- The Washington Times - Friday, December 23, 2005

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — A liberal lobbying group, backed by the campaigns of the two Democratic candidates for governor, has challenged Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to use part of the budget surplus to increase aid for school construction to $400 million next year.

“We appeal to Governor Ehrlich … to finally do right by Maryland’s children and fund school construction to the tune of $400 million,” Tom Hucker, executive director of Progressive Maryland, said Thursday.

With Maryland carrying a big budget surplus, Progressive Maryland and other groups are appealing to the governor to use the money to pay for state services instead of cutting taxes.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, has not discussed specifics of his budget proposal but said Wednesday he will use some of the surplus to reduce the state property-tax rate that he increased his first year in office when he was trying to overcome a budget deficit. Mr. Ehrlich also said he will seek a state income-tax break for veterans and will propose some tax credit.

Mr. Hucker said the surplus will allow the state to substantially increase funding to help local governments build schools without jeopardizing the state AAA bond rating.

Mr. Ehrlich would not say how much money will be included for school construction in the budget he will submit in January to the General Assembly because final decisions have not been made.

A task force headed by State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp recommended almost two years ago that the state spend at least $250 million annually for eight years to bring schools across the state up to minimum standards.

Mr. Ehrlich initially proposed spending $105 million for school construction when he prepared his budget last year, but later added $50 million to the appropriation. The legislature then increased the amount to $255 million to bring spending up to the level recommended by the Kopp task force.

Delegate Charles Barkley, a Montgomery County Democrat representing County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who is running for governor, said $400 million is a realistic goal.

Mr. Barkley and Delegate Anthony G. Brown, a Prince George’s Democrat running for lieutenant governor on Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley’s gubernatorial ticket, said they will work together to secure $400 million if Mr. Ehrlich puts a lesser amount in the budget.

Because of the strength of the Maryland economy, tax revenue is coming in much faster than expected, and the state has a big surplus. Mr. Ehrlich estimates a $1.7 billion surplus for the current year and the fiscal year that will begin July 1.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, said rapid growth in the state Medicaid program and increases in funding for classroom instruction will use up much of the surplus.

The House Democratic leadership is committed to providing $250 million for school construction and will consider increasing the amount if the money is available, he said.

The governor and legislature are being deluged with requests for more state spending by organizations that want a share of the surplus, including state employees and teachers asking for a major improvement in pensions that would cost $480 million.

Progressive Maryland also wants the governor to allocate about $375 million to restore previous budget cuts and expand programs for young people in such areas as juvenile services, education, health care and drug abuse.

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