Efforts to preserve a landmark schools funding package moved forward yesterday on two fronts, when a House committee agreed to strip part of the 2002 law that might lead to lawsuits and a Baltimore County delegate began an attempt to prevent new money from being spent on past school district problems.
The House Ways and Means Committee voted 13-6 yesterday to remove a provision that calls for the General Assembly to vote this year on whether the state has enough money to pay for the $1.3 billion-a-year package known as the Thornton plan.
The attorney general's office says the mandatory vote contained in the law amounts to an unconstitutional legislative veto, and, if taken, could lead to legal challenges. The so-called trigger provision had been added at the 11th hour when the bill passed in 2002 to assuage fiscal conservatives in the House of Delegates, notably then-House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.
By voting to remove the trigger, the House committee reaffirmed that the schools funding package should continue on pace. A "no" vote on the funding resolution would result in a rate of schools funding growth about half as high. The vote is scheduled to take place on the 50th day of the session.
"You have to support it, obviously," said Del. Jon S. Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat, speaking of the trigger removal. "We don't want to be sued."
But a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said the legislature is shirking its responsibility by avoiding a vote on whether the state can afford the plan. The governor has said the schools plan will be scaled back in future years if slot machines are not legalized.
"This is a debate that should take place," said spokesman Paul E. Schurick.
The bill moves next to the House floor- where a three-fifths majority vote is required to send it to the governor as emergency legislation, meaning it would take effect immediately if he signed it. Senate passage is also necessary.
Also yesterday, Baltimore County Del. Susan L.M. Aumann said she had asked for legislation to prevent additional funding under the schools formula from being spent on past deficits incurred by the financially troubled Baltimore City and Prince George's County school districts.
Aumann, a Republican, said she was troubled by testimony from Baltimore officials indicating that they may be forced to use Thornton funding to cover part of a $58 million deficit. Such spending is not prohibited, according to an attorney general's letter that Aumann requested.
Meanwhile, the city Senate delegation was scheduled to announce today a bill that would require the city school system to submit a balanced budget each year for legislative approval, said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat.