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Education is top priority for Maryland General Assembly leaders, who pledge reforms without a big tax increase

State Senator Bill Ferguson describes his approach to the role of Senate president.

Headed into the start of Maryland’s 441st General Assembly session Wednesday, the legislature’s two new leaders are trying to pull off a historic feat: Pass sweeping reforms aimed at greatly improving the state’s public schools — and do it without a massive tax increase.

In interviews with The Baltimore Sun, House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and incoming Senate President Bill Ferguson said they have ruled out across-the-board increases to state sales, property or income taxes.

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Nevertheless, they said, they plan to pass two expensive bills to bolster education and rebuild the state’s aging public school buildings.

Ferguson, a former teacher from Baltimore whom fellow Democrats have nominated to become Senate president, called the legislation his top priority.

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Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said she has designated the measures House Bill 1 and House Bill 2. “That sends a message of how important that it is,” she said.

In their first session as presiding officers, Ferguson and Jones are also expected to tackle bills aimed at keeping the Preakness Stakes horse race in Baltimore, banning flavored vaping products, expanding gun control, and legalizing sports betting, among other issues.

The deal for the Preakness, in particular, could be contentious because it involves multiple changes to state law, including how some casino subsidies for racing are used. Baltimore officials and the company that owns Pimlico Race Course want to turn over the Northwest Baltimore track to a new nonprofit entity and remodel it into a multisport and entertainment venue. Democratic leaders are pledging to pass a bill to make the deal happen, but Republican Gov. Larry Hogan hasn’t offered his opinion.

Hogan declined to be interviewed for this article.

Ferguson is expected to take control of the Senate from longtime President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who is stepping down from his leadership post as he continues treatment for prostate cancer.

As the two have adjusted to their new roles this winter, they’ve prepared to fight for what they believe to be essential improvements to the state’s public education system. They will lead a General Assembly so dominated by Democrats that, when party members stick together, they easily pass any bills they want and override Hogan’s vetoes.

The leaders’ chief priority for the 90-day session is to adopt a new formula for how much money the state, each of its 23 counties and the city of Baltimore are required to spend on schools.

The additional money would pay to expand full-day prekindergarten to all 4-year-olds, improve students’ career and college readiness, raise teacher salaries and support schools in areas with high concentrations of poor families, among other programs.

The recommendations come from the state’s Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, known as the “Kirwan Commission” for its chairman, former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan. The commission’s goal over the last three years has been to figure out how to make Maryland’s public schools the best in the nation, as they once were known.

Ferguson, a member of the commission, said it’s critically important to turn the commission’s findings into classroom improvements.

“The costs of doing nothing are extraordinary. They’re unacceptable,” he said. “So, this is our opportunity to set us down a transformative pathway, and I believe that the General Assembly is motivated to get this done in a collaborative way.”

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In the 2019 General Assembly session, lawmakers passed a law funding the commission’s recommendations for three years. This year, they expect to put funding formulas into law to balance future costs between the state and the counties, as well as figure out how to pay the state’s share of the additional money going forward.

Advocacy groups have floated raising the money by methods including reinstituting a higher state income tax on millionnaires and discontinuing some state tax incentives and credits for businesses. Jones and Ferguson say those ideas are on the table for discussion, even as they have ruled out some other tax increases. Legalizing sports betting to help pay for schools also has been proposed.

The commission proposes phasing in the programs and the extra spending over 10 years. By the end of that time, an additional $4 billion would be going into Maryland’s classrooms — $2.8 billion from the state and $1.2 billion from local governments.

Some local leaders — including Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young — have questioned how they’ll come up with their increased share of the funding.

And the numbers have led Hogan to blast the commission as promoting expensive programs with no way to pay for them. He’s derided the group as the “Kirwan Tax Hike Commission.” On social media, the governor has claimed each Maryland taxpayer will be stuck with a tax increase of $6,200 per year — though his estimate is based partly on factors unrelated to education spending.

“I think they’re scare tactics,” Jones said of Hogan’s anti-Kirwan spending campaign. She believes there’s strong support among Maryland residents for the extra funding.

