ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Senate Tuesday appeared poised to pass a largely unfunded $1.3 billion school reform measure based on recommendations from the so-called Thornton Commission Report.
With opponents lacking votes to sustain a filibuster and former foes backing down, a temporary victory seemed likely despite protracted debate that forced the Senate president to call a special night session to continue discussion.
The five-year school plan rewrites state funding formulas for grade school by giving more money to districts with less wealth and pays for almost two years of the bill through a 34-cent-per-pack cigarette tax hike.
Some thought the day’s discussion could have been the beginning of a filibuster.
But Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, admitted he didn’t have the votes for the move that would tie up the chamber until the minority’s concerns were addressed. There are 13 Senate Republicans, and it takes at least 16 senators to support a filibuster.
“I’m fairly confident the bill will go through,” said Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., D-Montgomery, who, as sponsor of the tobacco tax, was a key player in working out the details.
Part of the lack of support for a filibuster came from strong opponents backing down.
Montgomery lawmakers balked at the original plan since, as one of the richest counties, it left its schools with the lowest funding. They said Thornton ignored the county’s concerns for its changing needs and growing enrollment of disadvantaged children.
With Van Hollen controlling the tobacco tax bill, Montgomery senators were able to win amendments in committee changing some of the funding formulas and allowing them to back the bill.
Under the amendments, the state would ultimately equally share the cost of education with counties and would pay at minimum 40 percent of costs for economically disadvantaged students, special education children, and those with limited English speaking skills.
“I think we’re satisfied with those changes,” Van Hollen said.
The changes mostly increase funding for wealthier districts since poorer counties would already receive more than minimum levels.
Montgomery would receive more than half of the $73 million in increased cost for special needs students, followed by Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard and Worcester counties.
Also, enrollment would be evaluated annually instead of biannually, alleviating concerns of fast-growing districts like Montgomery that funding would lag too far behind enrollment.
Montgomery is the 12th fastest growing school district in the country, educating 16 percent of the state’s K-12 enrollment.
Other changes increased state shares of transportation costs for special education students from $500 to $1,000.
Also increasing the measure’s likely passage is that some senators opposed to Montgomery’s favored amendments changed their position over the weekend.
Sen. Robert Neall, D-Anne Arundel, opposed the measure Friday, but said he would vote for the current bill, as long as it withstood significant amendments.
“I’m thinking about the kids in Caroline, Cecil, Somerset, and Alleghany,” Neall said. “If this bill dies, they don’t get anything.”
Still many opposed the bill – some over using a tobacco tax, others because it wasn’t fully funded.
The cigarette tax will only generate about $100 million of the $1.3 billion price tag the bill is estimated to carry by fiscal year 2007.
“I think it’s totally irresponsible to start something we can’t finish,” said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford, explaining that without full funding, a tax increase may be in the future.
“It is political posturing in an election year” to pass something without paying for it, she said.
If the bill passes before Monday’s deadline, it must be reconciled with a House version that proposes to only fund Thornton formulas to levels attainable under the cigarette tax.