- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2002

ANNAPOLIS An ambitious plan to improve Maryland public schools one of the top items on the agenda for the 2002 session that begins Wednesday could hardly come at a worse time.
The plan arrives at the General Assembly with a lot of built-in support, but also carries a price tag that makes it look unaffordable at a time when the economy is mired in recession and taxes are not bringing in enough money to pay for normal growth in the state budget.
Although details of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposed budget have not been released, Mike Morrill, the governor's communications director, said it would be difficult "just to sustain the education increase the governor has already put into place."
"There is no room unfortunately in the budget for new initiatives of any type," Mr. Morrill said.
House Speaker Casper Taylor, Allegany Democrat, said strong support for increasing school aid can be found in the legislature, but "given the parameters of the recession, it is highly unlikely that we will be able to substantially implement the plan."
The proposal developed during the past two years by the Thornton commission named for its chairman, Alvin Thornton recommends Maryland increase funding for public schools by $1.1 billion over five years in addition to normal growth in school aid. The cost for the first year would be almost $130 million.
Mr. Morrill said that even without any changes in the formula used to distribute school aid, funding for public schools would increase by $157 million next year. That would be an increase of more than 6 percent at a time when the overall budget growth is supposed to be limited to 3.95 percent.
Even some of the strongest supporters of the Thornton Commission plan are not optimistic.
"There is not going to be a lot of money," said Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, Baltimore Democrat, a member of the commission and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
"The only way that I hear some of my colleagues talking about this issue is to defer the income tax reduction by a year, which would save $175 million. You could use part of that to make money available for a down payment," Mr. Rawlings said. "Politically, that's going to be difficult."
Although the legislature made a commitment to taxpayers, it also has a constitutional responsibility to provide children with an adequate education, Mr. Rawlings said.
"That's where the fight is going to be," the Democrat said.
The final 2 percent of the 10 percent reduction in the state income tax that was approved five years ago is scheduled to take effect this year, but that money would not necessarily be available to increase school aid even if lawmakers decide to delay the cut.
Mr. Glendening, who is expected to recommend postponing the tax cut for at least a year, plans to use the money to balance the budget and avoid cutting deeper into existing programs.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Prince George's Democrat, said the legislature's first priority is to live up to its past obligations, including preserving the income tax cut.
However, he said there may be room to adopt part of the Thornton Commission report, such as a substantial increase in transportation funding, even if there isn't an increase in basic aid.
The commission noted that the state's share of the cost of operating school buses dropped from 95 percent in 1984 to as low as 36 percent in 1998.
Mr. Taylor said the most important thing the legislature could do this year is create a commission to study the overall tax structure and make recommendations on how the state can find additional money for transportation, health care and education.
While Mr. Glendening is not expected to support any new commitment to school funding, he will recommend spending at least $150 million on school construction to carry out his pledge to put $1.6 billion into building and improving public schools during his eight years in office.
One contentious education issue that does not directly involve money also will be on the agenda for the 90-day session that begins at noon Wednesday.
The Maryland State Teachers Association will renew its drive to expand collective bargaining rights for teachers in Baltimore and the 23 counties. State law currently allows bargaining only on limited issues such as wages and benefits.


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