Ehrlich lets stand Thornton schools bill

Full funding of measure affirmed

governor says slots revenue is crucial

March 06, 2004|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Without his signature, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. let become law yesterday the legislature's effort to guarantee full increases in the landmark Thornton school funding plan - but warned of deep cuts to most other parts of the state budget if lawmakers fail to pass his slots proposal this year.

"The state's budget faces severe consequences without this additional funding source," Ehrlich warned in a letter to the General Assembly's presiding officers. "It is evident that an increasing share of the burden for future cuts will fall on the state's health and human services programs and the state's share of support for local governments."

The Senate has passed a bill that would permit 15,500 slot machines at six locations, a measure legislative analysts project would raise more than $800 million a year. It awaits a hearing in the House committee that killed the governor's expanded gambling effort last year.

Yesterday's decision by the governor lets stand the changes proposed by the legislature to the 2002 education financing plan commonly known as the Thornton plan.

The measure promised to increase annual state spending on public schools by $1.3 billion within five years. In an eleventh-hour compromise to appease lawmakers concerned they were approving an unfunded mandate, the Thornton bill included a "trigger provision" calling for the Assembly to pass a resolution by the 50th day of the 2004 session affirming Maryland had enough money to pay for the program.

Since then, the state attorney general has ruled that the trigger vote would be unconstitutional because it would amount to a legislative veto of an existing law. If lawmakers voted "no" on the resolution, the funding increases promised under the Thornton plan would be cut roughly in half.

Largely along party lines, both the House and Senate passed last month the bill removing that trigger - a move that essentially sought to force Ehrlich to reassert his commitment to the Thornton program or veto the measure.

Because it was emergency legislation, the governor had only a week to make his decision - and he chose to neither sign it nor veto it, letting it automatically become law.

"The one piece of accountability built into Thornton couldn't even be met," Ehrlich told reporters yesterday.

Ehrlich took the opportunity to press the legislature to pass slots legislation this year, raising much - but not all - of the money needed to fund the future Thornton increases.

"My thought was maybe just letting the bill go into effect maybe will just highlight the need to pass a slots bill this year," the governor said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller - who shepherded the governor's slots bill through the Senate and has been Ehrlich's chief legislative ally on gambling - made a similar argument yesterday.

"It means we are committing to finding the money for education," Miller said. "This makes it even more important that we pass the Senate bill on slots. We need that bill to pass to keep faith with the [emergency] bill we also passed."

But House Speaker Michael E. Busch - who has refused to embrace slots as a solution to Maryland's fiscal needs - rejected talk that the only way to meet the Thornton commitment is to permit expanded gambling.

Busch and his House Democratic leaders have said they are willing to consider slots - albeit in a far different form than the bill passed by the Senate - only if the governor also agrees to some other type of increased taxes that will generate about $500 million a year.

"There is nobody here that believes the expansion of gaming by itself will satisfy the full education funding of Thornton," Busch said. "And in no respect in the next two years do slots make any kind of a serious dent in it."

As for Ehrlich's threat to make deep cuts everywhere else in the budget if slots aren't passed, Busch said: "If the governor's scenario is to fully fund Thornton and cut everywhere else, then he has made that decision."

In the meantime, Baltimore's House delegation started to take up the speaker's statement that he is willing to give deference to the requests of local lawmakers who might want to opt their jurisdictions out of the slots bill.

Del. Curtis S. Anderson said a private straw poll he conducted this week found at least two-thirds of the city's 18 delegates don't support slots in Baltimore, but his effort to push for a quick vote of opposition was delayed by other delegates.

Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, sought to push the full city delegation yesterday to vote to remove Baltimore from the list of eligible gambling jurisdictions. "As other jurisdictions opt out, the only thing that's left is dumping the slots in Baltimore City," he said.

Anderson said the opposition of city delegates to slots emboldened him to try to push a motion yesterday for the delegation to take a position opposing expanded gambling.

But Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat, suggested that the way he voted in Anderson's poll may not reflect the way he really feels about the slots bill, casting some doubt on the accuracy of the tally.

Del. Salima S. Marriott, the city delegation's chairwoman, and other delegates persuaded Anderson to delay trying to push for a vote. Marriott repeatedly insisted that slots is "not a local bill" and that she does not believe the Baltimore delegates should be forced to have "cohesion on the floor" when it comes to a vote.

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