- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — A House committee, responding to complaints about rapid increases in the cost of higher education, has recommended that Maryland limit tuition increases to a maximum of 5 percent a year for the next four years.

A report by the Special Committee on Higher Education Affordability and Access also proposes guaranteeing colleges at least a 5 percent annual increase in state aid for the next four years and increasing the corporate income tax to provide part of the additional money for four-year colleges.

“It’s an interim step, but a very important step,” said Delegate Anne Healey, Prince George’s Democrat.

Committee members said some stability in tuition is needed to help students and parents prepare for the cost of higher education and to help administrators develop future budgets.

The report was approved on a party-line vote, with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing.

“It is a very, very ill-advised policy for the state,” said House Minority Whip Anthony J. O’Donnell, Calvert Republican.

The plan would add to the state’s budget problems at a time when Maryland is facing revenue shortfalls of $1 billion or more over the next two or three years, he said.

Mr. O’Donnell argued that more study is needed before the legislature considers adding to the state’s budget problems.

But House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, Montgomery Democrat, said action is needed “before the next semester of tuition hikes.”

“It is up to us, the [governor] and the legislative branch, to fix this problem before we adjourn,” Mr. Barve said. “I see our mission as not just protecting the poor, but the middle class as well.”

The Senate bill is similar to one introduced by 30 of the 47 state senators, except that the Senate version would cap tuition increases at 4 percent while guaranteeing a 5 percent annual increase in state aid.

The legislature is under pressure to do something about tuition, which has increased by as much as 54 percent during the past four years, with the percentage increase at most campuses in the university system ranging from the low 30s to the mid-40s. An additional increase averaging 9.4 percent has been approved for the fall.

. . .

Fifty-two Maryland lawmakers are taking up the cause of gun-control advocates by backing state legislation to extend the rules of a federal assault-weapons ban set to expire Sept. 12.

Sen. Rob Garagiola, Montgomery Democrat, is sponsoring one bill, which has 19 co-sponsors. The House has 141 members.

Delegate Neil F. Quinter, Howard Democrat, filed a companion bill yesterday that would expand the state’s assault-pistol ban to include 45 “weapons of war.” The bill has 33 co-sponsors and attempts to close loopholes in the federal law that allowed gun manufacturers to skirt the intent of the law by making weapons with characteristics similar to those banned.

Critics say the legislation is an attempt to ban the sale of all guns and accuse Democrats of passing an assault-weapons ban to force Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to take a position. Mr. Ehrlich voted against the federal ban when he was in Congress.

Maryland gun owners had hoped Mr. Ehrlich would move quickly to repeal state gun laws, which are among the strongest in the country. He said during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign that he would look at existing state gun laws to see whether they have been effective in fighting crime and would try to repeal laws that don’t work.

. . .

Victims of Tropical Storm Isabel testified yesterday to urge lawmakers to help them rebuild or rehabilitate homes damaged and destroyed in the storm.

They hope a General Assembly bill will provide the relief they haven’t found from federal and local programs or their mortgage companies.

One of the programs proposed would allow property owners to borrow up to 115 percent of the value of a home, with the state ensuring repayment of the amount above 90 percent of the property value. That would cover more than $100 million in loans.

Delegate Maggie McIntosh, Baltimore Democrat, helped put together the legislation.

She says repairs are often more than 90 percent of the value of the property that banks are willing to lend and that more than 300 families still are living in trailers or getting help to pay rent.

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