By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 8, 2007
Budget negotiators in the Maryland legislature agreed yesterday on how to allocate a record $400 million in school construction funds next year, helping Gov. Martin O'Malley make good on a campaign promise and resolving one of a handful of outstanding issues in a session scheduled to end tomorrow.
With a growing number of trailers springing up in schoolyards across the state, lawmakers agreed early in the 90-day session that construction should be a priority. Both the House and Senate approved the funding amount weeks ago, but they crafted dueling plans about how to distribute it.
The deal reached yesterday earmarks $52.25 million each for four of the state's largest jurisdictions -- Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties and the city of Baltimore -- and lesser amounts for other counties based on a formula proposed by O'Malley (D). None of those jurisdictions received more than $40 million for the current fiscal year, which ends in June.
But the bump is not likely to be part of a trend, lawmakers said yesterday.
"It's probably a one-time shot," said Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr. (D-Anne Arundel), citing other needs at universities and elsewhere in the state that have been delayed to accommodate the additional school construction spending.
The $400 million for school construction is almost half of the state's $827 million capital budget for the coming fiscal year.
O'Malley has pledged to propose at least $250 million a year for school construction for the remainder of his term. During last year's campaign, he railed against the number of "temporary learning shacks" that have appeared at crowded schools in the Washington suburbs and other parts of Maryland.
The Senate had proposed leaving school construction decisions to a state panel set up for that purpose. But the House spelled out where the money should go in its version of the capital budget.
Under the House plan, Prince George's would have received about $3 million more than under O'Malley's plan. Montgomery would have fared about the same. Both plans were based on several variables, including the age of the jurisdiction's facilities.
John White, spokesman for Prince George's County schools, said officials would undoubtedly welcome the extra money because it will help speed renovations and construction projects. The $52.25 million is an especially large figure, he said, given the magnitude of a three-year, $126 million project the county has undertaken to repair roofs and heating systems at 100 schools.
The extra money "certainly means that we will be able to address the demands we have on schedule or sooner," White said.
The funding will also help expedite construction in Montgomery, where school officials are concerned about the system's large number of trailers, said Board of Education member Christopher S. Barclay (District 4).
"Every child deserves to be in a decent classroom . . . and [these] learning cottages, 'relocatables,' whatever is being used, the fact is, a kid is not in the building with the rest of his schoolmates," Barclay said of the trailers. "Someone has to get out of their classroom and go inside to use the bathroom. That's not great for any child."
Budget negotiators said yesterday that they plan to wrap up work tomorrow morning on the state's $30 billion operating budget. Negotiations stalled last week over differences on a small number of items in the House and Senate plans, including how much to spend on stem cell research.
O'Malley had proposed spending $25 million next year, up from $15 million this year. Lawmakers said they have now reached an informal agreement to spend $23 million.
"We're not that far apart on anything," said Del. Norman H. Conway (D-Wicomico), the House appropriations chairman.
Another late-moving initiative -- requiring state contractors to pay employees a "living wage" -- continued its march toward passage yesterday. The Senate Finance Committee voted 7 to 4 to send the bill to the Senate floor.
The measure, which cleared the House on Friday, would require contractors doing work in the Washington-Baltimore corridor to pay their employees $11.30 an hour. The floor would be set at $8.50 in more rural jurisdictions.
Maryland would become the first state in the nation to have such a requirement, which has been adopted by more than 100 localities across the country.
Before passing the bill, the Senate panel added an exemption for companies with 10 or fewer employees performing less than $500,000 worth of work.
Senate Finance Chairman Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles) said the bill appears to have the votes to pass the full chamber.
"The governor is really behind this, and he's really pushing it hard," Middleton said.
Staff writer Ian Shapira contributed to this report.