When the General Assembly starts grappling in earnest with implementation of the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations for school funding next year, Gov. Larry Hogan may well find himself faced with a difficult political question. What would upset voters more — backsliding on the opposition to tax increases that got him elected in 2014 or weakening the commitment to education funding that helped him get re-elected in 2018? Lucky for him, local governments across the Baltimore region grappled with that very same issue in the budgets they adopted during the last few weeks, and they offer a good indication of the answer.
The marquee story in that regard was Baltimore County, which had not even seriously considered an income or property tax increase in a quarter century until this year. Newly elected County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, engaged in weeks of public consultation with residents about the state of the county budget and made the case that the investments in schools and other basic services people want require higher taxes. After significant (and by all accounts constructive) back-and-forth with the council, his initial revenue proposal was scaled back, but parts of it — a new tax on cell phones and new development impact fees — got the support of two Republicans on the council, A. Wade Kach and David Marks. The development fees bill was actually sponsored by Mr. Marks.
In Anne Arundel, the tax increases proposed by the newly elected Democratic county executive, Steuart Pittman, didn't attract any Republican support — all passed on 4-3, party-line votes. But the very fact that the county’s leadership switched from Republican to Democratic at a time when the Republican Mr. Hogan won the county by a 69%-31% margin says something. Republican council members may have complained about the overall size of Mr. Pittman’s budget, but they did not criticize his spending on schools or public safety.
Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, a Republican, chose not to propose higher taxes in his budget, and he reaped a whirlwind of opposition from parents angered at what that will mean for the schools. Mr. Glassman proposed an increase in the schools budget but not enough to keep pace with the system’s costs. He, the County Council and school personnel managed to find ways to mitigate the damage, but the final budget will mean reductions of 84.5 teaching positions and 31.5 administrative and central office positions. The outgoing chairman of the county school board, Joe Voskuhl, criticized the county’s actions and predicted a reckoning in the 2022 election. “That can be the Hail Mary pass, when the parents, the citizens in the community can get this school system the funding that is needed to become the number one school system in the state of Maryland,” he said.
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, a Democrat, did propose a large increase in the schools budget, about 50 percent more than the state’s maintenance of effort law required. But it was far less than what the superintendent and school board requested, and county officials found themselves deluged with emails and letters, including handwritten notes from elementary school children. Council members from both parties scrambled to find additional funding to stave off class size increases, with two of them, Democrats Deb Jung and Liz Walsh, calling Howard’s school funding inadequate and vowing a long-term effort to “close that gap.”
Even in deeply conservative Carroll County, where Mr. Hogan took 83% of the vote, talk has turned to the inevitability of tax increases to fund the schools. This spring, you had one Republican county commissioner, Dennis Frazier, arguing for tax increases rather than budget cuts, and another, Stephen Wantz, arguing that it was important to hold the line on taxes this year, not because tax increases are anathema but because the need for them will probably be greater in a year or two when the Kirwan recommendations are finalized. “Could there be tax increases on the horizon as a result of that? Absolutely,” Mr. Wantz said.
The conclusion for Mr. Hogan is this: Marylanders aren’t going to get mad if you ask them to pay more for good schools. They are going to get mad if you don’t.