Ferguson said he’s hopeful the governor will work with lawmakers and end up supporting money for the Kirwan reforms. The two met in December and had “a very, very productive conversation,” Ferguson said.

There’s been broad bipartisan support for many of the Kirwan ideas. The crux of the debate could become how to drum up the extra money.

“Marylanders really value having good schools,” said Kali Schumitz, communications director for the Maryland Center on Economic Policy. “Our tax code is full of loopholes that benefit large corporations and wealthy individuals. That’s harming our ability to make investments in our schools.”

One thing that’s off the table, Jones and Ferguson said, is a broad-based increase to Maryland’s income, property or sales taxes. Asked if the House would consider an across-the-broad tax increase, Jones said: “Not at all, as far as I’m concerned.”

Likewise, Ferguson said: “It’s fair to say that is not the path the General Assembly will be traveling.”

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Del. Nic Kipke, who as minority leader is the top-ranking Republican in the House, said he was encouraged by those pledges.

“That’s welcome news,” he said. “Taxes are already so burdensome in Maryland.”

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for the governor, said Hogan still has questions about how the reforms will be funded.

“We are pleased that legislative leaders are finally ruling out some tax increases, but that still does not come close to answering the question: where is all the money coming from?” Ricci said in a statement Friday night.

Where there is fuller agreement between the legislative and executive branches is on spending more on construction projects to build and renovate schools.

Both Hogan and Democratic lawmakers have endorsed plans to accelerate school construction by borrowing $2.2 billion over five years. The debt would be paid off by using $125 million each year from casino revenue that’s dedicated to education.

The idea first came from Hogan in December 2018. The House passed its version of a construction plan in 2019, but the bill failed in the Senate.

Now, the House and Senate are united on a construction plan, called “Built to Learn.” And Hogan is again touting his “Building Opportunity Fund.”

Jones said too many of Maryland’s schools — especially in Baltimore — have unacceptable problems like inadequate heating and cooling.

“Students can’t learn if they’re freezing or sitting there in mittens and wool coats. And they’re burning up in the spring and the summer,” Jones said. “I think we’ve got to make sure our school buildings are conducive to learning for our students.”

Democratic lawmakers also are expected to consider bills that would put elements of the federal Affordable Care Act into state law, set guidelines for compensating exonerated former prisoners, expand the definition of hate crimes, and prohibit housing discrimination against tenants who use government vouchers to pay rent.

The vastly outnumbered Republican lawmakers expect to offer some proposals of their own, and will try to doom bills they find onerous.

Sen. J.B. Jennings, the Senate minority leader, said Republicans in his chamber will work, in particular, to stop any potential tax increases to pay for the additional public school spending.

“We want better education, but we’re not going to support tax increases,” said Jennings, who represents parts of Harford and Baltimore counties. “Our job is more on the defensive side.

"There are some special interest groups who feel they’ve got a more liberal Senate president now, so they can get more of their progressive and liberal agenda out. Our job is to say, ‘The state’s not where you think it is. It’s not that liberal.' We’re going to try to bring them more to the center.”

Kipke said House Republicans’ agenda will focus on improving education and curbing crime.

“We want to get better outcomes in public education for all students throughout the state. The question boils down to how to accomplish that and how to fund any additional priorities,” Kipke said. “We already fund public education at one of the highest levels in the nation. You can anticipate Republicans not being supportive of increased taxes.”

Hogan, meanwhile, has rolled out several proposals, though he has rarely gotten his bills through the General Assembly.

In addition to his school construction plan, Hogan wants to create a program for turning around poorly rated public schools that’s modeled after one in Massachusetts.

He also has a plan to promote clean energy by creating new renewable energy credits for Maryland-based sources of electricity, including new nuclear power, natural gas, combined heat and power, and burning biomass, such as wood or manure.

Hogan has several crime-related measures, including a Violent Firearms Offenders Act. It would increase penalties for certain repeat offenders who use guns; for people who give or sell guns to someone they know will use them to commit a crime; and for anyone who destroys a firearm’s serial number.

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