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Md. Democrats propose lock box for education funding

Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Educators Association, speaks at the news conference announcing the proposed changes regarding education funding. (Bryan P. Sears)

Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, speaks at the news conference announcing the proposed changes regarding education funding. (Bryan P. Sears)

ANNAPOLIS — Democratic legislators Tuesday proposed amending the state constitution to dedicate the state’s portion of casino revenues to education.

Under the proposal, the state would still fund education by a formula that increases annually through the general fund. The proposed amendment requires that the roughly $500 million annually that comes to the state from its six casinos be spent on education on top of that base amount each year.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said the legislation is focused on keeping a promise made to voters when slot machines and expanded casino gaming was passed in 2008 and 2012 respectively.

“Then the great recession hit and governors of both parties used (gaming revenue) to balance the budget. Now we’re coming out of the recession. We’re several years out of the recession and it’s time to keep faith with the people.”

Currently, the state spends about $6.5 billion on education statewide. Lawmakers say their bill will ensure the state funds the formula-driven education spending through the general fund. The roughly $500 million from gaming will be on top of that expenditure each year.

If passed, lawmakers say, the legislation will phase out the use of gaming revenues to fund the formula-driven education spending over a four-year period.

“It will take us a few years to phase that out and find general funds the rest of the programs for the rest of the state of Maryland,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch. “The fact of the matter is we want to go back to prioritizing education in the state of Maryland.”

The bill only affects the proceeds already going to the state’s education trust fund.

The bill is modeled on a similar lock box created in 2013 as the legislature passed an increase in the gas tax. Included in that bill was an escape provision that allows the fund to be used for the budget if the governor declares a fiscal emergency and three-fifths of both the House and Senate approve.

Legislators said the education funding bill, which will be introduced in the next week, will contain an identical provision.

The proposal was endorsed Tuesday by the Maryland State Education Association, which represents the state’s 73,000 teachers and education professionals and is Maryland’s largest union.

Passage of the proposal would require a super majority of votes in both chambers and approval of the voters in the 2018 election. Passage of constitutional amendments in the General Assembly do not require the governor’s signature.

The earliest the bill could go into effect would be for the fiscal 2020 budget, which would be introduced next January.

But Democrats Tuesday criticized Hogan for what they said are also cuts to education funding, including the governor’s refusal to fund an optional supplementary inflation offset in his first year — similar to moves made by former Govs. Robert Ehrlich and Martin O’Malley, a Republican and Democrat respectively.

Hogan also reduced education funding to Baltimore City two years ago as required by the state’s funding formula and withheld construction and renovation money for a time because the city and Baltimore County had not presented a plan to provide air conditioning in all of its classrooms.

“His priorities are not our priorities,” said Del. Anne R. Kaiser, D-Montgomery and chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “He claims to increase funding to new levels but the truth is he had to, our formulas dictated it.”

Douglass Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, said school spending has gone up 7 percent over the last four year or roughly $500 million.

Hogan’s record funding claims each year are driven by a mandated formula and are identical to those made by Ehrlich and O’Malley in each of their budgets.

“We’re looking forward to seeing their bill,” Mayer said, adding that Hogan has provided additional money to city schools when the formula required cuts — $24 million last year and a proposed $11 million this year.

“Everyone gets at least $100,000 more than the formula requires,” Mayer said.

The idea of a lock box for education funding is not new. A provision meant to ensure gaming revenue would got to education only was rejected even as the state approved slot machines in 2008.

Later, as the state expanded to full casino gaming and added a sixth venue, advocates told voters the changes would pump hundreds of millions into education.

But over the years since full gaming was approved, education spending has been driven by state formulas. The money from gaming has gone to pay for part of that annual expenditure rather than serve as additional funding.

Mayer said the governor hasn’t seen the specific legislation but supports the idea.

“This was an issue (O’Malley) and the legislature created when they passed the law and we’re happy to help them clean it up,” Mayer said.


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