Local officials rail against state education, road repair cuts

Lawmakers seek alternatives that could include taxes

February 01, 2011|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

Lawmakers and local officials in Baltimore and beyond are questioning the fairness of the budget proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley — a spending plan that contains millions of dollars less for education and road repairs than state funding formulas require.

O'Malley's proposal would cut aid to Baltimore schools by $15 million and to Prince George's County schools by $21 million compared with the current fiscal year, while Montgomery County would get $33 million more.

Lawmakers from the poorer jurisdictions said Tuesday that they are searching for ways to ease the disparity. Education advocates said they will push legislators to increase taxes rather than cut school funding.

Local officials also are preparing to fight the governor's plan to shift nearly $438 million from highway revenues to the operating budget, leaving counties and towns with little state money for road repairs. Anne Arundel County, for example, would see state aid for roads dwindle from $32 million in 2007 to $951,000 in 2012.

County and municipal governments have made up part of the difference by raising property taxes or laying off employees, according to local officials from across the state. In other cases, they say, roads are going unrepaired.

At a closed-door meeting of Senate Democrats on Tuesday morning, and later at a briefing for the House of Delegates on local aid, lawmakers said they were likely to propose changes to O'Malley's budget to help the counties.

The Democratic governor kept a campaign promise not to propose tax increases, but he has said repeatedly that he would be open to revenue-raising ideas that come from the legislature.

"Not everyone's happy," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller after the meeting of Senate Democrats. Miller, who represents Prince George's and Calvert counties, said legislators were particularly concerned about the proposed cuts in education aid for some areas.

Republican lawmakers say they see the stage being set for tax increases — particularly the tax on gasoline.

Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat, said Tuesday that he is preparing a package of transportation bills that is likely to include an 8- to 10-cents-per-gallon increase in the gas tax, which is now 23.5 cents.

Republican Sen. David R. Brinkley, whose district includes Frederick County and part of Carroll, said "there's constant pressure" on local leaders to support state tax increases. Brinkley, a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said municipalities also are trying to enhance their own revenue streams, seeking the General Assembly's blessing to raise hotel and mobile phone taxes.

O'Malley wants to keep state support for public schools at the same level as this year to help close a budget gap of up to $1.6 billion next fiscal year. But because there are more than 3,600 new students in public schools, the per pupil spending ratio would drop below 2008 levels.

Under the governor's proposal, $5.7 billion would be allocated for K-12 public education, about $94 million less than required under the state's education spending plan.

The Thornton formula, passed by the legislature in 2002, was designed to ensure equal opportunities for students by directing more state money per pupil to poorer areas such as Baltimore than to wealthy areas such as Montgomery County. The Thornton plan substantially increased state funding for education and has been credited with raising test scores.

Under O'Malley's proposed $14.6 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, every part of the state would receive less education funding than required by the Thornton formula. Some would receive less than last year, while others, including Montgomery and Baltimore counties, would get more, because of declining wealth, higher student enrollment or a combination of the two.

Baltimore would receive about $857 million in state support for schools, $15 million less than the city received last year and $15 million less than the Thornton formula requires. Prince George's would receive about $859 million, $21 million less than last year.

Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat, said she doesn't want to see progress at city schools "slip back."

"We have to look at ways to restore that funding," she said.

Del. Jay Walker, a Prince George's County Democrat, said the sheer number of home foreclosures in his county shows that his constituents are struggling.

Education advocates are beginning to mobilize.

The Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, clergy co-chair of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, said Tuesday that the public "can stomach" tax increases if it means saving education funding.

"What we can't stomach right now is breaking that promise to our kids," said Connors, pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church.

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