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Maryland lawmakers begin review of Gov. Hogan’s $49B state budget

Democratic leaders in the Maryland General Assembly got their first look Wednesday at Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s $49 billion proposed state budget.

While they praised the spending plan in general, they said they’ll have work to find more ways to help public schools and people affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

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“In general, I think he’s done some good things,” said Sen. Guy Guzzone, chair of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. “I think he’s presented us with a good budget. We’ll have our own set of what we’ll call ‘improvements’ to his budget.”

Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat, was among the legislators Hogan briefed Wednesday morning via video, before the governor headed to Washington to witness the inauguration of Democratic President Joe Biden.

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Del. Maggie McIntosh, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, also was briefed.

“You have to start peeling back the onion,” she said of legislators’ next steps.

Hogan and Democratic leaders appear to be on the same page in prioritizing aid for Marylanders hammered by the pandemic.

But in key areas, such as education, Guzzone and McIntosh suggested, lawmakers may want to go beyond what Hogan outlined in his budget proposal.

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Guzzone praised Hogan for including money for tutoring to help students who’ve been out of school catch up, “but we’re going to need to do more” on tutoring, as well as funding wider broadband internet access.

Democratic lawmakers plan to override Hogan’s veto of a long-term plan for funding improvements to public schools known as the Kirwan education reforms. (The plan is named for educator William “Brit” Kirwan, who led a committee that developed it.)

The Kirwan bill includes programs designed to improve public schools, ranging from expanding prekindergarten for children from poor families to raising teacher pay to improving supports at schools with high concentrations of students from families with low incomes.

Hogan has railed against the Kirwan plan as too expensive. By the time the programs are fully in place a decade from now, the state and local governments combined will be required to spend about $4 billion more per year.

McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, was pleased to see that the governor included more funding than the existing state formulas required for public schools. Because of pandemic-caused enrollment dips, many school districts were facing the prospect of a drop in state aid.

“He has held them harmless, which is a good thing,” McIntosh said.

McIntosh said public schools and state universities may need even more money to allow students and educators to safely return to classrooms in the pandemic.

“It will cost millions upon millions of dollars to get the schools opened again,” McIntosh said. “We have a long way to go.”

Michael Ricci, a Hogan spokesman, defended the governor’s education funding levels by noting that coronavirus-driven budget cuts in some states have hit school districts hard but Maryland schools will all see an increase in state dollars on top of millions in recently approved federal coronavirus aid headed to schools.

“We’re relieved that we were able to increase funding for every jurisdiction,” said Ricci.

Hogan included significant money for school construction, enough to fund a school construction bill that the governor effectively vetoed last year.

The Built to Learn Act would have required an extra $2.2 billion for construction over five years, coming from money the state gets from casino revenues. But it was tied to the Kirwan bill, and won’t become law unless the General Assembly overrides Hogan’s veto of that legislation.

Sen. Bryan Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican and the minority leader in the state Senate, praised the governor’s budget plan and also touted several proposed tax cuts Hogan plans to push. Among the governor’s proposals is dropping state income taxes on several types of retirement income.

“The choice before this legislature is tax relief or tax increases. Republicans are proposing tax relief in this budget and Democrats are pushing for massive tax increases in the veto overrides,” Simonaire said. “I believe [Republicans] are in line with everyday Marylanders on this question.”

By law, Maryland’s budget must be balanced every year, and state lawmakers only have limited powers to change the budget proposed by the governor. Starting with the next governor in 2023, lawmakers will have the ability to move money around within the budget.

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