By John Wagner and Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 14, 2010; B01
A four-year freeze on public university tuition in Maryland will come to an end this year, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said Wednesday, underscoring the stark fiscal choices ahead for state legislators as they convened for their annual 90-day session.
With Maryland facing a $2 billion shortfall next year, O'Malley said in-state students should expect only "a slight increase" in tuition, perhaps about 3 percent. But his decision to curtail a signature initiative during an election year spoke volumes about the larger challenges facing the state because of the recession.
"It's a major concession on the part of the governor," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), adding that he was certain O'Malley would have liked to continue the tuition freeze for another year. "It's been good policy and great politics."
O'Malley's disclosure, first made public on a radio show, came just hours before the 427th session of the Maryland General Assembly convened at noon. An opening day traditionally marked by ceremony and receptions took on a more somber tone, with lawmakers bracing for next week's budget proposal by O'Malley.
The end of the tuition freeze is just one of many difficult aspects of a budget expected to include layoffs and cuts in health care and social services, as well as continued reductions in road maintenance and other state assistance to local governments.
Although the budget is expected to dominate the session, several law-enforcement and social issues could prompt discussion.
Lawmakers are awaiting an opinion from Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) that will launch a debate on whether Maryland should recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. Bills are also being drafted to put tighter restrictions on gangs and sex offenders, and lawmakers could revisit legislation passed last year restricting the use of the death penalty.
The 2010 session's first day ended with an in-your-face reminder of the political challenges facing O'Malley and lawmakers, as hundreds of demonstrators descended on Annapolis to protest their budget choices in recent years, including a major tax increase in 2007.
Former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who spent much of the afternoon mingling with lawmakers and lobbyists, attended the rally but did not address the crowd.
Ehrlich, who continues to mull a rematch with O'Malley, used his weekly radio show Saturday to urge participation in the "march on Annapolis," sponsored by Americans for Prosperity and other groups. Ehrlich offered no timetable Wednesday for his campaign decision and said his appearances around the State House complex were largely to catch up with old friends.
O'Malley appeared briefly in the House and Senate, urging lawmakers to focus on job creation, a message likely to continue well into the campaign year. O'Malley is asking lawmakers to approve a $3,000 tax credit for each unemployed person hired by companies in the year ahead.
"We've got to create jobs, jobs, jobs," O'Malley told the Senate.
O'Malley's news that the University System of Maryland will almost certainly increase tuition for more than 148,000 students could partially undercut an accomplishment he is certain to tout heavily as he seeks reelection.
Tuition rates for in-state undergraduates have been held constant since the fall of 2005, as O'Malley has sought to fulfill a pledge to make higher education more affordable. Tuition rose by about 40 percent during Ehrlich's term.
"I think we have succeeded in restoring affordability," O'Malley told reporters, saying he expected future increases to "keep pace with inflation." In response to a question, he said would consider a 3 percent increase this fall to be "moderate."
Tuition rates are set by the university system's Board of Regents, but O'Malley's budgets in recent years have included funding to accommodate the freeze.
The freeze took effect in fall 2006, when O'Malley was running against Ehrlich. After O'Malley and Democrats made an issue of escalating tuition during the previous legislative session, Ehrlich agreed to the freeze, which has continued during the first three years of O'Malley's term.
The year before O'Malley took office, tuitions at the system's 11 universities were collectively ranked the sixth highest of any state. O'Malley had often said his goal was to get Maryland to "the middle of the pack."
At the beginning of the 2009-10 academic year, Maryland ranked as 17th most expensive nationwide for overall four-year public tuition and fees, at $7,485; Virginia was 15th, at $7,952.
During successive rounds of budget cuts imposed over the summer, officials had warned that the system was reaching a point at which the freeze could erode its quality.
House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert) said O'Malley's announcement was overdue. Containing tuition has been a good goal, O'Donnell said, but "falsely capping the cost of tuition and subsidizing that with taxpayer dollars is not sustainable. We should have been weaning off that proposal years ago."