ANNAPOLIS – The one point most politicians in Annapolis seem to be able to agree on lately is that the Thornton education legislation must be fully funded, despite a mounting budget deficit.
But whether that will be accomplished by slashing programs, raising taxes, licensing slot machines or stretching the funding over the next few years is sure to be one of the most hotly debated issues when the General Assembly convenes in January.
“I think this year folks are going to have to resolve themselves to coming up with a solution or, instead of having an acute problem brought on by an economic slow down, you’re going to have more of a chronic condition,” said former state Sen. Robert Neall, a state budget expert.
A new public opinion poll showing most Marylanders would support extending funding may give credence to those who would slow down Thornton’s timetable – but it hasn’t persuaded key lawmakers to reconsider their positions.
“The only thing the General Assembly is required to do is fund public education and we haven’t been doing a very good job. This should have been addressed in past sessions and it wasn’t,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert.
The legislation, which passed in 2002, was designed to increase funding for public schools statewide while giving an additional boost to especially needy populations.
It increases education spending by about $360 million this year – almost half of the estimated $800 million budget deficit.
The state will not be able to meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act without the Thornton funding, State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick told lawmakers.
“We’re not doing this in a vacuum . . . We’ve got the overarching No Child Left Behind Act,” said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, D-Montgomery, “We’re going to have to do it whether they like it or not.”
The issue is further complicated by a Baltimore City lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Baltimore City parents. Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan ordered the state to provide an additional $250 million to improve the troubled city school system.
“We would certainly consider going back to court after the session if Thornton is not funded,” Susan Goering, executive director of the ACLU of Maryland.
“If you ask the question, ‘Do you think the courts are better to determine the funding formula for schools, or do you think the Legislature?’ If the Legislature doesn’t fund Thornton, the courts will. Who would you rather do it?” said House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich promised during his campaign to fully fund the legislation using revenue from slot machines. Although his slots bill passed the Senate last session, it died in the House Ways and Means Committee.
Now Ehrlich says he is keeping his commitment – at least for this year – but he will pay for it by cutting nearly every state-sponsored program, even if a slots bill passes and passes early.
“The governor has committed to fully fund (this year’s phase) of Thornton. We’re looking for reductions in virtually every other area of state spending to pay for it,” said Neil L. Bergsman, executive director of the Department of Budget and Management.
That has some lawmakers wondering if state agencies can weather the cuts needed to save the school reform plan.
“It’s hard to see how we’re going to be able to afford it,” said House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery, “A lot of people won’t understand the magnitude of the cuts until they see the budget.”
“It’s just like blinders are on and we’ve got to fund Thornton just for political purposes. Neither side wants to be realistic,” said Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset “I would like to see it stretched out.”
About 54 percent of Marylanders agree with him, according to the latest poll from Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies, published Wednesday.
Of the demographics surveyed, only African Americans supported fully funding the legislation.
If Thornton is to remain intact, the Legislature will need to find a way to pay for it. This year’s $360 million price tag nearly doubles next year, bringing the deficit to an even more daunting $1.3 billion, according to Warren Deschenaux, legislative analyst.
If lawmakers stick with the current plan for Thornton, funding doesn’t level off until 2008, when it will have reached $1.3 billion.
If slots are going to foot the bill for the plan, they will need to pass this session, lawmakers say.
“It’s going to be two years before they can get it up and get it going but the Thornton pressure is still going to be there two years from now,” Stoltzfus said.
The Ways and Means Committee, which killed slots last session, spent the fall touring possible slot sites around the state and studying their potential social and economic impact.
The committee will likely be a major force in shaping any slots legislation this session, Busch said.
“If a slots bill passes it will be in conjunction with taxes,” said Delegate Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, chairwoman of the committee. Hixson said she would insist that the additional revenue be earmarked for education.
But the governor has made it clear that he will veto any slots legislation that comes with a tax increase.
“I think anything that begins with a ‘T’ is met with a great deal of scorn,” Neall said.
If slots pass this session, some lawmakers say, it won’t provide enough revenue to sustain Thornton, even in the long term.
Hogan, who voted for slots last session, chided Ehrlich for not considering tax increases along with expanded gambling. “(Slots are) not the silver bullet that’s going to solve everything.”