ANNAPOLIS – The 31-member Prince George’s County delegation has an eight-point legislative agenda, but only one priority: full funding of an education program that would bring $637 million to the county public schools over four years.
The county’s lawmakers may have their work cut out for them, however. There is a projected $700 million state budget deficit and news reports have said there will be a $45 million reduction in recommended funds for the popular education initiative next year for some districts, including Prince George’s County.
The Thornton school reform plan was passed two years ago but funding must be renewed by a joint resolution of the General Assembly by the 50th day of the session, or education dollars will increase yearly at a lower rate.
The county delegation may be united in its support of full Thornton funding, but, like the rest of the General Assembly, it’s divided on where to get the money.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich believes approving slot machines at racetracks – including two in Prince George’s County – will generate $800 million over two years and is the best way to support Thornton. The Senate passed a slots bill last year but it died in the House.
“We’re going to pass a slots bill,” Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, said Wednesday. “We’re going to fully fund Thornton.”
Miller has the support of Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., D-Prince George’s, who said he is willing to see slots at racetracks in the county if they create revenue for local schools.
Assurances of education dollars do not convince Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, that slots are the answer to funding of Thornton.
“I don’t support gambling,” he said.
Other members of the delegation are waiting to see the budget presented by Ehrlich Wednesday and bills that propose alternative forms of funding – like a 1 cent sales tax increase or the closing of corporate tax loopholes.
Ehrlich will not support a compromise budget that ties slots passage to an income or sales tax, said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell.
Prince George’s County, where school test scores dwell below the state average, has been ignored in the past and will suffer even more if Thornton is not fully funded, legislators said.
“Our kids are at risk,” Pinsky said. “Education is one area that is holding down the county.”
Without Thornton’s cash infusion, Prince George’s County will lose qualified teachers and staff, provide less help for students on the Maryland High School Assessments and be unable to meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the Prince George’s County Board of Education has said.
The county also cannot reduce class sizes without full Thornton funding and may have to cut some all-day kindergarten classes to half-day programs, Prince George’s County spokeswoman Nancy Lineman said.
And despite the disparity in county legislators’ approach to funding Thornton, delegation members will fight hard to win the funds, said Prince George’s County Legislative Affairs Director Len Lucchi.
“Whether there is cohesiveness on revenue issues is irrelevant,” Lucchi said. “If the governor promised to fully fund Thornton, I think they’ll find a way to.”
– 30 – CNS-1-16-04