes could spark lawsuits.

The reform law, designed to provide quality to rich and poor school districts alike, was passed in the closing days of the 2002 session without a funding source to pay for it.

To ease the concerns of legislators worried about the cost, notably former House Speaker Casper Taylor Jr., an 11th-hour provision was inserted requiring the Assembly to vote by the 50th day of the 2004 legislative session that sufficient funds were available.

Curran said yesterday that his office had not reviewed the provision before it was passed; if so, he said, lawyers would have asked that it be removed. He said courts have found that such votes violate federal and state constitutions by giving too much power to the legislative branch.

The safest route now, Curran said, would be for legislators to take out the escape-hatch clause with a separate bill next year, and stick with the original plan for full funding.

Under the law, if lawmakers found that the state had no money for Thornton, the funding would be cut in half, a scenario referred to as "Thornton Lite."

But Thornton Lite has other problems, lawmakers learned yesterday. The reduced funding would grant money based on this year's enrollment figures, meaning that school districts with faster enrollment growth would be penalized in future years.

For example, Prince George's and Montgomery counties would receive only about 75 percent of full Thornton money under the reduced plan, while Baltimore would get 87 percent and Anne Arundel County would receive 92 percent.

Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat and vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said evidence is mounting that reducing the Thornton Plan, or spreading out its costs over more years, are bad alternatives.

"It shows how delaying it just puts off the inevitable," Hogan said, adding that he agrees with Currie that the state's highest-ranking political leaders must broker a solution.

"We need to get the presiding officers and the governor on the same page," he said.

Kenneth H. Masters, the governor's chief legislative officer, agreed. "The situation cries out for that," Masters said. "We've got this enormous fiscal problem, for which no solution was provided."

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