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Powerful Maryland House committee approves budget with increased school funding, cuts to Gov. Hogan's programs

Democratic Del. Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore applauds in the Maryland House of Delegates chamber on Jan. 9, 2019, the first day of the current General Assembly session in Annapolis.
Democratic Del. Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore applauds in the Maryland House of Delegates chamber on Jan. 9, 2019, the first day of the current General Assembly session in Annapolis. (Patrick Semansky / AP)

A powerful General Assembly committee voted Friday to revise Gov. Larry Hogan’s more than $46 billion budget proposal to provide millions more in funding for Maryland’s public schools, while cutting some of the Republican governor’s prized initiatives.

Led by Baltimore Democrat Maggie McIntosh, the House Appropriations Committee approved a spending plan that provides about $320 million more for operating Maryland’s public schools. That would be the first step toward implementing recommendations from the so-called Kirwan Commission, which has proposed ambitious new programs to boost student performance.

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The committee’s spending plan also includes $500 million for public school construction and $46 million more for bonuses for lower-wage state employees who aren’t covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

The plan, which does not contain any new taxes, now advances to the House of Delegates.

“This is the best budget I’ve seen for education in the state of Maryland,” McIntosh said.

But to come up with the new education money, the Democrats on the committee voted to cut several of Hogan’s favored ideas. One of the affected proposals was a package of tax breaks valued at about $100 million annually, several of which were aimed at enticing retirees to stay in Maryland.

The committee also cut money Hogan included in his budget for nontraditional public schools, including $3.5 million he allocated for construction projects at public charter schools.

And the Democrats chopped funding for Hogan’s plan to enter into an agreement with a private company to add express toll lanes to three of Maryland’s most congested highways — Interstate 495 (the Capital Beltway around Washington), the Interstate 270 spur connecting Frederick to the Washington area, and Interstate 295, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

“More information related to the proposal to add toll lanes to I-495 and I-270 is needed before the General Assembly can adequately assess whether this project should proceed,” the committee’s amendment states.

Several of the committee’s most contentious votes broke down along party lines, but the committee adopted its final budget proposal unanimously.

Perhaps the most heated vote the committee took was to phase out the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today program — nicknamed BOOST — which provides a limited number of scholarships for children from low-income families to attend private schools. The committee voted to cut funding for the program and bar new students from entering it, unless they are siblings of current students. Some Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the cut.

“This is in reality the first step for the elimination of BOOST,” said Del. Paul Corderman, a Washington County Republican. “Why are we going down the road of ending BOOST?”

Del. Kirill Reznik, a Montgomery County Democrat, argued the state has no obligation to subsidize students whose families want them to attend private schools. The state’s obligation is to fund public schools, he said.

When some Republicans suggested the cut amounted to discrimination against religious schools, Reznik disagreed.

“To claim we are discriminating against children based on their religion is a fallacy,” Reznik said.

Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Hogan, said the administration was reviewing the House committee’s changes to the budget.

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“We’re working to ensure the budget is fiscally responsible and funds the vital programs important to Marylanders,” Chasse said. “That includes the ability for the state to provide innovative educational opportunities for financially disadvantaged students.”

The Democratic leaders of the Maryland General Assembly have been generally positive in their appraisals of Hogan’s proposed budget, which would provide the highest-ever spending for Maryland’s public schools, doesn’t raise taxes and dedicates hundreds of millions of dollars to fighting the opioid crisis.

But Democratic leadership was concerned about balancing the budget amid reports this week of lower-than-anticipated revenue and a desire to boost education funding at the state’s public schools.

This week, Democratic leaders introduced legislation to increase education funding by $1 billion over two years.

Chasse said the governor would insist provisions for increased funding for public schools coincide with increased accountability measures.

“Any increase in funding must be coupled with accountability measures to ensure the money goes in the classroom where it belongs,” Chasse said.

House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch pledged to ensure the education programs get funded, regardless of whether less revenue is coming in.

“We’re having a write-down in our budget. People said, ‘You have to back off education.’ We said, ‘No,’ ” Busch said this week. “We have to make tough decisions. There are going to be some other programs that are going to be cut. No doubt about it.”

The legislation comes in response to an interim report from the Kirwan Commission, formally titled the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, but nicknamed for its chairman, former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan.

It recommended several proposals to boost schools in Maryland, including implementing full-day prekindergarten that is free for low-income 3- and 4-year-olds; hiring and retaining high-quality and diverse teachers; and increasing standards and services so that all students are ready for college or career, with particular attention on students in schools with high concentrations of poverty.

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