With Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s slot machine plan under fire, the unthinkable is suddenly up for discussion in Annapolis: An unprecedented pledge to increase annual spending on public schools by $1.3 billion over six years could go unfulfilled.
If Ehrlich's slots plan is rejected, lawmakers would return to the State House next year facing a potential $1 billion deficit under the requirements of the education bill passed last year.
With the governor ruling out tax increases, the prospect of fulfilling the plan named after the blue-ribbon Thornton Commission appears bleak -- a realization dawning on many state elected officials.
"It puts a lot of things in jeopardy, not just Thornton," Ehrlich said last week. "We prefer not to go there. It certainly ups the stakes."
Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele has begun preparing lawmakers for the possibility of lower levels of school funding.
"That may be the consequence if the slots bill fails," Steele told a gathering of Prince George's County delegates last week. "The reality is: No slots, everything is back on the table."
A year ago, the General Assembly reached a hard-fought agreement to provide for an adequate education for students in poorer areas.
Lawmakers passed the bill in an election year without identifying how to pay for it, although a 34-cent per-pack cigarette tax increase provided partial funding over two years.
Last fall, almost every politician in the state campaigned as a strong supporter of the plan. Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said they would fulfill the legislation's commitments.
As doubts about funding grow, though, some are reacting angrily to comments like Ehrlich's, calling them ham-handed threats designed to gain an upper hand in negotiations for a slots machine bill.
"This is part of the game people are playing which I think reflects a lack of maturity and experience politically on their part," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a slots supporter.
But even staunch education backers are beginning to worry.
"It could go down. It could be delayed," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat and chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. "It's not going down," she then said.
Others see the grim outlook as a call to action, a chance to rally their colleagues into solving the budget crisis this year.
Any disruption to Thornton funding would be a serious blow to the state's educational leaders, who lobbied hard to get the bill passed last year.
"It is a legitimate concern but one that I have no control over," said Anthony Wong, president of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. "I can't raise taxes. I don't know the revenue streams. The elected officials have to get creative and figure it out."
The education bill was approved last year despite misgivings from some lawmakers that the proposal was unaffordable. The plan calls for $148 million in additional schools funding in the coming year, which Ehrlich has included in his budget proposal. In subsequent years, the commitment rises to $365 million, then $640 million and $949 million.
To win over lawmakers, proponents attached conditions to the legislation, requiring the General Assembly to vote next year -- and each subsequent year -- on whether the state could afford the increases in aid.
Even if they vote no, education funding goes up 5 percent a year -- an increase that people call "Thornton Light." The reduced aid would be $185 million cheaper than the full package next year.
At the delegation meeting, Steele said the administration could look to implement the reduced aid if the slots proposal falls through.
"Thornton Light would be a point of discussion if things break down," Steele said.
The lieutenant governor's comments alarmed some lawmakers from Prince George's, since that county stands to gain the most.
"I wish they would stop talking about Thornton Light," said Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard, head of the Prince George's County House delegation. "It's full funding. That is what the research says you need to adequately fund education."
A principal architect of the education plan, former state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, said she thinks the governor's slots plan is in trouble but called it "fixable."
In the session's final days, Hoffman brokered an 11th-hour agreement that sent higher aid to the wealthier counties to win their votes. The past chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation committee said she wonders if the legislature has the stomach to protect the education plan if the alternatives are slots, tax increases or deep cuts to other programs.
"I don't know if anybody is going to fight for it the way I would," she said.