Maryland General Assembly leaders Miller, Busch back college savings plan

Democratic leaders of the legislature said Monday they will push plans to help people save for college and pay off student debt by giving them state cash.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch told reporters that trying to make college affordable is one of their top three economic priorities for this session of the General Assembly.


Flanked by more than 35 Democrats, who dominate the legislature, Miller and Busch said they would also put their weight behind a bill to address underlying causes of the pay gap between men and women. They also promised to endorse a proposal that would create retirement savings plans for workers whose employers do not currently offer them, but neither had details on that plan.

"Kids today and families today are being crushed by the cost of college education," Busch said. Miller added that their plan to deposit money into college savings accounts was unique.

"There's not a state savings plan like it," Miller said.

To address the rising cost of college, Busch and Miller want to boost participation in state-backed college savings accounts, known as 529 accounts, by contributing $250 a year. To get the money, residents would have to also make contributions. Depending on how much the family earns, saving as little as $25 could reap the $250 donation from the state.

Participation in Maryland's college savings program is low and most people who use it are wealthy, according to a 2015 legislative analysis of the state's 145,000 account holders.

Democrats said they hope the matching contribution would inspire parents to start saving even a little bit now.

Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, the Howard County Democrat who chairs the Budget & Taxation Committee, said the $250-a-year match for parents' contributions to a tuition savings account could amount to a significant sum if invested from the time that children are young.

"I think it's a much more significant incentive to young people than a tax deduction," he said.

The presiding officers and leading Democrats also pitched a plan to help people with high amounts of student debt and low incomes. People who owe at least $20,000 in student loans could apply to a state program that would award a $5,000 tax credit to about 1,000 people a year. It was unclear whether people who owed less than $5,000 in taxes would be able to get a check for the difference.

As Democrats across the country, including President Barack Obama, debate how best to close the disparity in pay between women and men, Miller and Busch said they would push a plan two female lawmakers have championed in the past.

"Equal pay for equal work is about fundamental fairness," said Sen. Susan Lee, a Montgomery County Democrat who is the lead Senate sponsor of the pay equity bill. She said the legislation would bring added "transparency to the workplace."

The bill would make it illegal for employers to retaliate against employees who reveal salary data. Advocates for closing the pay gap say it persists because there is little public information about whether men and women are paid equally.

Del. Kriselda Valderrama, a Prince George's County Democrat who is co-sponsoring the pay equity bill, said the legislation simply expands on laws already on the books.

"This is not an anti-business piece of legislation," she said.


The afternoon announcement was the first of several to roll out what Democrats hope to get passed this year. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has said his top priority is persuading the legislature to loosen its grip on state spending. Democrats, who hold supermajorities in both chambers, are now revealing what they would like to accomplish before this legislative session ends at midnight April 11.

The Democrats did not mention any proposals developed by the Augustine Commission, a panel of business leaders, state officials, academics and lawmakers convened two years ago to develop ways to spur the state's economy.

Miller said Monday's announcement was a starting point for future discussions, but a spokesman for Hogan jabbed at Democratic leaders for not pushing policies developed by the commission it created.

"It looks like the APB that the governor put out for the Augustine Commission might have to be reinstated," Hogan spokesman Douglass Mayer said.