Democrats press Hogan to release money for schools

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Democrats are pressuring Maryland's Republican governor on school funding.

Democrats who represent some of Maryland's costliest school districts have again called on Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to release money earmarked for them by the legislature, accusing the governor of hurting schoolchildren to make a political point.

"Governor, letting the money just sit there doesn't help anyone," Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said Monday at a news conference outside the State House in Annapolis. "We appreciate fiscal responsibility, but governor, your actions have nothing to do with fiscal responsibility."

The Democrats pointed to a projected $500 million surplus expected in this year's budget and announced last week, saying with the new pool of cash, the governor could spend more on education while also spending more on the state's pension system, as he has proposed.

Hogan remained unmoved.

"Once again, now is not the time to abandon common sense," Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said in statement. Mayer said the state is still facing a $1 billion cumulative deficit over five years and still has a long-term pension shortfall with a price tag in the billions.

Kamenetz joined Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, Frederick County Executive Jan H. Gardner and Montgomery County Councilman Craig Rice in trying to press Hogan into spending $68 million more on education.

Monday's event was the latest in about a half-dozen staged since spring attempting to persuade Hogan to spend the money.

When the tussle over the $68 million first arose during the budget debate this year, officials from three Republican-led counties — Howard, Carroll and Anne Arundel — objected to Hogan's position. They said it would have a detrimental effect on schools.

But no one from those jurisdictions joined Democrats on Monday in pressuring the governor.

Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh "fully supports the governor's decision," a spokesman said. Hogan "inherited a mess," the spokesman, Owen P. McEvoy, said.

House Minority Leader Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel Republican, suggested the Democrats hammering the governor on this issue are playing their own political game.

"Some are using this as a political tool to attack the governor," Kipke said.

But Rawlings-Blake said she came to Annapolis out of "frustration" that "the state continues to deny important education resources" to Baltimore's students.

"The money that the state is withholding from our schools could have helped our children in so many ways," she said, saying the additional funding could pay for smaller class sizes and more after-school and arts programs.

"All things that the governor and his administration say they value," Rawlings-Blake added. "The money is available; all he has to do is release it and release the potential of our young people at the same time."

Kipke noted that the half-billion-dollar surplus is just a projection until the state's fiscal year ends in June.

"Spending every single penny we have before the money is even counted is probably not the wisest of ideas," he said. "What the governor is doing is taking a cautious approach to budgeting and waiting until the dollars are already in the account before he can spend them."

A state spending formula called the Geographic Cost of Education Index, known by its acronym GCEI, calls for the governor to award extra money to 13 jurisdictions where it costs more to educate students — in part because of high poverty rates and higher percentages of students for whom English is a second language.

Former Gov. Martin O'Malley funded the maximum called for under that formula during his last six years in office, and eligible school systems came to rely on it.

Hogan, who took office in January, emphasized the discretionary nature of that spending formula and volunteered to fund it halfway but not further, leaving the 13 school districts with a total of $68 million less than expected.

In response, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly earmarked $68 million Hogan could spend on those school districts and nothing else, and then passed a bill making it mandatory to fully fund the formula next year if Hogan did not fully fund it this year. Hogan let that bill become law.

Democrats heightened their rhetoric on the school issue Monday, repeatedly saying that with the expected surplus, the governor had no excuse not to release the money and emphasizing it helps the state's poorest and most vulnerable students.

The news conference by executives follows another from General Assembly Democrats last week, after the legislature's presiding officers announced the state is likely to have a surplus 10 times larger than expected this year.

Republicans answered back on Friday. The General Assembly's Republican Caucus released a Department of Legislative Services analysis showing that despite the projected surplus for this year's budget and next, Maryland's budgets would again face a shortfall starting in fiscal 2018 — albeit by margins the analysts said could easily be managed through prudent budgeting.

The Democrats who gathered in Annapolis on Monday said it is time the public begins pressuring Hogan to release the money.

"We're calling on people of Maryland," Baker said. "We want you to write to the governor, we want you to call the governor. We want you to call those members of the General Assembly, those county executives and your mayor to say: 'We want this money released.' This is now in the people's hands."

ecox@baltsun.com

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