Get sensible about schools

February 07, 2005

UNDER PRESSURE from local leaders, politicians in Annapolis are stumbling over each other to come up with more money to deal with crumbling and overcrowded school buildings. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. put about $155 million into his budget for school construction - a 55 percent increase from last year, but still below what's needed. Now, Democrats in the House of Delegates have offered to come up with $100 million more. Their proposal would satisfy the year-old recommendation of a state task force, but all sides have to pull together to make it happen.

As part of a comprehensive report, the school construction task force identified nearly $4 billion, coming from the state and the counties, that it said should be spent by 2013. The money would be used to build new schools to accommodate increasing enrollments as well as renovate and repair existing schools.

The task force's plan called for the state to provide $250 million a year over eight years. But Governor Ehrlich had offered only $100 million during each of his first two years in office. In what might be considered his opening budget salvo, he proposed about $155 million for school construction this year - a welcome but still inadequate increase.

More recently, Mr. Ehrlich suggested that he would add $100 million to the school building pot, if his latest slots bill passes. But slots are such an uncertain - and, in our view, unhealthy - proposition that tying them to an essential state obligation is irresponsible. Now, House Democrats offer a potentially better alternative. They pledge to come up with $100 million for school construction, through a possible combination of taking some of the excess money that Mr. Ehrlich has stashed in the state's rainy day fund, delaying other projects or enacting cuts required under state spending guidelines.

House leaders also have their eyes on any additional money that might come from a bill to make corporations pay recording fees and transfer taxes when they transfer property worth at least $1 million. They would funnel nearly all of the estimated $60 million gain back to the counties and Baltimore for school construction over the next four years.

That could be a fiscally sensible long-term approach, but it's politically uncertain. A similar bill to close the business property loophole passed the House overwhelmingly last year, but stalled in the Senate. Opposition from the business community continues, and Mr. Ehrlich now supports it with the threat of a veto.

As a matter of fairness, the loophole should be closed. Also as a matter of fairness, the state's leaders should come to a sensible agreement that keeps schoolchildren out of overstuffed and broken-down buildings.

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