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Maryland lawmakers override Hogan vetoes on education, advertising bills

Maryland lawmakers Friday overturned Gov. Larry Hogan’s vetoes of a sweeping education bill and a first-in-the-nation tax on digital advertising to pay for it.

The education bill will require the expansion of a number of programs with the goal of returning the state’s public schools to among the best in the nation. The digital advertising bill is an attempt to tax Big Tech’s income from selling internet ads, potentially raising $250 million per year for the state.

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Both bills will become law in 30 days, following largely party-line votes from the state Senate on Friday and in the House of Delegates earlier in the week, with Democrats in favor of the measures and Republicans opposed.

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“Maryland is now on track to develop a school system that will be the envy of the nation and as good as any in the world,” said William “Brit” Kirwan, the retired University System of Maryland chancellor who championed the programs, which were developed by a commission named for him.

Hogan posted a video to his social media accounts, saying the Kirwan legislation “takes us back to the failures of the past at the worst imaginable time.” He said the laws will result in “crippling tax hikes” and lack accountability.

The Kirwan education bill lays out a 10-year plan for a series of programs, among them: expanding prekindergarten, improving teacher pay, creating more “community schools” with enhanced services for students and families, and improving career- and college-prep programs.

Supporters believe the programs will improve student achievement and close gaps between students who are succeeding and those who are not. Opponents question whether the spending will pay off, and whether it’s affordable during the coronavirus pandemic.

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“Taxpayers are owed real accountability on the return for their investment,” said Sen. Justin Ready, a Carroll County Republican.

Lawmakers prioritized the bill during last year’s pandemic-shortened session. Hogan vetoed the measure — along with other bills with a price tag — citing the economic recession caused by the pandemic.

But when it came time to submit his budget this year, Hogan put funding for the Kirwan programs into the proposal, which was noted by Sen. Guy Guzzone, the Democratic chair of the Senate’s budget committee from Howard County.

“The governor did not have to include these in his budget,” said Guzzone, who listed the various items. “I think he made a good decision.”

The statewide teachers’ union, a major lobbying force behind the bill, celebrated the override votes.

Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, issued a statement calling the bill “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure that every student in every neighborhood has a great public school.”

The Senate voted to support the education bill and override the governor’s veto, 31-15. It followed a 96-37 vote by the House.

Both chambers more narrowly voted to overturn Hogan’s veto of the digital advertising tax, which is coupled with an increase in tobacco taxes and new taxes on nicotine products such as vaping systems and electronic cigarettes.

The Senate’s 29-17 vote Friday was exactly the number needed for the override. It followed an 88-48 vote Thursday in the House, three votes above the veto override threshold.

Internet companies, media companies and business booster groups lobbied heavily against the digital advertising tax, running ads online and sending thousands of emails to lawmakers. They worked together under the umbrella of a group called Marylanders for Tax Fairness. The Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, of which The Baltimore Sun is a member, is part of the coalition.

They argued that the companies that sell digital ads, such as Facebook and Google, would pass the cost of the tax down to the companies that buy the ads.

“When did Maryland small businesses become the enemy of the General Assembly?” asked Sen. Stephen Hershey, an Eastern Shore Republican.

He questioned the wisdom of enacting a tax on businesses during a time of “economic turmoil.”

Supporters countered that Big Tech should “pay its fair share” for the cost of providing social services such as schools. They noted that tech companies are making strong profits, even in the recession.

The tax is likely to face challenges in court. Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Marylanders For Tax Fairness, said in a statement that it is “historically shortsighted, foolish and harmful to countless small businesses and employees.”

“We will continue fighting this regressive tax wherever possible, including in a court of law,” Mayer said.

Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the digital ad tax, is promoting a follow-up bill. It would ban tech companies from passing the tax down to companies that advertise and also would exempt broadcast media companies and news organizations from having to pay the tax.

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