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Maryland lawmakers give final OK to sweeping education bill as early adjournment looms

Maryland lawmakers gave final approval Tuesday night to a sweeping education reform bill designed to restore the state’s public schools to among the best in the nation.

The bill has been debated throughout the General Assembly session, but took on new urgency once lawmakers agreed to end their session Wednesday — more than two weeks early — due to the growing coronavirus outbreak.

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Some Republicans made a last-ditch effort to derail the bill, citing an expected economic downturn from the pandemic. Democrats, meanwhile, said the loss of weeks of school for children made it all the more urgent to improve the quality of education they receive.

“The cost of us doing nothing is way higher than what we will ever suppose, surmise or project that this bill will cost,” said Del. Gabriel Acevero, a Montgomery County Democrat who voted for the bill.

Light applause rang out in the House of Delegates as the vote board lit up with a 96-38 vote total.

The bill includes a variety of programs designed to significantly 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 low-income families.

The programs were recommended by the Kirwan Commission — named for its chairman, former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan — which studied ways to improve academic performance in the state’s schools. The programs carry an eventual cost of nearly $4 billion per year at full implementation in 2030, which would be split between the state and local governments.

Del. Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat and the House’s majority leader, gave a rousing speech in support of the bill. He said intense and passionate work has gone into the plan.

“This has been better crafted by more people than any policy I’ve ever seen introduced in this chamber,” he said.

Del. Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican who is the House’s minority leader, countered that if the bill is so important, it should have included money to pay for it. (Several bills to raise money for education through tobacco taxes, corporate tax reform and other measures are pending.)

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“If you’re not willing to pay for it, I don’t know if you really believe in it,” Kipke said.

The intense debate in the House stood in contrast to the state Senate the night before, where several Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the bill near midnight Monday.

The Senate added a provision to the bill to halt the expanded programs if the state’s revenues drop by 7.5% per year — an important consideration given the economic uncertainty from the spread of the COVID-19 illness. There also would be an academic “checkpoint” in 2025. If an independent oversight board determines the programs aren’t resulting in enough progress, the funding boost could be halted.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, said the changes were made to address concerns about the potential of a faltering economy.

The bill “has the safeguards that everyone wanted to see,” said McIntosh, who is chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Lawmakers now send the bill to Gov. Larry Hogan for his consideration. The Republican governor has the option to veto the bill, sign it into law or allow it to become law without his signature.

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Earlier in the General Assembly session — before the coronavirus pandemic — Hogan campaigned against the bill. He said frequently that while some of the policy ideas were well-intentioned, it lacked sufficient accountability measures and was too expensive. He repeatedly called the Kirwan Commission the “Kirwan Tax Hike Commission.”

In recent days, Hogan has been focused on the state’s response to the coronavirus.

If Hogan vetoes the bill, lawmakers could override it during a special legislative session tentatively planned for May. The bill cleared the House and the Senate by veto-proof margins.

Education advocates celebrated the passage of the bill, called the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. Typically, they would observe in person from the balconies over the House chamber, but with access restrictions in place at the State House because of the coronavirus crisis, they followed the action on their computers.

“In the midst of these unsettling times, we deeply appreciate the commitment of both houses of the General Assembly to pass the Blueprint and lay the groundwork for the long-term success of our students and economy," said Cheryl Bost, president of the state teachers’ union, in a statement.

The advocacy group Strong Schools Maryland issued a statement from Kirwan thanking lawmakers: “To the legislators who have listened, asked thoughtful questions and voted for this bill today, Maryland thanks you. It’s time to make this bill law, so we can begin the work of building the world-class education system our children deserve.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers also made progress on the budget, which they are required by the Maryland Constitution to pass before they adjourn.

The House approved the state’s $47.9 billion budget with a 126-8 vote Tuesday. Included in the budget bills is a provision to allow Hogan to tap up to $100 million in reserves to pay for responding to the pandemic. Earlier, lawmakers passed an emergency bill that Hogan signed into law giving him authority to take up to $50 million from the state’s reserves.

McIntosh, the appropriations chairwoman, said the budget would leave nearly $1.4 billion in reserves for the state.

The budget needs a last vote of approval by the Senate before it goes to Hogan’s desk. The House and Senate budgeting committees held joint meetings over the past few days to speed up the final tinkering and negotiations, which normally would have played out in conference committee meetings over a longer period of time.

McIntosh said lawmakers were “recognizing the need to move swiftly” on the budget.

Other key legislation remained unresolved Tuesday, including the final details of a bill that would facilitate the redevelopment of the Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park horse racing tracks. It also was uncertain whether lawmakers would agree to allow voters to decide on legalizing sports betting during November’s general election.

Scores of less-controversial bills reached final approval, as lawmakers rushed to get as many passed as they could before heading home. By Tuesday evening, more than 280 bills had reached final passage. In comparison, on Sunday, only three bills had been completely passed.

Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, both Democrats, have said they hope to hold the special session at the end of May to deal with unresolved issues or additional legislation that may be necessary due to the pandemic.

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