Ed­u­ca­tion tops list of state pri­or­i­ties

Lead­ers pledge re­forms; ses­sion opens this week

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Luke Broad­wa­ter and Pamela Wood

Headed into the start of Mary­land’s 441st Gen­eral As­sem­bly ses­sion Wed­nes­day, the leg­is­la­ture’s two new lead­ers are try­ing to pull off a his­toric feat: Pass sweep­ing re­forms aimed at greatly im­prov­ing the state’s pub­lic schools — and do it with­out a mas­sive tax in­crease.

In in­ter­views with The Bal­ti­more Sun, House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and in­com­ing Se­nate

Pres­i­dent Bill Fer­gu­son said they have ruled out across-the­board in­creases to state sales, prop­erty or in­come taxes.

Nev­er­the­less, they said, they plan to pass two ex­pen­sive bills to bol­ster ed­u­ca­tion and re­build the state’s ag­ing pub­lic school build­ings.

Fer­gu­son, a for­mer teacher from Bal­ti­more whom fel­low Democrats have nom­i­nated to be­come Se­nate pres­i­dent, called the leg­is­la­tion his top pri­or­ity.

Jones, a Bal­ti­more County Demo­crat, said she has des­ig­nated the mea­sures House Bill 1 and House Bill 2. “That sends a mes­sage of how im­por­tant that it is,” she said.

In their first ses­sion as pre­sid­ing of­fi­cers, Fer­gu­son and Jones are also ex­pected to tackle bills aimed at keep­ing the Preak­ness Stakes horse race in Bal­ti­more, ban­ning fla­vored vap­ing prod­ucts, ex­pand­ing gun con­trol, and le­gal­iz­ing sports bet­ting, among other is­sues.

The deal for the Preak­ness, in par­ticu

“The costs of do­ing noth­ing are ex­tra­or­di­nary. They’re un­ac­cept­able. So, this is our op­por­tu­nity to set us down a trans­for­ma­tive path­way, and I be­lieve that the Gen­eral As­sem­bly is mo­ti­vated to get this done in a col­lab­o­ra­tive way.” — State Se­nate Pres­i­dent Bill Fer­gu­son

lar, could be con­tentious be­cause it in­volves mul­ti­ple changes to state law, in­clud­ing how some casino sub­si­dies for rac­ing are used. Bal­ti­more of­fi­cials and the com­pany that owns Pim­lico Race Course want to turn over the North­west Bal­ti­more track to a new non­profit en­tity and re­model it into a mul­ti­sport and en­ter­tain­ment venue. Demo­cratic lead­ers are pledg­ing to pass a bill to make the deal hap­pen, but Repub­li­can Gov. Larry Ho­gan hasn’t of­fered his opin­ion.

Ho­gan de­clined to be in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle.

Fer­gu­son is ex­pected to take con­trol of the Se­nate from long­time Pres­i­dent Thomas V. Mike Miller, who is step­ping down from his lead­er­ship post as he con­tin­ues treat­ment for metastatic pan­cre­atic can­cer.

Jones, mean­while, as­cended to the House lead­er­ship post in May af­ter the death of Speaker Michael E. Busch.

As the two have ad­justed to their new roles this win­ter, they’ve pre­pared to fight for what they be­lieve to be es­sen­tial im­prove­ments to the state’s pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. They will lead a Gen­eral As­sem­bly so dom­i­nated by Democrats that, when party mem­bers stick to­gether, they eas­ily pass any bills they want and over­ride Ho­gan’s ve­toes.

The lead­ers’ chief pri­or­ity for the 90-day ses­sion is to adopt a new for­mula for how much money the state, each of its 23 coun­ties and the city of Bal­ti­more are re­quired to spend on schools.

The ad­di­tional money would pay to ex­pand full­day prekinder­garten to all 4-year-olds, im­prove stu­dents’ ca­reer and col­lege readi­ness, raise teacher salaries and sup­port schools in ar­eas with high con­cen­tra­tions of poor fam­i­lies, among other pro­grams.

The rec­om­men­da­tions come from the state’s Com­mis­sion on In­no­va­tion and Ex­cel­lence in Ed­u­ca­tion, known as the “Kir­wan Com­mis­sion” for its chair­man, for­mer Univer­sity Sys­tem of Mary­land Chan­cel­lor Wil­liam “Brit” Kir­wan. The com­mis­sion’s goal over the last three years has been to fig­ure out how to make Mary­land’s pub­lic schools the best in the na­tion, as they once were known.

