Spend surplus on new schools, advocates say

O'Malley, Duncan back call to nix tax cut


With backing from the two Democratic candidates for governor, liberal advocacy groups yesterday urged Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to forgo a property tax cut and dedicate the state budget surplus to school construction.

Voters prefer spending surplus tax dollars to eliminate portable classrooms and improve aging schools, said Tom Hucker, executive director of Progressive Maryland, a coalition of religious, social service and community organizations.

Hucker said a poll commissioned by the organization and released yesterday backed the conclusion, and he called Ehrlich "Governor Grinch" for not spending enough on school buildings during the past three years.

"Even if Governor Grinch isn't motivated by the need to get kids out of trailers, he should be motivated by his desire for re-election," Hucker said.

Yesterday's events illustrated that school construction will likely be a major issue for the General Assembly session, which begins next month, and in the 2006 race for governor.

Politicians and candidates are grappling with an enormous need for school buildings. A task force headed by state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp concluded last year that Maryland "faces a crisis in school construction." The state needs to spend $3.85 billion - a figure that has likely grown because of inflation and higher construction costs - to bring all schools up to minimally acceptable standards, the task force said.

Officials say there are about 2,000 portable classrooms in use statewide.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the two leading Democratic candidates for governor, are both calling for higher levels of school construction spending to eliminate the backlog - and both campaigns backed the lobbying push.

Duncan said yesterday that the state may need to spend at least $400 million yearly to meet its needs. Releasing the latest plank in his education platform, Duncan called for the construction of smaller high schools and for the greater use of technology so that students can take advanced classes offered in other schools. He said Maryland's commitment to education is slipping under the Ehrlich administration. "His take on education is `What's the least I can do?,'" Duncan said.

O'Malley last week said he would spend at least $250 million a year on school buildings if elected, and would borrow money if the state couldn't spare the cash.

Del. Anthony G. Brown, a Prince George's County Democrat and O'Malley's running mate, endorsed the Progressive Maryland findings yesterday, saying "school facilities are our greatest unaddressed problem."

"With the governor underfunding school construction for years, we will make up for lost time," Brown said. "Experts say we can safely borrow more - not borrowing from the next generation, but borrowing for the next generation."

A spokesman for Ehrlich said the governor has not settled on a final construction figure for the budget he will submit next month. The Democratic candidates are overlooking the record funding the governor has spent on school operations in the past year, spokesman Henry Fawell said.

"It is premature to begin discussing funding levels," Fawell wrote in an e-mail response to questions. "However, Governor Ehrlich believes safe and modernized schools are a key component to a quality education, and expects to make a significant investment in that area."

Asked about Duncan's comment, Fawell said: "When Doug Duncan becomes relevant, we'll respond. Until then, the students in his county can continue to benefit from the record investments Governor Ehrlich has made in their schools and teachers."

Ehrlich will have at least $600 million in extra funds from the current year's budget to spend in the budget proposal he introduces next month, plus hundreds of millions more dollars left over from earlier budget years. The governor has said he wants to reduce the state portion of property taxes - which would require shifting sales and income tax receipts to help repay state bonds. He has not provided a cost for the tax-cut plan.

Each penny reduction in the state property tax rate of 13.2 cents per $100 in assessed property value costs about $40 million. A one-cent rate reduction would save $20 a year for the owner of a home assessed at $200,000.

The Progressive Maryland survey, conducted in October by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies, asked 815 registered voters how they wanted to spend a one-year surplus of $600 million - a figure that is now a low estimate.

Slightly more than a third of respondents said school construction was the best choice, and one in five chose tax cuts - the second-most popular selection.

The survey offered conflicting information for politicians and policymakers.

More than three out of four voters agreed with the statement: "Maryland's schools are overcrowded, many are dilapidated, and too many students are forced to learn in temporary trailer classrooms. We should use most of the surplus to build and repair schools."

But 55 percent of respondents also agreed with this statement: "Tax-and-spend liberal Democrats in Annapolis have been overspending for years. Now that there is finally a budget surplus, lawmakers should give taxpayers long overdue tax relief."

Calls for spending the surplus expand beyond schools.

Also yesterday, Advocates for Children and Youth, a group that lobbies for children's causes, said the state could commit $400 million in school construction next year - plus spend another $375 million on social programs including substance abuse treatment, higher payments to foster families, health programs and community block grants.


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