ANNAPOLIS – A bill to shore up $2 billion for a landmark school reform plan survived challenges Thursday in the House of Delegates after Republicans offered amendments to dilute legislation the sponsors said is necessary to avoid a lawsuit.
The bill, which would remove a trigger requirement that could result in $2 billion less for education over four years, was alternately argued as a way to assure constitutionality and a method to circumvent discussion on fiscal responsibility.
“There is a gun to the head of the budget of the State of Maryland and some of us want to intentionally pull the trigger,” said Minority Whip Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert.
The Thornton school reform plan, passed in 2002, includes a stipulation that the General Assembly approve full funding of the final years of the $1.3 billion initiative through a joint resolution by the 50th day of the session. If a resolution is not passed, “Thornton Lite” takes effect and education dollars increase yearly at a lower rate, with a difference of about $2 billion through 2008.
The Attorney General’s Office determined, however, that the joint resolution could be considered a legislative veto, which some courts have found to be unconstitutional. The Legislature could face a lawsuit regardless of whether it passes, the office said.
More than 70 delegates signed on to a bill sponsored by Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, that would eliminate the trigger requirement and assure full funding.
Republicans offered amendments Thursday to push the trigger requirement back a year, move the joint resolution to the 83rd day of session and eliminate the Thornton plan’s full-day kindergarten requirement. The measures were soundly defeated by largely party line votes of 94-43, 94-41 and 92-42, respectively.
The trigger helped pass the original legislation, O’Donnell said, and was included so lawmakers could debate the state’s ability to pay for the Thornton plan. Elimination of the trigger, he said, would cause “catastrophic failure” during a time when the state faces a projected $800 million budget gap.
“We have not yet come to grips with how to pay for a very, very expensive K-through-12 education plan,” he said.
But Hixson said allowing the trigger to remain is unconstitutional and would leave a “cloud over the Thornton Commission.” There will be time to discuss how to pay for the final years of Thornton, she said.
“This piece we can deal with today. Let’s move forward,” she said.
The full-day kindergarten amendment, similar to a bill making its way through the House, was shot down by delegates on procedural grounds.
Democrats’ defeat of the amendments could come back to haunt them at the polls, O’Donnell said later.
“Citizens want us to get our fiscal house in order,” he said. Democrats will feel “the ultimate impact in the 2006 election.”
The trigger removal bill will be voted on by the House Friday and a Senate committee will consider that chamber’s version of the bill the same day. Both are expected to pass.