- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2003

Republican and Democratic leaders said yesterday that a key education initiative known as the Thornton Commission likely would be cut following Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s veto of a $135 million corporate-tax bill.

“I don’t think we are going to be able to sustain the Thornton funding,” said state Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, Senate minority leader and Princess Anne Republican. “If we fully implement Thornton, then you will see an increase in spending of $1 billion and we can’t afford to do that.”

State Sen. Ida G. Ruben, president pro tempore of the Senate, agreed.

“I don’t know how we can avoid cutting Thornton unless [Mr. Ehrlich] provides alternative funding,” said Mrs. Ruben, Montgomery Democrat.

The Thornton Commission was a 22-member panel that spent two years studying state funding for education. In 2001, by a vote of 20-2, it recommend a $1.1 billion increase in school aid over the next five years. That would have boosted the state share of school costs from 41 percent to 49 percent. Federal aid covers about 5 percent of school costs, and the rest comes from local governments.

The commission also recommended more money for school transportation, kindergarten classes in every school district and redistributing state aid so more money goes to schools in Baltimore city and poorer counties.

James C. “Chip” DiPaula, secretary of the Department of Budget and Management, said cutting money from Thornton was one of many options that lawmakers could evaluate. He also said the budget situation became worse because of potential revenue lost when Democratic lawmakers rejected Mr. Ehrlich’s plan to put slot machines in Maryland racetracks.

“With their failure to pass slots, they could have jeopardized Thornton,” he said.

He declined to discuss more specifics about potential cuts, saying only that the governor had asked agency heads to look for areas where cuts could be made and make recommendations to him.

The governor cannot amend or cut funding to the Thornton Commission because it is a legislative initiative that can be changed only by the state legislature.

Mr. Ehrlich’s veto of the corporate-tax package was considered by many to be his biggest legislative decision.

Democrats said the state needed the $135 million. Republicans argued state officials should rein in spending instead of taxing their way out of budget problems.

“I was not surprised he [vetoed] it, but I had hoped he would show some real leadership and sign it,” said Delegate Adrienne A. Jones, speaker pro tempore.

Delegate Carmen Amedori, assistant minority leader, said Mr. Ehrlich had no choice because in his efforts to be a centrist Republican he alienated some of the conservatives who helped elect him.

“I would like to see him reach out to the base a little better, and by vetoing the tax bill, he is starting to do that,” said Miss Amedori, Carroll Republican.

Mr. Ehrlich had pledged to veto the bill. Democratic lawmakers now must either accept the veto or try to override it.

The tax bill passed with 87 votes in the House, two votes more than needed to override a veto. However, the Senate passed it with 28 votes, one short of an override.

Democrats had no plans yesterday to call a special veto session before the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

“To hold a special session would be costly,” said Mrs. Jones, Baltimore city Democrat.

Mr. Ehrlich took action on the remaining General Assembly bills yesterday.

He signed a bill that reduces the penalty for medical-marijuana use to a maximum $100 fine with no jail time.

Supporters of the legislation said smoking marijuana can ease nausea and other symptoms associated with such chronic illnesses as AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis.

State Sen. Andrew P. Harris, Senate minority whip, said he was disappointed that Mr. Ehrlich signed the bill but understood his reasons.

He also said the governor’s decision preserves his campaign pledge to govern from the middle.

“This issue is certainly not a conservative politician’s bill,” said Mr. Harris, Baltimore County Republican and medical doctor.

Mr. Ehrlich also signed key legislation yesterday on health insurance, driver’s licenses for illegal aliens and charter schools.

The health insurance legislation replaces nearly half the board members from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Maryland and allows the state to regulate their salaries and those of company executives. The national Blue Cross Blue Shield has said it will take the state to court over the issue.

Mr. Ehrlich also approved legislation that calls for a study on the ramifications of illegal aliens obtaining driver’s licenses.

The charter school legislation was a cornerstone of Mr. Ehrlich’s campaign last fall and his legislative agenda this winter. Though Democrats changed Mr. Ehrlich’s plans so that only local school boards could approve charter schools, he was pleased with the outcome.

“My charter school initiative gives parents the freedom to move their child out of a failing school and into a creative learning environment where they can reach their full potential,” Mr. Ehrlich said in a prepared statement.

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