The $400 million promise

December 17, 2006

With tax revenues continuing to fall short of projections, Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley is under increasing pressure to curb promised new spending. That's not necessarily bad advice. Until the state's structural deficit is addressed, and a projected multibillion-dollar budget shortfall is no longer looming, fiscal restraint is in order. But there is at least one program where Mr. O'Malley needs to stick to his pledge to spend substantially more money next year: school construction.

As a candidate for governor, Baltimore's mayor said he would set aside $400 million to help build and renovate public schools and $250 million annually after that. The need is clearly there. Several years ago, a commission headed by state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp estimated that Maryland must spend a quarter-billion dollars annually to keep up with demands. Unfortunately, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. fell behind that pace, but an extra $150 million could instantly make up for lost ground.

From Friendsville to Ocean City, schools are clamoring for the help - to no one's surprise. In 2002, the state adopted the Thornton Commission proposal to boost state spending on education by $1.3 billion, which resulted in smaller class sizes and all-day kindergarten. But no money was included for the necessary additional classrooms. Already, Baltimore has asked for $150 million for school construction and Harford County for nearly $60 million, to name just two of the state's 24 school systems.

This won't be easy. The state government's overall debt burden has grown at an alarming pace in recent years and might soon reach affordability limits. Within a matter of weeks, the new governor will have to make some hard choices - delay other capital needs or trim the operating budget to reduce borrowing.

Public support for school construction is clearly there. Opinion polls have shown over and over again that the public wants to see tax dollars spent on improving K-12 public education. No doubt there are plenty of opportunities to slow the growth of state spending - the school construction budget just isn't one of them.

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