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reach and will jeop­ar­dize fu­ture fund­ing.”

The Se­nate com­mit­tee passed a bud­get pack­age that in­cludes broad state in­come-tax in­creases and the shift­ing of $68 mil­lion in teacher­pen­sion costs onto coun­ties. The full Se­nate is ex­pected to vote on the pro­posal this week.

The pack­age would also close loop­holes in the state’s main­te­nance-of-ef­fort (MOE) law, which man­dates that coun­ties at least match their pre­vi­ous year’s per-pupil education fund­ing.

Coun­ties that vi­o­late the law are pe­nal­ized in the next fis­cal year, re­ceiv­ing flat state education fund­ing rather than a sched­uled in­crease.

The new MOE law — pro­posed by Sen. Nancy J. King, Mont­gomery Demo­crat — would al­low coun­ties to raise prop­erty taxes above ex­ist­ing lo­cal caps to help meet min­i­mum ed­u­ca­tion­fund­ing re­quire­ments.

If coun­ties still fail to pro­vide min­i­mum fund­ing, the state would be able to seize lo­cal in­cometax rev­enue and give it di­rectly to the county’s school board.

“The state is step­ping in and sub­sti­tut­ing its own judg­ment,” said Michael San­der­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Mary­land As­so­ci­a­tion of Coun­ties. “The idea of the state say­ing, ‘Keep feed­ing the beast and tax your­self as much as you have to’ is an un­fair ex­pec­ta­tion on county gov­ern­ments.”

Many county ex­ec­u­tives and lo­cal law­mak­ers have ar­gued that meet­ing the MOE law has been nearly im­pos­si­ble since the eco­nomic down­turn.

They say that bad times have forced coun­ties to ne­glect other parts of their bud­gets — mak­ing deep cuts to em­ploy­ment, health and pub­lic safety — be­cause they weren’t able to touch education, which in some in­stances ac­counts for as much as half of their spend­ing.

Smaller, poorer coun­ties say they have been hit es­pe­cially hard — and larger, more af­flu­ent coun­ties say they are strug­gling to match fund­ing lev­els that sky­rock­eted dur­ing hap­pier eco­nomic times, and that state penal­ties only put them in a deeper hole.

County of­fi­cials have been locked in a con­tin­ual bat­tle against lo­cal school boards and many state law­mak­ers who have her­alded the qual­ity of Mary­land schools and say a stronger MOE law is cru­cial to pro­tect­ing teach­ers and stu­dents.

“It’s the one ser­vice that is a con­sti­tu­tional man­date in Mary­land,” said Sean John­son, di­rec­tor of leg­isla­tive af­fairs for the Mary­land State Education As­so­ci­a­tion. “I don’t think it’s a sa­cred cow as much as it is viewed as the right type of in­vest­ment. You need the state to en­sure greater ac­count­abil­ity at the lo­cal level.”

Coun­ties that vi­o­late main­te­nance of ef­fort may cur­rently re­quest a hard­ship waiver that, if granted, ab­solves them of the penalty.

How­ever, they must still come back the next year and match the pre­vi­ous fund­ing level that was deemed too high to reach, es­sen­tially putting them right back where they started.

Look­ing for long-term relief from the MOE re­quire­ment, sev­eral coun­ties have found an ef­fec­tive loop­hole by slash­ing education fund­ing and sim­ply not re­quest­ing a waiver. The coun­ties take a one-time hit in state fund­ing, but are then al­lowed to re­set their al­low­able fu­ture min­i­mum at that year’s lower level.

Last year, Mont­gomery County was one of seven coun­ties that missed its re­quire­ment, fund­ing education at $127 mil­lion be­low the MOE min­i­mum. The county faces a po­ten­tial $26.2 mil­lion penalty this year from the state — a small price, of­fi­cials say, for the hun­dreds of mil­lions they could save by fund­ing schools at a lower level in fu­ture years.

The new MOE law would close the loop­hole, re­quir­ing vi­o­lat­ing coun­ties to meet the higher min­i­mum that they had sought to avoid.

How­ever, it would al­low waivers or re­duc­tions for some coun­ties that have long-term eco­nomic dif­fi­cul­ties or have fre­quently ex­ceeded MOE in the past.

Mr. San­der­son said coun­ties are “on red alert” and have turned much their lob­by­ing ef­fort to­ward the House, even though law­mak­ers there are con­sid­er­ing a sim­i­lar pro­posal to strengthen main­te­nance of ef­fort.

“The money isn’t there, and hold­ing us to that stan­dard is un­rea­son­able,” he said. “What I think it’s go­ing to do is tell coun­ties: ‘Don’t put more money into your schools than you have to, be­cause you’re never go­ing to get out of that com­mit­ment.”

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