Fer­gu­son, a mem­ber of the com­mis­sion, said it’s crit­i­cally im­por­tant to turn the com­mis­sion’s find­ings into class­room im­prove­ments.

“The costs of do­ing noth­ing are ex­tra­or­di­nary. They’re un­ac­cept­able,” he said. “So, this is our op­por­tu­nity to set us down a trans­for­ma­tive path­way, and I be­lieve that the Gen­eral As­sem­bly is mo­ti­vated to get this done in a col­lab­o­ra­tive way.”

In the 2019 Gen­eral As­sem­bly ses­sion, law­mak­ers passed a law fund­ing the com­mis­sion’s rec­om­men­da­tions for three years. This year, they ex­pect to put fund­ing for­mu­las into law to balance fu­ture costs be­tween the state and the coun­ties, as well as fig­ure out how to pay the state’s share of the ad­di­tional money go­ing for­ward.

Ad­vo­cacy groups have floated rais­ing the money by meth­ods in­clud­ing re­in­sti­tut­ing a higher state in­come tax on mil­lion­naires and dis­con­tin­u­ing some state tax in­cen­tives and cred­its for busi­nesses. Jones and Fer­gu­son say those ideas are on the ta­ble for dis­cus­sion, even as they have ruled out some other tax in­creases. Le­gal­iz­ing sports bet­ting to help pay for schools also has been pro­posed.

The com­mis­sion pro­poses phas­ing in the pro­grams and the ex­tra spend­ing over 10 years. By the end of that time, an ad­di­tional $4 bil­lion would be go­ing into Mary­land’s class­rooms — $2.8 bil­lion from the state and $1.2 bil­lion from lo­cal gov­ern­ments.

Some lo­cal lead­ers — in­clud­ing Bal­ti­more Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young — have ques­tioned how they’ll come up with their in­creased share of the fund­ing.

And the num­bers have led Ho­gan to blast the com­mis­sion as pro­mot­ing ex­pen­sive pro­grams with no way to pay for them. He’s de­rided the group as the “Kir­wan Tax Hike Com­mis­sion.” On so­cial me­dia, the gov­er­nor has claimed each Mary­land tax­payer will be stuck with a tax in­crease of $6,200 per year — though his es­ti­mate is based partly on fac­tors un­re­lated to ed­u­ca­tion spend­ing.

“I think they’re scare tac­tics,” Jones said of Ho­gan’s anti-Kir­wan spend­ing cam­paign. She be­lieves there’s strong sup­port among Mary­land res­i­dents for the ex­tra fund­ing.

Fer­gu­son said he’s hope­ful the gov­er­nor will work with law­mak­ers and end up sup­port­ing money for the Kir­wan re­forms. The two met in De­cem­ber and had “a very, very pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tion,” Fer­gu­son said.

There’s been broad bi­par­ti­san sup­port for many of the Kir­wan ideas. The crux of the de­bate could be­come how to drum up the ex­tra money.

“Mary­lan­ders re­ally value hav­ing good schools,” said Kali Schu­mitz, com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor for the Mary­land Cen­ter on Eco­nomic Pol­icy. “Our tax code is full of loop­holes that ben­e­fit large cor­po­ra­tions and wealthy in­di­vid­u­als. That’s harm­ing our abil­ity to make in­vest­ments in our schools.”

One thing that’s off the ta­ble, Jones and Fer­gu­son said, is a broad-based in­crease to Mary­land’s in­come, prop­erty or sales taxes. Asked if the House would con­sider an across­the-broad tax in­crease,

Jones said: “Not at all, as far as I’m con­cerned.”

Like­wise, Fer­gu­son said: “It’s fair to say that is not the path the Gen­eral As­sem­bly will be trav­el­ing.”

Del. Nic Kipke, who as mi­nor­ity leader is the toprank­ing Repub­li­can in the House, said he was en­cour­aged by those pledges.

“That’s wel­come news,” he said. “Taxes are al­ready so bur­den­some in Mary­land.”

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for the gov­er­nor, said Ho­gan still has ques­tions about how the re­forms will be funded.

“We are pleased that leg­isla­tive lead­ers are fi­nally rul­ing out some tax in­creases, but that still does not come close to an­swer­ing the ques­tion: where is all the money com­ing from?” Ricci said in a state­ment Fri­day night.

