Gov. Larry Hogan used his annual address to local officials at the Maryland Association of Counties meeting this weekend to complain about the cost of the proposed reforms of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence, better known as the Kirwan Commission, and to vow that he would stand in the way of any major tax increases to fund them. That’s nothing new; he’s been doing it ever since the group first started tallying up what it would cost to make Maryland’s educational system truly competitive on an international level. But it is disappointing that as the commission works to finish its proposals for how to divide the costs between the state and counties, and just after he agreed to release money the legislature carved out of his budget to begin implementing Kirwan reforms, that he is only digging his heels in deeper.
We should be at the point of putting pieces together to see what is possible. The legislature has been doing that; it found money for early-phase implementation of Kirwan the current fiscal year and for partial implementation in the one that starts July 1, 2020. Some new revenue sources for the state are available, like sports betting or even possibly the legalization of recreational marijuana. A Supreme Court decision last year allows the sales tax to be applied to more online transactions, and the comptroller’s office anticipates those collections will be increasing in the coming years. Maryland could consider extending the sales tax to services (an overdue recognition of the changing nature of our economy). None of that gets Maryland all the way there, but it’s a start.
The governor and legislature could also take a hard look at the ongoing spending in Maryland’s budget to determine whether other commitments could be reduced. Mr. Hogan is always complaining about the number of legislature-imposed mandates that constrain his budgeting authority. Now’s his chance to do something about it.
Instead, Mr. Hogan continues to pursue policies that would make cobbling Kirwan together even more difficult. He said he will again seek legislative approval for a $2 billion school construction plan, which he says would eliminate the entire backlog of local requests for funding. Taken in isolation, it’s a worthy goal. The poor quality of some of the state’s aging school buildings, particularly in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, directly impacts students’ ability to learn. High quality facilities and high quality education should not be an either-or proposition, but the way Governor Hogan structured his proposal last year, it was just that. He sought to fund it by using money from the education “lockbox” for casino money voters approved at the ballot in 2018. That means less money available for Kirwan reforms for years to come.
We understand that the price tag for Kirwan, $3.8 billion in additional education spending per year a decade after implementation begins, is a major commitment and would require sacrifices by Maryland taxpayers. But no cause in this state is more important or more widely supported than education, and the lesson of the last year is that Marylanders are willing to pay more for better schools. They chose to do so in tax-averse Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, and the commissioners in deep red Carroll County aren’t dismissing the idea. Even Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, the Republican and current MACO president who chose teacher layoffs over tax increases this year and shares Mr. Hogan’s concerns about affordability, didn’t close the door on Kirwan. Rather, he told Maryland Matters that the state might need to consider phasing the reforms in over a longer period of time.
That’s not what we think the state should do — opportunities for all Maryland students to get a high-quality education have been delayed long enough, and for each individual student, an opportunity delayed really is an opportunity denied. You either get high-quality pre-K when you’re 4 or you don’t. But if Mr. Hogan took that approach, it would at least be the basis for a serious conversation.
Instead, he has chosen cavalierly dismiss the legislature’s support for the most comprehensive, impactful and well thought-through policy initiative Maryland has considered in a generation. He blasted the legislature as irresponsibly pursuing “half-baked” ideas while instead beating the drum for his own far less substantial proposals, like a sounds-good anti-crime bill that Department of Legislative Services estimates and his own aides’ testimony predicted would have at most a minor impact on gun violence. If this is any indication of how Mr. Hogan intends to use the enormous political capital he’s built during the last five years, the legislature is Maryland’s only hope for making real progress during the next three.