ANNAPOLIS – Private schools moved a step closer to getting millions in state aid for books Wednesday as the Maryland Senate finalized its version of the state’s $19.6 billion budget.
The controversial issue, worth $6 million, dominated debate on how Maryland should use this year’s $150 million portion of the national tobacco settlement.
While it took senators only 90 minutes to consent to most of the 325 amendments that a Senate committee made to Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s 2001 budget, the debate over funding for non-public schools, .03 percent of the overall budget, took two hours to resolve and brought the chamber to a virtual standstill.
Senate advocates argued helping any schools – private or public – is a worthy use of the money, but critics said they feared the program ignores serious problems with the public school system and will “break through the firewall” that separates church and state in Maryland.
“We simply have not been able to accomplish what the (Maryland) Constitution called for,” said Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore, as she read Article 8 of the state constitution: the General Assembly shall by law establish…free public schools… and shall provide for their maintenance.
Kelley proposed killing Glendening’s private school textbook subsidy – a one-time grant that amounts to about $46 each for the state’s 135,000 private and parochial school students.
Public schools desperately need that money, Kelley said.
“(Some) textbooks in Somerset County’s public schools don’t yet show that man has walked on the moon,” Kelley said.
Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore, chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, pointed out a serious flaw with Kelley’s argument – the $6 million would not become available for public schools, but would be returned to the cigarette restitution fund.
Kelley didn’t budge.
“It’s bad public policy,” she snapped.
Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson, R-Carroll, demanded someone tell him the origin of the aid program.
“What is the pressing need for this?” Ferguson said to Sen. Robert R. Neall, D-Anne Arundel, who helped prepare the Senate’s version of the budget.
Neall said he assumed Glendening offered the aid this year because constituents requested it and because the state has a record $940 million budget surplus.
Ferguson didn’t buy it.
“You know what? There is no need,” said Ferguson, father of two private-school children.
The worst thing that could happen to non-public schools in the state would be for the government to get involved in their business, he said.
“Do me a favor,” Ferguson offered, “don’t do me any favors.”
Glendening told Capital News Service March 9 that he promised the $6 million to private and parochial schools as part of his re-election campaign.
“I have lived up to my commitment,” he said.
Glendening spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said the governor made his promise to parents and groups that have been coming to him asking for help for their private schools.
Kelley’s amendment was defeated 19 to 27, as were four similar measures, preserving the private school aid.
Lawmakers also debated how best to use the rest of the tobacco settlement and whether some of the state’s surplus should be returned to taxpayers.
Glendening wants to use $90 million of the tobacco settlement for cancer control, tobacco control, substance abuse treatment and tobacco crop conversion. The remaining $63 million would be used for education.
The Senate version delays some programs and gives $24 million to Medicaid next year.
Given the record state surplus, some Republican senators submitted amendments to accelerate the Maryland income tax reduction approved by the General Assembly in 1998.
“Instead of spending every penny of the surplus, we need to give some of it back,” said Sen. Larry E. Haines, R-Carroll.
Haines’ amendment would have accelerated income tax reductions already scheduled to kick in by 2002, saving Maryland families about $80 next year. Haines said the state could use some of the $400 million sitting in reserves to fund the cut. But Hoffman said that money is earmarked for a special purpose in Glendening’s 2002 budget – schools.
“What public schools shouldn’t we build,” Hoffman asked Haines, “if we use this money for something else?” The budget bill should get a full Senate later this week or next week. -30-