ANNAPOLIS – It was education that catapulted most members of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus to elected office, so Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s focus on education in his State of the State speech brought cheers from the group.
“The doors of higher education were closed for so many reasons to those who came before you,” Glendening said in his address Thursday. He noted that, like him, many members of the audience were first- or second-generation college graduates. “Today money is the obstacle that blocks those doors. … We must fight to ensure access today.”
Glendening’s words hit home with many of the 38 members of the caucus.
“It (the address) touched on those issues that are actually important to the black community,” said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore, caucus vice president. “Education was the vehicle that allowed many (caucus members) to get to where they are.”
The infusion of cash into schools, he said, will help further the goals of the caucus.
Caucus members said they were confident the governor could make good on his promise to spend $1 billion on schools, scholarships and new teachers during his final term, aided by the estimated $250 million budget surplus. The appropriations require approval from the General Assembly.
Glendening’s emphasis on state investment in children struck a nerve with Delegate Joanne C. Benson, D-Prince George’s. A former principal and 9-year veteran of the Maryland Assembly, Benson said the speech brought tears to her eyes.
“The governor reconfirmed my reason for being here,” she said. “It hits at the very heart of what the state government should do that is putting children first.”
Delegate Talmadge Branch, D-Baltimore, similarly praised the governor’s focus. But he said he wished the governor had addressed the lack of available space in drug treatment centers, an issue he plans to take up this session.
The cigarette tax that Glendening proposes to pay for his education initiatives wasn’t as well received by at least one caucus member.
Delegate Clarence Davis, D-Baltimore, said, “I have a lot of my (constituents) who have been smoking 40 or 50 years, are unemployed and can’t pay for (the tax).”
In his district, the price of cigarettes has risen from $1.85 to $3.15 in just seven months. “We’ve already seen the price go up, I just can’t see another price hike.”
Glendening supports a $1 per pack cigarette tax and a 25 percent wholesale tax on the price of cigars and smokeless tobacco. The taxes are estimated to bring in $155 million the first year, much of it to be devoted to education.
Benson said she is wary about the lack of restraint in spending the state’s projected budget surplus.
She said she witnessed the assembly fumble the last budget surplus in 1992. Maryland lawmakers rushed to spend the money on various programs, but as soon as the economic recession hit, the assembly had to raise taxes to maintain those spending levels, she said.
“We have to have to be very careful in case the economy shifts downward,” she said.
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