Bill on education plan gets tentative House OK

Funding commitment for Thornton at stake

General Assembly

February 13, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The House of Delegates gave preliminary approval yesterday to a bill that would reaffirm Maryland's commitment to a $1.3 billion-a-year education plan by erasing the chance for lawmakers to say that the state can't afford the program.

After vigorous debate, the Democratic majority in the House beat back efforts by Republicans to maintain a "trigger provision" as part of the education funding plan.

Democrats say they need to remove the trigger-vote clause -- inserted as a last-minute compromise in 2002 to win passage for the schools plan by requiring a legislative resolution in March asserting that money is available -- because the attorney general's office says it is likely unconstitutional.

But Republicans countered that lawmakers should abide by the two-year-old deal as a show of fiscal responsibility.

A final House vote on removing the trigger is expected today.

"It was a bad day for the taxpayer in Annapolis today," said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. during an afternoon radio interview. "The bottom line to this was they didn't have the money then, and they don't have the money now."

Ehrlich and other top lawmakers recognize that if the House bill clears the Senate, it presents an excruciating dilemma for the governor.

If Ehrlich signs it, he would re-establish his commitment to the education program, even if his slots bill -- his idea of how to pay for much of it -- fails. Without slots, Ehrlich says, the schools plan must be scaled back because he won't support a tax increase.

If he vetoes it, critics will accuse him of turning his back on education, a politically untenable position. "This bill will frame the entire budget debate around the future funding for education," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

Republicans offered amendments yesterday to save the trigger. One would have delayed the vote on the resolution until next year; a second would have pushed it to April instead of March.

House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell of Calvert County said the trigger clause was inserted into the education bill, commonly known as the Thornton plan, as a last-minute compromise to alleviate concerns of those worried that the program was about to pass with no way to pay for it.

"Metaphorically, the trigger for Thornton was a safety valve," O'Donnell said. "It was put in place to prevent a catastrophic failure. Removal of the trigger mechanism ... will cause that catastrophic failure."

Ehrlich called the education plan a "unilateral mandate" imposed by the General Assembly in an election year with no way to pay for it.

"Do I want to fund it? Yes," Ehrlich said during the radio interview. "Do I want to fund it with their revenue source? No."

Under the 2002 law, the trigger-resolution vote must occur by March 3, and a "no" vote would cut schools funding in half. By eliminating the resolution provision, Republicans said the Assembly would be shirking its responsibility to figure out how to pay for the plan.

But Democrats responded that their work this year -- on a slots bill, on sales taxes or other potential revenues -- was built around the need to generate funding to pay for the popular education initiative. The Thornton plan was developed by a study commission seeking to equalize funding between richer and poorer school systems.

If the trigger is left in place, Democrats said, proponents or opponents of the plan would likely go to court, placing the future of the plan in jeopardy.

"This bill simply cleans up the law," said Del. Anne Healey, a Prince George's County Democrat. "There is a cloud over it."

While all three amendments were defeated largely along party lines (Democrats outnumber Republicans in the House 98-43), some of Ehrlich's closest Democratic allies sided with Republicans. Baltimore County Dels. John S. Arnick and Joseph J. "Sonny" Minnick broke with their party and voted for the amendment moving the trigger vote to next year, along with Dels. Kevin Kelly of Western Maryland and Van T. Mitchell of Charles County.

Assembly on Baltimoresun.com

Learn the names of your representatives and how to contact them and how to register to vote.

Read the text of proposed legislation, including the governor's slots bill, SB 197.

Review Sun coverage of the General Assembly, and contact the writers.

www.baltimoresun.com/assembly

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