Gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous, joined at a rally by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, called on Maryland Monday to provide free community college for state students as part of a broader plan to make higher education more accessible.
Jealous, one of seven contenders for the Democratic nomination in the June 26 primary, released a fleshed-out version of a plan that would eventually make public colleges and universities free for Marylanders. He also spelled out in more detail how he would pay for the program, including higher taxes on the rich and an increase in the state's cigarette tax.
"In Maryland we don't have to crawl forward. We can leap forward," Jealous told several hundred people at a Prince George's County community center.
Sanders stumped for Jealous, the former CEO of the NAACP, at a rally last year in Baltimore calling for a state-based universal health care program.
Jealous was a surrogate for Sanders during the 2016 presidential campaign primary, and Sanders has endorsed the former NAACP president for governor. Jealous has embraced several of the progressive policies pushed by Sanders, including free community college, universal health care coverage and a $15 minimum wage.
Sanders returned to Maryland Monday night for a rally in Capitol Heights where he praised Jealous' plans for higher education.
"It is a little bit crazy to be spending more money locking kids up than sending them to the University of Maryland," Sanders said.
Sanders and Jealous were introduced by Samierra Jones, a graduating senior at Coppin State University who said she will have to start repaying her student loans in six months even though she doesn't yet know what job she will have.
"I'm in debt tens of thousands of dollars at the tender age of 22," she said.
The plan's release came a day before Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is scheduled to sign a bill offering a chance for a free community college education to thousands of Marylanders.
Under the legislation passed in the final minutes of this year's General Assembly session, the state would spend $15 million a year on scholarships worth as much as $5,000 to low- and middle-income students starting their community college educations. The measure also calls for allotting about $2 million over five years for grants to help cover tuition for older students who are close to finishing degrees and need financial help.
Jealous' plan goes much further. In addition for calling for tuition-free community college, he also proposed free college tuition for certain "in-demand professions" such as nurses, public school teachers and construction engineers. He is also calling for a "debt-free path to graduation" at public colleges and universities through a state-paid work study program that could be used to finance graduate work as well as undergraduate studies.
The plan also calls for refinancing of student loans to allow Marylanders to consolidate their loans in a single monthly payment.
If that happens, Jealous said, "you will find that more young people are starting new businesses." He said auto dealers would sell more cars and real estate agents more houses.
Jealous had previously said he would cover many of the costs of the plan by eliminating what he calls "mass incarceration" and by legalizing and taxing adult use of marijuana for recreational purposes.
The plan Jealous released Monday would also be financed by increasing Maryland's cigarette tax and increasing income taxes paid by state residents earning more than $500,000 by one percentage point. The maximum state income tax rate is now 5.75 percent for individuals earning more than $250,000 or couples earning more than $300,000.
One of Jealous' primary opponents, Sen. Richard Madaleno Jr. of Montgomery County, said the plan is far from original.
"He is literally borrowing from many existing ideas, including some of my own, and is just repackaging them as new," Madaleno said. "Considering that he hasn't been engaged in Maryland policy, why would he know?"
Meanwhile, the Republican Governors Association issued a statement calling Jealous' plan "radical."
"For months, Ben Jealous has refused to detail how much his far-left, Sanders-inspired plans will cost taxpayers," the association said. "He's hoping that Maryland voters simply won't notice.