School funding request weighed

Senate budget chief seeks to force Ehrlich to restore $47.4 million for education

Cuts to Thornton Plan at issue

Governor's reductions in aid hit Prince George's, Montgomery hardest

January 31, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The state Senate's powerful budget chief said yesterday that he may sponsor legislation that would attempt to force Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to restore nearly $50 million he trimmed from a popular public school aid program.

Sen. Ulysses Currie, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said he will propose legislation to require the governor to include in the budget money to alleviate cost disparities among the state's school districts -- unless the Education Department submits a bill doing the same.

Currie is seeking to reverse Ehrlich's decision to cut $47.4 million from the Department of Education budget request to implement a geographic disparity formula as part of the landmark education aid legislation passed in 2002 known as the Thornton Plan. Even with the cut, Ehrlich has asked for more than $300 million in Thornton aid this year.

The governor's decision, part of his effort to make up for a $736 million budget shortfall, fell hardest on Prince George's and Montgomery counties, which would have received $16.5 million and $14.5 million respectively under the distribution formula observed in last year's budget. His move also affected the Baltimore region, with Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties each potentially losing millions of dollars.

Ehrlich acted after securing a ruling from the state attorney general's office saying the funding was not mandatory because of a constitutional defect in the legislation.

That ruling touched off a round of finger-pointing yesterday as lawmakers and state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick blamed one another for the failure to make the geographical formula binding in the 2002 bill.

"There wasn't a careful review of that legislation for legal sufficiency," Grasmick told members of the House and Senate fiscal committees.

The committees were briefed yesterday on the progress of the Education Department's efforts to devise a permanent formula for distributing the geographical cost-of-living aid among Baltimore and Maryland's counties.

Grasmick told lawmakers she would present a final recommendation by Feb. 13.

Some legislators expressed frustration that a formula is not already in place and that the state was still using a "placeholder" formula before the governor cut the money entirely.

Del. Jean B. Cryor, who served on the commission that devised the Thornton school funding formula, said she never thought implementation of the formula would take so long.

"I'm just as confused as anyone else on how we got here," the Montgomery County Republican said.

"We did not drag our feet on this," Grasmick said. She blamed some of the delay on the National Conference of State Legislatures, which was initially hired to devise the geographical aid formula.

Currie, however, said he too is disappointed by the delay. He added that Grasmick shares in the responsibility for the loss of the funds because her department didn't detect the constitutional defect and seek a remedy.

The Prince George's County Democrat said he intends to make sure the geographical formula is written into the law in a way that makes funding mandatory in future budgets.

Currie said he also is looking for a way to restore the funding Ehrlich left out of his budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

An idea that has surfaced for funding the geographical formula is to tie it to the passage of slot machine legislation. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he is considering amending Ehrlich's slots bill so that money from licensing fees from slot machine operators is used to help fund the formula.

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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