O’Malley to push $350 million for school construction in Maryland

January 9, 2012

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley on Tuesday will propose spending more than $350 million next year on public school construction, the second highest amount in state history, according to several people familiar with his plans.

O’Malley (D) will cast his proposal as one in a series of initiatives meant to spur job creation as the state recovers from the national recession, aides said.

With the General Assembly set to reconvene Wednesday, O’Malley has scheduled two other events this week to lay out key parts of an ambitious agenda for the 90-day session. One of them may detail a plan to raise revenue for transportation projects.

O’Malley, whose office declined to comment publicly Monday on his plans, has sought to make school construction a priority since he first ran for governor in 2006. News of an uptick in funding was welcomed by officials in the Washington suburbs.

“We have a host of schools where people still don’t have gyms, where they are sitting in closets, where they don’t get fed until 2 o’clock in the afternoon because the cafeteria isn’t big enough,” said Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda).

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said the proposed funding would spur local job growth in the construction sector. “Of course,” he added, “you have to make certain that you get your fair share of that amount.”

Thomas Himler, the deputy chief administrative officer for budget, finance and administration in Prince George’s County, said its expected share of the $350 million would put the county in range of what it is seeking from the state.

Since taking office in 2007, O’Malley has consistently proposed meeting or exceeding a 2004 goal of spending at least $250 million a year on school construction — most of it through borrowing. That amount has still fallen well short of what has been requested annually by Maryland counties.

“To the extent you can go deeper at a time like this, you can benefit the schools and help put people to work,” said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

Some Republican legislators, however, cautioned that additional borrowing to pay for construction projects could increase pressure on the state to raise property taxes, which are used to pay debt service.

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert) questioned the wisdom of that given that O’Malley has also floated possible increases in the state’s gas tax to pay for transportation projects and in the “flush tax” to pay for water and sewer upgrades.

“He ought to get a cease-and-desist order from the taxpayers of Maryland,” O’Donnell said.

O’Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory dismissed O’Donnell’s criticism, saying, “For him, it’s not about how many jobs can be created, it’s about how many negative things can be said about proposals the governor is making.”

Tuesday’s announcement is being staged at Germantown Elementary School in Annapolis, a venue O’Malley has used in the past. In late 2005, as he was gearing up to challenge then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), O’Malley used classroom trailers at the school as a backdrop to criticize construction funding levels under Ehrlich, which dropped to $116.5 million in fiscal 2004.

During his first year in office, O’Malley proposed a record $400 million in spending, a level he has not matched since.

As a candidate for reelection in 2010, O’Malley returned to the same school to highlight school construction spending during his first term. At the time, a new school was being constructed. On Tuesday, O’Malley will see its completion, aides said.

Last year, lawmakers approved $250 million for school construction during the current fiscal year under the state’s capital program. An additional $47.5 million was earmarked from an increase in the state’s sales tax on alcohol.

Staff writers Miranda Spivack and Victor Zapana contributed to this report.

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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