Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien invoked the recently announced archdiocesan school closings in urging state lawmakers Wednesday to approve a corporate income tax credit as a "critically important tool" to help both public and private school students.
Appearing before the House Ways and Means Committee, O'Brien said difficult decisions had to be made to "avoid losing these schools one by one" and he argued that the business tax credit could be part of the solution. "We pledge to leave no stone unturned" to sustain the Church's commitment to education, said O'Brien, one of several witnesses to appear for and against the measure in a hearing that went on for more than three hours.
The measure would provide a 75 percent income tax credit for businesses contributing to nonprofit organizations that support scholarships and programs such as extra work in arts, sciences, language, field trips and other after-school activities. Six states have adopted similar legislation: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.
This is the third year the so-called "BOAST" legislation -- Building Opportunities for All Students and Teachers in Maryland -- has been introduced in the General Assembly. On the House side it's always died in the Ways and Means Committee, which has never taken a vote on it. The Senate has adopted its version of the legislation before, and did so again Wednesday by a vote of 30-17.
Supporters hope this year will be different, given the backdrop of the plan to close 13 of 64 archdiocesan schools and the support for the bill from Gov. Martin O'Malley.
The chief sponsor of the House bill, Del. James E. Proctor Jr., said in an interview that there is enough support on the committee to endorse the measure, if the panel is allowed to vote on it. Of the committee's 22 members, half have signed up as co-sponsors, more than any previous year, Proctor said.
He took sharp questions from Del. Frank S. Turner on how the state can afford to give up as much as $50 million in tax revenue.
Proctor said the tax credit is not meant to be enacted in lean budget times, but "when happy days are here again. I'm not talking about putting it in the budget for 2011."
Opponents, including representatives of organizations of boards of education, teachers' unions, PTAs and the American Civil Liberties Union, urged the committee to reject the bill.
Amy Maloney of the Maryland State Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, argued that in Pennsylvania there's been "no oversight, no accounting of whether the expenses are appropriate."
Merry Eisner of the Maryland PTA said if the measure were adopted, "public funds would be diverted to private schools."
Archdiocesan officials have said that their system has to develop new sources of revenue to sustain the schools, and this tax credit could be among them.
In response to tough questions on the point from several lawmakers, O'Brien would not agree that the legislation should include a provision to bar private schools from discriminating on the basis of a student's sexual orientation.
"It's a legal issue, I'm not a lawyer," O'Brien said in response to the question from Del. Jolene Ivey, a Democrat who supports the legislation. "I just hope this doesn't get mixed up with all kinds of political stuff. We don't turn out people who discriminate in our schools. I would not like to see that question intrude on this."