ANNAPOLIS – House Speaker Michael E. Busch made an unusual appearance in front of a powerful Senate committee Thursday to pitch two pet bills that would build public schools and cap college tuition through new corporate taxes.
The personal support comes at a time when Busch, D-Anne Arundel, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, are at an impasse over two other volatile revenue plans – Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s $800 million slot machine bill and Busch’s $670 million tax proposal.
One bill Busch endorsed passed the House 81-60 and would cap tuition increases at public colleges and universities at 5 percent for the next three years. It would generate $65 million in higher education funds by raising the corporate tax rate from 7 percent to 7.9 percent.
“It’s a great way to send a message to the citizens of Maryland” that lawmakers believe college should be affordable, Busch told the Budget and Taxation Committee. Tuition increases have “caused, in my estimation, too much of a burden on working, middle-class families.”
About $120 million was cut from higher education in the last two years, leading to tuition increases of up to 21 percent at some campuses. Unless the bill is passed, tuition would rise about 10 percent next year in increases already approved by the Board of Regents, the governing body of the University System of Maryland.
Ehrlich has said it is the Regents who set tuition rates and that the system should work to find greater efficiencies before increasing tuition.
Ehrlich “likes the intent” of the bill, said his Budget Secretary James “Chip” DiPaula. “He doesn’t like the unintended, potentially negative consequences.”
One of those negative consequences is a perception that Maryland is anti-business, said Chris Foster, deputy secretary of business and economic development.
The state should “not send the (signal) that every time we have a problem we put it on the backs of business,” he said.
The other bill would generate more than $100 million for public school construction by forcing corporations to pay transfer and recordation taxes on sales of property worth at least $1 million. The 2005 capital budget includes about $100 million, or 27 percent, of the $378 million school systems had requested for school construction and renovation.
The House passed similar bills the last three years, but all died in the Senate. This is the first time, however, that the funds are earmarked for schools and the 124-7 vote in the House shows the bill has strong bipartisan support, Busch said.
Mandates of the $1.3 billion Thornton school reform plan, including all-day kindergarten, are putting a burden on schools that are quickly running out of room for growing student populations, Busch said.
“You need to have the classroom space to deal with all that,” he said. “This would be very beneficial to meet the educational needs.”