Gov. Larry Hogan’s campaign has done Marylanders a service by questioning Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous’ plan to fund universal pre-K by legalizing and taxing marijuana. It has served to clarify a couple of things. First, that Mr. Jealous, despite earlier flirtation with universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds is only now proposing it for 4-year-olds. Second, that Mr. Hogan supports expanded pre-K in principle and is open to legalizing pot but that he has espoused no specific plan to accomplish either.
The kerfuffle Monday over the cost and affordability of Mr. Jealous’ pre-K plan was fair enough — it’s obviously a legitimate question — but neither side got things quite right. Mr. Hogan’s spokesman says Mr. Jealous’ plan would cost $1.3 billion a year, far more than the state could realistically expect to yield from legalizing marijuana. Mr. Jealous’ campaign called that a lie and said the real figure for his plan was between $139 million and $236 million a year, depending on how many students would be covered. Both cited the same report for their figures, and neither one used them quite correctly.
The $1.3 billion figure reflects the cost of providing high-quality pre-K to 80 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds. It was legitimate to bring into the debate since Mr. Jealous had not been completely clear about what he was promising and had on multiple occasions spoken of a desire to achieve universal pre-K for both ages. Now he has been clear, so it’s not particularly germane. Perhaps Mr. Jealous is, as the Hogan camp contends, performing a Romney-esque Etch-a-Sketch maneuver as he heads into the general election, but he would hardly be the first. But it’s also worth noting that the $1.3 billion figure was an overstatement anyway. It doesn’t take into account what Maryland spends now on pre-K (from federal, state, local and private sources). The report doesn’t break down what that is for both age groups, but for four-year-olds alone it amounts to $235 million.
The figures Mr. Jealous cites are misleading, too. They reflect the cost to the state government of expanding high-quality pre-K to 4-year-olds — assuming local governments pick up about half of the tab. Given the amount Colorado (a slightly smaller state population-wise than Maryland) generates from its marijuana taxes, and a somewhat more aggressive taxation scheme Mr. Jealous has now spelled out, it’s entirely possible that legal pot could cover the state government tab for universal 4-year-old pre-K with some left over, but local governments would be on their own, and their funds come from Maryland taxpayers, too.
Getting beyond a day’s skirmish on the campaign trail, we’re not wild about either candidate’s treatment of this issue. We have been ambivalent about legalizing recreational marijuana, preferring to wait until we’ve learned more from other states about the social and health costs, but even if we assume it’s inevitable, there’s reason to be wary of tying a pre-K expansion to it. If our experience so far with medical marijuana tells us anything, it’s that Maryland is fully capable of screwing up a sure thing like legalizing pot. Best case scenario, it would take time for the state’s revenues to ramp up to the levels Mr. Jealous is counting on — Colorado took four years to do so. And whether or not the General Assembly passes marijuana legalization in the form of a constitutional amendment requiring approval by the voters (a sensible idea Mr. Hogan has floated), the chances are high that the matter would be petitioned to referendum, delaying implementation by a couple more years. If universal pre-K is important (and we believe it is), Maryland should figure out a simpler way to fund it.
But if universal pre-K is important, it definitely warrants more than Governor Hogan’s shrug of his shoulders. His spokesman says if the House speaker and Senate president want to expand pre-K, the governor is happy to discuss it and how to pay for it. But he has not put forward a proposal for pre-K expansion and doesn’t presently have plans to do so. That’s remarkable passivity about a topic of great importance to the state by someone who holds one of the most powerful governorships in the country. Is he going to lead from behind on the major reordering of the state’s education system coming via the Kirwan Commission too? We appreciate that the governor doesn’t want to make pie-in-the-sky promises, but he could at least display a commitment to the issue and offer a path for progress.Mr. Jealous’ pre-K plan may be problematic in some ways, but at least he has one.