When good policy meets good politics

April 25, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

WHISTLING PAST the political graveyard, supporters of higher education think Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will sign a bill that limits tuition increases and puts about $30 million back into university budgets.

They're wrong. He won't.

Their bill would limit tuition increases to 5 percent and replace money siphoned off over the last two years to address the state's budget deficit. Mr. Ehrlich won't be swayed by their arguments. His concern, again, is for keeping an ill-advised campaign pledge to avoid new taxes. Against that wall, arguments are beside the point.

Even when they should be irresistible.

For its quality of life and for economic development in an increasingly complex world, Maryland needs more university graduates in its work force. For some talented young people and their families, what may appear to be a bargain in public education is too costly. They won't think about going to a university. So while Maryland puts unprecedented sums into elementary and high school education, it's restricting access to college. The policies are contradictory.

There also are intriguing political arguments for signing the bill: The governor could restore the cuts his administration made and cap the tuition increases. If he doesn't, Marylanders will see what he's done and vote against him.

The validity of these arguments is reflected in the response of one Democrat who's delighted with the governor's veto plan. He thinks the Democratic candidate can use it as a rhetorical two-by-four in the next election.

The bill's success in Annapolis this year supports that view. Senators and delegates usually take their time on major bills, but this one passed in one 90-day session - probably a reflection of their constituents' feelings about the tuition grab. Only two more senators and five more delegates will be needed to achieve a big enough majority to overturn a veto.

Moreover, the issue will be back next year if the governor doesn't sign the bill.

His team says he won't. They nixed a veto hearing in which the pros and cons of threatened bills can be heard one last time. If the governor's mind is made up, he may not need any more information.

His cool response is not surprising. He doesn't want to be associated with higher taxes of any kind, and this bill puts a temporary levy on corporations. But the corporate community should be begging him to sign. CEOs should be happy to support the universities that prepare the men and women they must have as employees to survive and prosper.

If he does slip the noose into place, Mr. Ehrlich will be reaffirming his administration's view that higher education in Maryland has been fat and too happy. Associates say he continues to believe that university education in Maryland is too much of a bargain. It's a shockingly short-sighted view.

He will veto the bill in all likelihood for several other reasons:

He's facing a $1 billion budget gap next year. He doesn't have slot machine revenue. He won't agree to new taxes. Universities, whose annual funding is not guaranteed by law, have been and continue to be one of the only sources of money that can be shifted to other programs or cut to address the budget deficit. That vulnerability would be removed by this bill, which guarantees a certain level of funding for at least three years.

In a truly progressive and pragmatic state, higher education would have the same protections as elementary and secondary schools. Passage of the tuition cap in the politically alert Assembly suggests that Marylanders see the logic.

But maybe Mr. Ehrlich sees dangerous precedent here. Maybe he thinks the bill is an unacceptable erosion of a governor's powers. That would be the strongest argument for vetoing the bill.

But there's a remedy. If he thinks constitutional concerns demand a veto, he could still demonstrate his recognition of higher education's value. He could restore the cuts. He could refuse to make any more cuts. He could limit tuition increases. He could applaud Maryland's march toward higher education excellence.

Voters would be pleased. Policy and politics would enjoy a harmonious convergence.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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