ANNAPOLIS – Public schools would get a $242 million increase in state aid in Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s fiscal 2004 budget, while higher education would suffer funding cuts that officials said will “require difficult decisions.”
The bulk of the schools increase in the $22.8 billion budget unveiled Friday would go toward fully funding the second-year increase in local aid under the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act of 2002.
Many hailed the move, even as they said they had expected the governor to provide money for the program, which aims to redistribute tax dollars over several years to the state’s poorest school districts.
“It (the school-aid increase) was something that was fundable. It makes sense. It was logical,” said Alvin Thornton, the chairman of the commission that recommended the new formula last year.
“We would be (legally) vulnerable if it were not funded,” Thornton said. “Obviously, I am very pleased.”
Delegate Melony Griffith, D-Prince George’s, said she was “thrilled that the governor shares our commitment to education.” Her county stands to get an additional $350 million in state aid by 2008 under the multiyear Bridge to Excellence plan.
After a briefing on the budget Friday, members of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee also said they were satisfied with the governor’s proposed school funding increases.
“I’ve looked at it, and it looks great,” said Sen. Janet Greenip, R-Anne Arundel.
That’s a far cry from the reaction of state higher education officials, who learned Friday that the governor’s fiscal 2004 budget slashes their funds by $67 million.
Ehrlich’s plan proposes a 7 percent reduction in funds to the state’s colleges and universities and a 5 percent cut to the Maryland Higher Education Commission, said Janice Doyle, MHEC’s assistant secretary for finance policy. The cuts did not come as a surprise.
“I think it has been made clear that this is what the priorities are for Governor Ehrlich,” Doyle said. “I think he said he’d support (kindergarten) through (grade) 12.”
The University System of Maryland said in a statement late Friday that “the budget reflects the harsh reality of our state.”
“The proposal calls for the USM to make additional cuts to this year’s budget and provides a fiscal year 2004 baseline budget only slightly higher than our 2001 budget,” the release said.
“The immediate reductions and proposed fiscal year 2004 budget will require difficult decisions, but we are committed to taking the steps necessary to protect our core missions of education, research and service,” the statement said.
The system, which last week alerted students to a possible mid-year tuition hike, has scheduled a series of public hearings to gauge public opinion on the issue.
Some said the cuts are only fair since higher education “got the disproportionate share (of funds) when times were good.”
“When you look at higher education, certainly the former governor (Parris Glendening) funded higher education at very high levels,” said Sen. Andrew P. Harris, R-Baltimore County.
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to go to those who have benefited most from past budget years and ask them to be cut,” Harris said.
Left out of Ehrlich’s budget discussion Friday was what percentage of the $395 million in anticipated revenue from slot machines, if any, would be put toward education.
Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said the governor would not commit to a slots figure “until we have the legislation finished.” But it is an issue for legislators who might favor slots if they knew the revenues was going to schools.
“Those of us who are inclined to vote for a slots bill are inclined to do so if the money goes toward education,” said Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. “I don’t want slot money going into the general fund.”