Negotiations over a proposed $62.5 billion state budget plan briefly soured Thursday when House lawmakers said they were digging in their heels to support Gov. Wes Moore’s plan to decrease taxpayer spending on private schools.
The hang-up — over whether to cut $2 million from a $10 million scholarship program that sends students from families with low incomes to private and parochial schools — comes as lawmakers face deadlines to pass the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Moore, a Democrat who entered office in January, has argued public money should go to public schools.
Democrats who control both the House and Senate have agreed with each other and the governor on most issues this legislative session. But when it comes to the BOOST (Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today) program, the House has stuck by the governor, while the Senate wants to keep BOOST fully funded.
“We are moving and sticking with the governor’s position on this,” House Appropriations Committee Chair Ben Barnes said during a meeting Thursday in Annapolis. Barnes is a Democrat who represents parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties.
House and Senate negotiators began meeting earlier this week to reach compromises on disagreements remaining between the chambers.
Thursday’s meeting was noted on the General Assembly’s online schedule. But it began an hour late and was only attended by House members. Barnes said both sides had agreed to meet and his chamber has “operated in good faith.”
Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chair Guy Guzzone of Howard County said later they had never agreed on a time to meet and negotiations as a whole have continued behind the scenes “in good faith.”
“We haven’t come to a resolution yet,” Guzzone said. “So to me, in my mind, it didn’t make sense to bring the whole committee in.”
Both Barnes and Guzzone described the BOOST funding as the sticking point in ongoing negotiations.
Senate President Bill Ferguson has been one of the most prominent Democrats arguing to keep the funding, saying it’s a small investment compared to the more than $8 billion state spending on public schools, which lawmakers are also increasing this year. He has said constituents in his South Baltimore district have benefited from the program.
Maryland Policy & Politics
In a budget amendment Barnes proposed Thursday, the $2 million in question would instead be used to pay coordinators that help school districts carry out the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the multiyear plan to remake the state’s education system.
Total funding for the Blueprint is another disagreement between the House and the Senate. While the Senate proposed boosting the Blueprint fund by $800 million in the next budget, the House originally proposed $900 million.
Barnes said Thursday the House was offering another amendment to bring that total up to $1 billion.
“We want every person in this state to have a school that meets their needs, that is safe, that is accommodating,” House Appropriations Committee member Del. Stephanie Smith, a Baltimore Democrat, said during the meeting Thursday. “We don’t get closer to that [by] not dedicating public dollars to public education.”
Members from both chambers who have been part of the budget negotiations said they were looking forward to continuing the discussion in the coming days.
While the General Assembly technically faces a deadline Monday to pass the budget, negotiations can continue until April 10, when they are required to pass the spending plan. That’s the last day of the annual 90-day legislative session.
“Getting reasonable people together to come to a conclusion on something that’s very heartfelt is a challenging thing,” Guzzone said. “I firmly believe we’ll get there. But we’re not there today.”