Maryland lawmakers reached an agreement Friday on a $62.5 billion state budget plan, meeting in the middle on funding for private and public schools after the issue threw a wrench into negotiations earlier in the week.
The deal would put $9 million in a scholarship program that sends students from families with low incomes to private and parochial schools, and it would add $900 million to the state’s long-term public education reform plan.
Democratic Gov. Wes Moore and House leaders had called for reducing the scholarship program — saying taxpayer money should go to public schools — from $10 million to $8 million. Key senators had called for keeping the program fully funded.
And though the final agreement reduced the overall tuition funding for the program, it would add another $2.5 million for schools participating in BOOST, primarily for school nurses and security costs.
On the funding for the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the negotiators agreed to take the House’s original position. The Senate had preferred to fund the Blueprint at $800 million and put another $100 million aside for potential future transportation projects.
Democrats, in charge of both chambers, had largely aligned on spending and policy priorities — aside from the few hang-ups on the budget.
House Appropriations Committee Chair Ben Barnes and Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chair Guy Guzzone announced the agreement Friday morning. They officially signed off on the plan, without much discussion, during an afternoon meeting that included several members of both chambers and the governor’s budget secretary in attendance.
The development came after a contentious situation Thursday in which delegates showed up to a meeting that the senators said they were never told was happening.
Barnes said during the Thursday meeting that the House was sticking with the governor on the reduction to BOOST (Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today). He said Moore was elected with a mandate and lawmakers should follow his lead.
The disagreement continued Friday morning. That’s when Senate President Bill Ferguson, the most prominent Democratic supporter of the program, surrounded himself at his weekly news conference with students and parents who have benefited from the program.
The Baltimore senator reiterated arguments he’s made that the $2 million in question was a small portion of the $8.7 billion scheduled to go to public schools and the additional money for the Blueprint.
“When things are heated and there’s conversations about dollar amounts or programs, it’s very easy to discount the actual impact,” Ferguson said. “We represent people and we represent families and we represent children. And so it’s important as we have a conversation here at the end of session that we put a face and a name to a story, to the importance of investing in all opportunities for all kids.”
Ferguson introduced Gregory Butler, an eighth grader at Mother Mary Lange Catholic School in Baltimore, and Nefertari Lee, whose son previously attended Calvert Hall, a Catholic high school in Towson.
“I represent 3,000 children who need this invaluable program, this lifeline of a program that changes lives,” Lee said.
Ferguson and Guzzone said at the news conference that the sides were close on a deal. Less than an hour later, Guzzone and Barnes told reporters that agreement had been reached.
“Yesterday is water under the bridge. We have a deal,” said Barnes, who represents parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties.
The compromise on BOOST, according to the new budget language, would prioritize current students in the program and their siblings. As negotiations hit their final stages, the additional $2.5 million for schools was seen as a palatable compromise to pay for the schools’ needs, rather than for tuition to help pay for students to attend.
The House on Thursday proposed using the $2 million in BOOST tuition to pay coordinators who help public school districts carry out the Blueprint. The deal reached Friday includes that money, in addition to the BOOST and other Blueprint funds.
Moore, during his initial budget announcement in January, called for sending $500 million to the Blueprint and another $500 million for future unspecified transportation projects.
Lawmakers said moving more money to the Blueprint fund is vital because the plan calls for $3.9 billion in additional funds for schools by the 2034 fiscal year, and lawmakers do not currently have enough budgeted for that over the coming years.
The House and Senate differed, though, on how much to set aside for the plan.
House lawmakers said they wanted $900 million for the Blueprint and just $100 million set aside for future grant awards and potentially for environmental studies of projects such as the Red Line light rail proposal in Baltimore and Southern Maryland Rapid Transit, which would connect the Capital Beltway to Waldorf. The Senate preferred to keep the Blueprint funding at $800 million and add another $100 million for the governor to match federal grants for transportation projects.
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Guzzone, of Howard County, said the final agreement will have $900 million for the Blueprint, the $100 million the House wanted for transportation, and the option for the governor to pull an extra $100 million from the rainy day fund “if it’s absolutely needed” for matching transportation grants.
Both sides have said they want to keep the rainy day fund balance at $2.5 billion in case of a downturn in the economy.
Moore spokeswoman Brittany Marshall indicated in a statement that Moore will support the final budget agreement.
“The compromised budget deal reached in the General Assembly represents democracy in action,” Marshall said. “The final budget will include massive investments in shared priorities, including public education, transportation, public safety and behavioral health. We’ve made it clear — our administration is here to make the lives of every Marylander better, and this budget does just that.”
Republicans celebrated the agreement on the BOOST program.
“This means that BOOST scholarships will continue, and 3,200 Maryland children will be able to stay in their schools and thrive for the long term,” read a joint statement from the top two Republicans in each chamber: senators Steve Hershey and Justin Ready and delegates Jason Buckel and Jesse Pippy.
Lawmakers are expected to pass the budget in its final form in the coming week, before the annual 90-day session ends April 10.