Tax credit supporters cry foul, vow to fight on

Supporters of a state tax credit to help public and private schools say the defeated measure was poorly handled by a key legislative committee, but they say they'll continue the fight.

With a letter of endorsement from Gov. Martin O'Malley and the decision of the Archdiocese of Baltimore to close 13 schools bringing new attention to the bill, backers had hoped the third attempt at passage in as many years would succeed.

The legislation did get one step further than it has before in being voted upon for the first time by the House Ways and Means Committee, but that was little consolation to supporters.

"We were completely stonewalled by the Ways and Means Committee," said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, an advocate for the so-called BOAST legislation that failed on the last day of the 2010 session last week. She accused lawmakers of offering "preposterously" drafted amendments in the final days as a "ruse to pretend there's an interest in helping when the intent is to derail" the bill.

Del. James E. Proctor Jr., the Prince George's County Democrat who sponsored the House version of the bill, said the votes were there in the House to pass the bill, but the committee held the measure up until it was too late.

"The whole process was quite frustrating," said Proctor, adding that he intends to file the legislation again next year, assuming voters return him for a sixth term. "They waited to make sure it was impossible for us to have any type of recourse."

Del. Jay Walker, a Prince George's County Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee who supported the bill, said he was "disappointed" in the outcome and how the legislation was treated.

"I don't think you handle something that big, that complex, in the final hours of the legislative session," Walker said.

Amendments to the Senate version of the measure were not taken up by the Ways and Means education subcommittee until late Saturday afternoon or early evening. These changes created a bill that was entirely different from the one that had been introduced in identical House and Senate versions and that passed the Senate 30-17 last month.

The original measure called for a 75 percent state income tax credit for business contributions to nonprofit organizations that help public and private schools with scholarships and educational programs. It set a ceiling of $50 million per year for the tax credit fund and gave the governor discretion on how much money to allocate for the program.

The amendments dropped the tax credit and public schools from the bill in favor of direct state grants to "non-public schools at risk of closing." The amendments would have provided up to $10 million in grants per year for five years to eligible private schools that had been established in their community for at least 25 years and had lost least 10 percent of their enrollment over the previous five years.

As it happened, those eligibility standards would have cut Jewish day schools out of the benefit. Del. John A. Olszewski Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat and one of six members of the education subcommittee, said the changes focused the bill on older, struggling private schools, particularly Catholic schools, as those seemed to be the supporters' chief concern.

"I thought the new intention was much more honest," Olszewski said.

He said the amendments resolved the objection that the aid might be going to schools that did not necessarily need the help. By setting a time limit of five years, Olszewski said, the amendments resolved the objection to "long-term investment" by the state.

Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien mentioned the recent announcements of school closings prominently in his testimony to the Ways and Means Committee last month, the first time he had appeared before the panel to support the legislation. He said the tax credit by itself was not a solution for urban Catholic schools that have faced years of rising costs and falling enrollments, but he said it would help.

In response to sharp questions from several committee members, O'Brien declined to say he would support an amendment applying to private schools the laws under which public schools operate prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Catholic Church teaches that homosexual activity is sinful.

Del. Jolene Ivey, a Prince George's County Democrat and member of the education subcommittee who was among those who questioned O'Brien on that point, said the education group "could not come up with the words" to address discrimination.

"With all the amendments that were needed you started to think maybe we needed to start over," Ivey said.

Late Monday night, members of the subcommittee left the floor of the House and voted to reject the original, unamended Senate bill unanimously. The full Ways and Means Committee then voted to affirm the subcommittee's rejection, 14-7.

The pursuit is not over, said Russell, of the Maryland Catholic Conference.

"We are certainly never going to give up fighting for our students and our families," she said.

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