By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley said yesterday that he is "seriously weighing" whether to defer funding an educational initiative that could provide tens of millions of additional dollars to Prince George's and Montgomery counties next year.
The initiative, a priority for Washington area lawmakers, is designed to send more money to jurisdictions where the cost of providing education is considered more expensive. Legislative analysts project that it would cost almost $96 million next year to pay for the plan, which was part of the landmark Thornton education formula passed by lawmakers in 2002.
Unlike other parts of the Thornton plan, however, the geographic component is not mandated by law. During last year's campaign, O'Malley (D) was highly critical of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) for not funding it during his tenure.
During an interview yesterday, O'Malley said he remains committed to the initiative but would not say how much, if any, of the $96 million he would include in his budget proposal next week. He is facing a projected shortfall of more than $400 million in his first budget, which is due to lawmakers Jan. 19, two days after he takes office.
"I understand if he can't do the full thing, but at a minimum, they have to show some down payment," said Sen. P. J. Hogan (D-Montgomery), vice chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "What I've said to the administration is, you campaigned on full funding of Thornton, including [the geographic component]."
O'Malley said that the geographic component is one of four costly education initiatives for which he and aides have tried to find money in his fiscal 2008 budget proposal.
"I don't know that we're going to be able to accomplish all of those in this first session, but I would hope to make progress on each of them," O'Malley said after a Democratic luncheon in Annapolis.
O'Malley is also trying to pay for the mandated portion of the Thornton education formula, which is projected to cost an additional $580 million next year. He has also pledged to boost spending on school construction to $400 million next year and to freeze college tuition in the coming school year, which aides say could cost about $40 million.
O'Malley said he has heard from some lawmakers who think "ramping up" spending on the geographic index in coming years would make sense, particularly given the large amount of other Thornton spending mandated next year.
Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's), chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, introduced a bill last year that would have phased in the extra money over five years, starting in fiscal 2009, and made the geographic component mandatory.
The index allocates additional funds to counties based on a complicated formula that includes housing costs, the percentage of students receiving subsidized lunches, the rate of violent crime and commuting times.
By those measures, Prince George's is the most expensive place in Maryland to provide an education, followed by the city of Baltimore and Montgomery County.
Of the $96 million that could be allocated next year, Prince George's would receive about $31 million, and Montgomery, $24 million. In two years, those figures would grow to about $43 million and $35 million respectively, under current formulas in law.
O'Malley's comments came on the day that he and Lt. Gov.-elect Anthony G. Brown launched a week-long "One Maryland" tour of the state in advance of his swearing-in.
More than 750 people attended a town-hall style meeting last night at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, where O'Malley was warmly received but was asked several pointed questions on immigration and transportation issues, including many about his support for the planned intercounty connector.
O'Malley said he was not prepared to change his position last night.
"I can't do that, but I will try to keep an open mind," he said.