GOP plans stand vs. Thornton bill

Debate scheduled today on emergency legislation to end funding `trigger'

General Assembly

February 11, 2004|By Michael Dresser and David Nitkin | Michael Dresser and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Urged on by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., House Republicans are planning a united stand today against a proposal that would require the full funding of a landmark education aid package without a plan to pay for it.

GOP lawmakers are expected to attack a bill removing the "trigger" provision in the 2002 law adopting the Thornton formula with a flurry of amendments and floor speeches in the House of Delegates.

With less than half the votes of the majority Democrats, the Republicans don't expect to win. But they hope to make a point that promising full funding of Thornton, estimated at $1.3 billion a year when fully implemented, is irresponsible.

"There should be a major debate. There should be a multi-day major debate," Ehrlich said yesterday. The governor said he hopes the Republicans will be unified, but that he doesn't expect a party-line vote.

Democratic lawmakers expect to use their strong majority to put emergency legislation on the governor's desk to force Ehrlich to make a politically unappealing choice: Sign the bill and make a tacit commitment to fund it, or veto it and face the wrath of education advocates.

Today's debate comes less than 48 hours after an estimated 6,000 demonstrators jammed Lawyers Mall across from the State House to demand full funding of the formula, which was crafted to help equalize state aid to poorer jurisdictions such as Baltimore.

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve said the Republicans should acknowledge that they don't support the education plan, which Ehrlich promised to fund during his 2002 campaign.

"A vote against removing the trigger is a vote against Thornton," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "It's as simple as that."

The trigger provision was adopted in the closing days of the 2002 after legislators came to an agreement on how much money to raise and how to divide it - but failed to identify a funding source except for an increase in the tobacco tax. To assuage the concerns of fiscal conservatives, they adopted an amendment calling for a vote during this session to certify that the state had the money to fully implement the formula.

Last year, the state attorney general's office released an opinion calling the trigger provision unconstitutional - putting pressure on lawmakers to press for its removal.

Ehrlich declined to comment on the legal opinion but insisted the trigger should remain.

"The trigger was there as a matter of fiscal discipline, or what passed for fiscal discipline," he said.

If the Democrats can pass the bill by a margin wide enough to override an Ehrlich veto, they could force the governor to make a wrenching decision next year: either make draconian cuts in programs other than education or abandon his pledge to resist any broad-based tax increase.

The governor has supported allowing slot machines at racetracks to increase education aid, but even optimistic revenue projections say slots would provide only about half of the revenue needed to fully fund Thornton.

Barve said improved public education is the No. 1 priority of Marylanders.

"If it doesn't happen, I think most people will look to the governor and say why," Barve said.

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