ANNAPOLIS – Key Senate lawmakers vowed Tuesday to overcome legal and financial issues jeopardizing the Thornton school reform plan.
Leaders of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee said they may push for an emergency bill to leave funding intact and address constitutional questions first raised by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. in a July letter.
“We’ll sit down with the presiding officers and allow them to hear the legal ramifications,” said Sen. Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George’s. “I voted for full funding and nothing that was said today will change that. We can’t afford not to educate our children.”
The full Thornton plan would cost the state about $350 million to $450 million annually through 2008 – increasing funding for education by about 11 percent per year.
That’s a tall order for a state already in fiscal crisis. Without spending cuts or a new revenue source – either from increased taxes, expanded gambling or both – the state will face a deficit of nearly $2 billion by 2012 if Thornton is fully funded.
But Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, who voted against full funding for Thornton, said it might be beneficial to include a provision in the new bill delaying the funding for four years, given the state’s cloudy fiscal forecast.
That would mean increasing school spending by only 6 percent annually.
“I think it’s a good idea to stretch funding out,” Stoltzfus said, adding he may try to attach the delay to the emergency bill, even though it’s a long shot.
“The bottom line is that Democrats and Republicans need to work together on this,” Stoltzfus said.
Curran was asked by Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, to clarify his letter, so Tuesday he addressed the Senate committee and the House Appropriations Committee, which held the last in a series of briefings on how to close the state’s projected $700 million budget deficit.
Curran said the law’s built-in “trigger mechanism” may amount to a legislative veto of a bill already signed by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, and will almost certainly be challenged in court, especially if full-funding is not made available.
Curran said he saw the bill too late to recommend changes before it passed in the last session.
The “trigger” stipulates that if the General Assembly fails to approve full funding by the 50th day of the next session, the so-called “Thornton Lite” plan would be adopted, cutting funding almost in half over the next few years.
Even without Thornton, a judge has already ordered the state to pay another $250 million for the troubled Baltimore City system.
The Thornton plan, which allocates about $260 million for the troubled city schools, would cover that amount – but only if the reform legislation is fully funded.
“Judge (Joseph H.H.) Kaplan in Baltimore City has directed the General Assembly and governor to dramatically increase Baltimore City schools and if Thornton funding is rolled back we would have to go back to court to try to enforce his order for Baltimore City school children,” said Bebe Verdery, director of the Education Reform Project for the American Civil Liberties Union which has advocated on behalf of Baltimore parents.
Most lawmakers remain committed to fully funding the plan.
“Almost everybody campaigned on fully funding Thornton,” said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, D-Montgomery, vice chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, “It takes a commitment . . . if you believe in the constitutional requirement of funding education, the rest of it isn’t messy.”
– 30 – CNS-11-4-03