ANNAPOLIS – The House of Delegates approved legislation Friday that assures full funding of a landmark education plan – a move that Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s office called “irresponsible.”
But at least one lawmaker countered that the governor’s failure to sign the House-approved bill, which still needs an OK from the Senate, could harm his slots proposal.
Ehrlich has pitched a plan to install more than 15,000 slot machines at four racetracks and two off-track sites and devote about $2.3 billion in slots revenues over the next four years to education.
The bill approved by the House removes a trigger provision of the 2002 Thornton school reform initiative that could result in about $2 billion less for education over four years, and the House’s largely partisan vote was touted as the most important of the General Assembly session so far.
Bill sponsor Delegate Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, said the measure would remove a “cloud” in the law that, if not eliminated, could leave courts to determine the level of education funding.
“We do not want to give the court what we are supposed to do,” she said.
The original Thornton plan called for a joint resolution by the General Assembly in March to reaffirm funding for the Thornton plan. If the joint resolution failed, the so-called “Thornton Lite” provision would be triggered, sending funds to public schools at a lower rate through 2008.
The Attorney General’s Office, however, determined the resolution could be an unconstitutional legislative veto and may result in a lawsuit.
The trigger provision helped pass the original legislation and was included so the General Assembly could debate the state’s ability to pay for the final years of the $1.3 billion Thornton plan, given its projected $800 million budget gap for fiscal year 2005.
Ehrlich has not decided if he will sign the bill, said spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver, but he does believe it is “irresponsible.”
“If government is no longer accountable or responsible for its actions, the state has worse problems than a budget deficit,” DeLeaver said.
The bill was also considered Friday by the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, where Chairman Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George’s, said failing to remove the trigger could affect Ehrlich’s slots bill.
“We’ve said to the public (that education is) the reason for slots,” Currie, a slots supporter, said. “I don’t know how we can move forward with slots and not fund education.”
It is premature to tie slots to the trigger removal, DeLeaver said.
“The governor’s wish for responsible government and the governor’s support of slots are two different issues,” she said.
Concern over slot machines is not the only thing Ehrlich will have to consider before signing or vetoing the trigger removal, some lawmakers said.
By vetoing it, he would be standing by his advocacy of responsible government, but he could also be seen as anti-education.
“He’s between the devil and the deep blue sea,” said Minority Leader Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset.
Ehrlich does not think political repercussions should be attached to his signature or veto, DeLeaver said.
“He feels that pro-education should not be equated with this trigger vote.”