Where there is fuller agree­ment be­tween the leg­isla­tive and ex­ec­u­tive branches is on spend­ing more on con­struc­tion projects to build and ren­o­vate schools.

Both Ho­gan and Demo­cratic law­mak­ers have en­dorsed plans to ac­cel­er­ate school con­struc­tion by bor­row­ing $2.2 bil­lion over five years. The debt would be paid off by us­ing $125 mil­lion each year from casino rev­enue that’s ded­i­cated to ed­u­ca­tion.

The idea first came from Ho­gan in De­cem­ber 2018. The House passed its ver­sion of a con­struc­tion plan in 2019, but the bill failed in the Se­nate.

Now, the House and Se­nate are united on a con­struc­tion plan, called “Built to Learn.” And Ho­gan is again tout­ing his “Build­ing Op­por­tu­nity Fund.”

Jones said too many of Mary­land’s schools — es­pe­cially in Bal­ti­more — have un­ac­cept­able prob­lems like in­ad­e­quate heat­ing and cool­ing.

“Stu­dents can’t learn if they’re freez­ing or sit­ting there in mit­tens and wool coats. And they’re burn­ing up in the spring and the sum­mer,” Jones said. “I think we’ve got to make sure our school build­ings are con­ducive to learn­ing for our stu­dents.”

Demo­cratic law­mak­ers also are ex­pected to con­sider bills that would put el­e­ments of the fed­eral Af­ford­able Care Act into state law, set guide­lines for com­pen­sat­ing ex­on­er­ated for­mer pris­on­ers, ex­pand the def­i­ni­tion of hate crimes, and pro­hibit hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion against ten­ants who use gov­ern­ment vouch­ers to pay rent.

The vastly out­num­bered Repub­li­can law­mak­ers ex­pect to of­fer some pro­pos­als of their own, and will try to doom bills they find oner­ous.

Sen. J.B. Jen­nings, the Se­nate mi­nor­ity leader, said Repub­li­cans in his cham­ber will work, in par­tic­u­lar, to stop any po­ten­tial tax in­creases to pay for the ad­di­tional pub­lic school spend­ing.

“We want bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion, but we’re not go­ing to sup­port tax in­creases,” said Jen­nings, who rep­re­sents parts of Har­ford and Bal­ti­more coun­ties. “Our job is more on the de­fen­sive side.

“There are some spe­cial in­ter­est groups who feel they’ve got a more lib­eral Se­nate pres­i­dent now, so they can get more of their pro­gres­sive and lib­eral agenda out. Our job is to say, ‘The state’s not where you think it is. It’s not that lib­eral.’ We’re go­ing to try to bring them more to the cen­ter.”

Kipke said House Repub­li­cans’ agenda will fo­cus on im­prov­ing ed­u­ca­tion and curb­ing crime.

“We want to get bet­ter out­comes in pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion for all stu­dents through­out the state. The ques­tion boils down to how to ac­com­plish that and how to fund any ad­di­tional pri­or­i­ties,” Kipke said. “We al­ready fund pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion at one of the high­est lev­els in the na­tion. You can an­tic­i­pate Repub­li­cans not be­ing sup­port­ive of in­creased taxes.”

Ho­gan, mean­while, has rolled out sev­eral pro­pos­als, though he has rarely got­ten his bills through the Gen­eral As­sem­bly.

In ad­di­tion to his school con­struc­tion plan, Ho­gan wants to cre­ate a pro­gram for turn­ing around poorly rated pub­lic schools that’s mod­eled af­ter one in Mas­sachusetts.

He also has a plan to pro­mote clean en­ergy by creat­ing new re­new­able en­ergy cred­its for Mary­land­based sources of elec­tric­ity, in­clud­ing new nu­clear power, nat­u­ral gas, com­bined heat and power, and burn­ing biomass, such as wood or ma­nure.

Ho­gan has sev­eral crimere­lated mea­sures, in­clud­ing a Vi­o­lent Firearms Of­fend­ers Act. It would in­crease penal­ties for cer­tain re­peat of­fend­ers who use guns; for peo­ple who give or sell guns to some­one they know will use them to com­mit a crime; and for any­one who de­stroys a firearm’s se­rial num­ber.

PAUL W. GILLE­SPIE/CAP­I­TAL GAZETTE

Lawyer’s Mall will still be un­der con­struc­tion dur­ing the 2020 leg­isla­tive ses­sion at the Mary­land State House in An­napo­lis.

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