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Democrats vowed Monday to move forward with finding funding for an overhaul to make Maryland schools “world class," rejecting Gov. Larry Hogan’s remarks to county officials that raised the specter of massive tax increases to pay for the plan’s goals. In this file photo, Hogan speaks with the students in the media center at Annapolis Elementary School.
Democrats vowed Monday to move forward with finding funding for an overhaul to make Maryland schools “world class," rejecting Gov. Larry Hogan’s remarks to county officials that raised the specter of massive tax increases to pay for the plan’s goals. In this file photo, Hogan speaks with the students in the media center at Annapolis Elementary School. (By Paul W. Gillespie / Capital Gazette)

Democrats vowed Monday to move forward with finding funding for an overhaul to make Maryland schools “world class," rejecting Gov. Larry Hogan’s remarks to county officials that raised the specter of massive tax increases to pay for the plan’s goals.

Hogan warned those attending the Maryland Association of Counties conference Saturday in Ocean City that the plans of the so-called Kirwan commission for the state’s public schools will be too expensive. He called them “well-meaning," but “half-baked" and “fiscally irresponsible.”

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The commission has called for increasing teacher pay and providing full-day prekindergarten for low-income 3- and 4-year-olds, among other proposals, at a cost of $3.8 billion a year once all programs are phased-in over a decade.

The governor warned a tax increase of $6,200 per family could be needed to pay for the plan, though no such increase has been proposed. Hogan also warned that his budget office estimates the state would need to raise the personal income tax by 39%, the sales tax by 89% or the property tax by 535% to pay for the Kirwan plan.

Democratic leaders said that’s not what they’re proposing. Routine growth in the state budget, through increasing population, higher salaries and housing prices, will add billions to the state’s budget for education over 10 years without additional taxes.

Nevertheless, the programs proposed by Kirwan cost about 30% more than projected growth can cover.

“It’s clearly fear-mongering,” said Del. Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat who is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, of Hogan’s warnings of large tax increases. “We’re one of the richest states in the country and we can afford to do right by our kids. And it isn’t going to require a $6,000 tax per person.”

At issue is the work of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education — nicknamed the Kirwan commission after its chairman, former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan. In addition to implementing full-day prekindergarten, the commission recommends increasing standards and services so students are better prepared for college or to begin a career.

The commission is continuing its work of deciding how to fund its recommendations, including formulas that would spell out how much the state must pay and how much local jurisdictions would contribute.

During his speech, the governor referred to a “major school funding storm gathering on the horizon.”

“I’ve heard your serious and valid concerns about the dramatic impact this could have on your county budgets,” Hogan told county government officials. “With little thought, the legislature rushed through the so-called Kirwan plan.”

Kirwan himself, who has led the commission for several years, jumped Monday to its defense. He said its proposed policies, if enacted, would change the trajectory for thousands of students in the state.

“His comment about the recommendations being half-baked is most unfortunate. It is hard to believe he would say that had he actually read the report,” Kirwan said in a phone interview.

Kirwan said the commission was not originally charged with coming up with a revenue stream to fund its recommendations, though it is working on that issue now.

Compared to other states in the nation, Kirwan said studies have shown Maryland is near the bottom for the amount of its gross domestic product spent on education.

“If we had the same effort as other states, it would more than pay for the cost," Kirwan said. “The question is, ‘Is it enough of a priority to have a world-class education for our children?’ If it is, then we will find a way to pay for this.”

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Maryland spends less per pupil than Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but more than Virginia, according to a presentation by the Maryland State Department of Education staff in January.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said Monday the governor is taking the wrong stance on school funding.

“Leadership is about finding ways to do what’s possible and needed," Olszewski, a Democrat, said. "The governor’s remarks reflect a lack of creativity to tackle the depth of challenges and embrace the opportunities in our schools today.”

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, also a Democrat, said Hogan was "promising not to act before he’s seen a proposal and it’s not a good start.”

“It was not a promising message for those of us who really are committed to making sure that Maryland has a great education system," Pittman said. "I was at MACo and I think the most inspiring session I went to was the one on the findings of Kirwan commission and hearing from ‘Brit’ Kirwan and how we stack up both nationally and internationally ... I think the Kirwan commission has dug deep and has some recommendations that we need to look seriously at ways to implement and fund.”

But Sen. Andrew Serafini, a Washington County Republican, said it’s becoming increasingly clear that neither the state nor the counties will be able to come up with money to pay for the recommendations being made by the Kirwan commission. He signed onto a letter earlier this year asking the commission to consider a longer timeline for adding programs.

“Realistically, we don’t have the money,” said Serafini, noting that the state already has a projected deficit that will need to be closed, as well as the possibility of a U.S. recession in the near future.

While some point to potential revenue sources, such as legalizing recreational marijuana and sports gambling, those wouldn’t be enough to cover the extra education spending.

“This next session’s going to be looking for the money. Marijuana and gaming — the sin taxes — aren’t going to cut it,” Serafini said.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, a Republican, agreed. In an interview Monday, he said that many local jurisdictions, which could be required to pay for half of the recommendations, are concerned about the impact on their budgets.

“We have been worried about this for some time, just because of the magnitude of the numbers that are kind of floated out there," Glassman said of the costs of the commission’s recommendations.

Glassman said the commission’s proposals probably would require $75 million from Harford County alone. Harford would need to increase its property tax rate to $1.29 from $1.04 per $100 of assessed value, and Glassman said Maryland’s other counties also would have to enact a property tax increases of at least 25 cents.

“That would be more than I currently spend on libraries, fire, police and some of my other agencies — parks and rec and the health department,” Glassman said.

In addition to legalizing marijuana and sports betting, Democrats in the legislature say they’re eyeing existing tax credit programs to see if they’re effective. If not, they could be repealed, theoretically generating more money for the state budget.

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Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who is chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, called Hogan’s comments “disappointing.”

McIntosh said more than half of the state’s African-American students attend schools that are underfunded, while fewer than 10% of white students attend underfunded schools.

“I think it’s a moral imperative that we follow the recommendations set forth by the commission,” McIntosh said. “It can happen in spite of the governor. The Kirwan commission has always looked at a 10- or 12-year phase-in. We can work through Phase Three and Four and he won’t be governor anymore.”

The governor was elected last year to a second, four-year term; term limits mean he cannot run again in 2022.

McIntosh said the commission is looking into recommending reallocating existing state spending for education.

“Maybe there’s money that can be spent differently,” she said.

With supermajorities in both the state Senate and House of Delegates, Democrats have the votes to override Hogan’s vetoes if legislators clash with him on future education spending plans.

“What happens with Kirwan is going to be decided by the House and the Senate," Luedtke said. "He can either join us or get out of the way.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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