ANNAPOLIS – Full funding of a landmark $1.3 billion education plan was assured Friday after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. allowed a bill repealing a provision of the plan to become law without his signature.
The law removes a condition of the 2002 Thornton school reform plan that could have resulted in about $2 billion less for education over four years. By allowing it to become law without his signature, Ehrlich displayed his commitment to slot machines as a revenue source, while avoiding possible political repercussions from diluting education dollars.
“He’s taking the proper stance,” said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, who voted against the law. “I think that neither a veto nor a signature of the bill was the right stance.”
But House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said Ehrlich skirted responsibility by not signing the bill.
“It would have been preferable for the governor to sign it,” he said.
The so-called “trigger” provision required a joint resolution by the General Assembly by Wednesday or funding would be trimmed incrementally through 2008. The trigger was designed to assure discussion of the state’s ability to pay for the plan.
The Attorney General’s Office said the provision was probably unconstitutional and Democrats rushed this session to remove it and guarantee education funds. But Republicans tried to water down the bill and said that if the trigger was removed, necessary discussion would not take place.
The trigger “assuaged the concerns of many legislators about the lack of fiscal accountability” in Thornton, Ehrlich wrote in a letter to Busch.
The governor’s letter showed his “support for education, but frustration that there’s no money to fund it,” Stoltzfus said.
Ehrlich pressed Busch in the letter to push his gambling expansion bill through the House of Delegates, which killed a similar bill last year.
The Senate passed a slots bill Feb. 27, allowing for 15,500 slot machines at three racetrack and three off-track sites. About half of the estimated $800 million in revenues would be dedicated to education.
Ehrlich’s decision to allow the trigger repeal to become law was influenced by the Senate’s passage of the slots bill, Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said.
Barring further action from the governor or Legislature, there’s no way out of fully funding Thornton now, said Jamie St. Onge, a spokeswoman for Attorney General J. Joseph Curran.
There are bills in the General Assembly to extend the Thornton Plan by four years. They will be heard in committee next week.