Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. faces a crucial decision on the future of a landmark schools funding plan after the Maryland Senate approved legislation yesterday reaffirming its commitment to a $1.3 billion education program.
Because the House passed the measure earlier, the bill now goes to the governor's desk. Once it arrives from the clerk's office, Ehrlich will have six days to decide whether to sign it and reassert his backing of a program he supported during his campaign, or veto it and run the risk of a court challenge to the educational equity program.
Aides to the governor said yesterday that they had not yet decided how to proceed on the proposed changes to a 2002 education financing bill commonly known as the Thornton Plan.
"Governor Ehrlich is reviewing the bill," adviser Paul E. Schurick said. "Governor Ehrlich remains committed to fully funding Thornton."
At issue is a provision of the legislation that calls for the General Assembly to pass a resolution next month affirming that the state had enough money to pay for the schools program.
The "trigger provision" was added in an 11th-hour compromise to appease legislators concerned that they were approving an unfunded mandate.
Since then, the state attorney general has ruled that the trigger vote is probably unconstitutional because it amounts to a legislative veto of an existing law. If lawmakers voted "no" on the resolution, funding for schools would be cut roughly in half.
Lawmakers and the governor remain largely at odds over how to meet those spending obligations. Ehrlich and many Senate leaders say slot machines could provide much of the needed revenues, but House Democrats are resisting expanded gambling, preferring tax increases.
The Senate voted to remove the Thornton trigger minutes after the chamber approved a slots plan.
"This is a good day for the students of the state of Maryland," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat and the Senate majority leader.
Ehrlich budget secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. said the governor appreciates the Senate's action.
"Obviously, the Senate was acting responsibly to find a source of new revenues to support Thornton, and this action is very appreciated," DiPaula said.