ANNAPOLIS – Although Gov. Robert Ehrlich promised full funding for the public school reform plan known as the Thornton Commission report, lawmakers Tuesday questioned whether the money will really be available given the state’s cloudy current financial picture.
“The big question is not next year, so much as ’06, ’07, ’08,” said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, D-Montgomery, vice chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. “Even if we pass slots, we are still short of revenue.”
Members of the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee convened in the second of a series of sessions to determine how realistic funding popular programs, including Thornton, will be in a tight budget year. Approval for slot machines at several state race tracks was considered during the last legislative session to pay for Thornton, and is expected to come up again when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
The Thornton Commission report is the result of years of research targeted toward boosting achievement in public schools statewide. If fully funded, the initiative would cost about $400 million next year. The state faces a gap of $786 million in order to fund a budget of 1.36 billion in FY 2005.
Some lawmakers, including Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, wondered whether a memo written by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. questioning the funding process for Thornton might hold up the funding package in court.
Rawlings suggested three times during the meeting that Curran explain to the committees how he concluded that it is unconstitutional for the Legislature to choose between two possible Thornton funding packages.
Deputy Attorney General Donna Hill Staton said that the office hadn’t received a request from Rawlings or any other lawmaker to explain the memo.
She could not be certain whether Curran would testify before the committees, but said his staff could answer lawmakers’ questions.
“Of course, if our clients have any questions about the advice that was given we would be available to respond,” Staton said.
The report, originally addressed to the presiding officers and Budget Secretary James C. “Chip” DiPaula, enjoyed much wider circulation when its contents were published in the regional media.
“It went further than it was originally intended to,” said Warren G. Deschenaux, director of the Legislative Office of Policy Analysis during Tuesday’s hearing.
The memo criticized the process the Legislature will use to determine how much to fund Thornton.
If lawmakers fail to fully fund Thornton by the 50th day of the upcoming session, allocating $400 million in additional education spending, each county’s educational budget will automatically increase by 5 percent.
The latter plan, called Thornton-light by lawmakers, would result in a net increase of only $200 million in funding.
Curran argued in the report that the approach interferes with executive power because choosing one plan amounts to a “legislative veto” of the other.
Curran doesn’t make his preference for a Thornton funding method clear in his memo, Deschenaux said.
“From my understanding, it seemed in his language that he had an affinity for Thornton-light. But someone else may read the same document and arrive at a different conclusion,” Deschenaux said at the hearing.
Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, D-Baltimore County, asked who prompted Curran to write the memo.
Deschenaux shrugged in response, “Nobody. He was just trying to be helpful.” – 30 – CNs-9-23-03