Maryland Democrats, demoralized by their party’s losses in November, have found a rallying cry: protect education spending.
Senior members of the House and the Senate joined the state’s largest teachers union at its headquarters in Annapolis on Tuesday to protest a budget proposal by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) that would curb planned funding of k-12 education in the coming fiscal year.
“It is important for us never to cut back on our commitment to education,” House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said at the packed event, at which the Maryland State Education Association unveiled a Web site where parents can see the potential impact of Hogan’s proposals on classrooms in their county.
Prince George’s County, for example, would get $6,909.92 less per classroom next year than expected, according to the Web site, which features a play on Hogan’s “Change Maryland” campaign slogan. The altered version: Don’t Shortchange Maryland.
The news conference followed weeks of debate among Democrats over how to stand up to a Republican governor who prevailed at the polls by promising tax cuts and calling for spending restraint. It came a day before Hogan is scheduled to deliver his first State of the State address, which aides say will call for bipartisan cooperation in Annapolis and lay out the governor’s legislative agenda.
Hogan has stressed that his budget proposal still calls for record spending on K-12 education, even though counties would receive $144 million less next year than under current spending formulas.
“We actually increased spending on education,” Hogan said during a radio interview last week, in which he seemed on the defensive. “We just didn’t increase at the rate that people would like us to — and that we would like to, frankly.”
The governor’s aides pressed the same point Tuesday in e-mails and interviews, and noted that Hogan proposed spending $290 million next year on public school construction, roughly on par with levels of recent years under a Democratic governor.
“We disagree that there are cuts,” Hogan’s budget secretary, David Brinkley, told reporters in the basement of the State House. Brinkley said it is crucial to get spending under control following a period of escalating borrowing by the state, and said Hogan made some tough decisions in order to close an inherited $800 million shortfall.
While Hogan voters are likely to appreciate those considerations, Democratic lawmakers could get some traction with the public by standing up for education spending, some analysts said.
“If you’re going to pick a fight, this is probably a good fight to pick,” said Donald F. Norris, director of the school of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Mike Morrill, a longtime Democratic operative in Maryland, said the outcome of the skirmish with Hogan will depend in part on whether Democrats propose other cuts that could be implemented in order to allocate more money to education.
“If this is just saying ‘no,’ it’s a risk politically,” Morrill said. “The danger for Democrats is if they paint this as ‘no cuts, period.’ But if it’s drawing the line at education, it’s very much in the mainstream of what Marylanders want.”
Democrats who were at Tuesday’s event — Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) was among those who stayed away — said they weren’t yet ready to propose alternatives.
“We’re looking for ways to find enough money to restore these cuts,” said Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore), chairwoman of the House appropriations committee.
Busch said House budget writers have “a lot of options” but declined to name any. He suggested there is plenty of time for lawmakers to negotiate with Hogan over education spending levels. “There are other things in the budget that the governor wants,” Busch said. “This is a give-and-take process.”
Hogan spokeswoman Erin Montgomery said the governor would welcome “the input from legislators on how to solve our budgetary challenges while keeping education a number-one priority.”
Hogan’s budget proposal is currently under consideration by the House Appropriations Committee, which is expected to spend several more weeks deciding how to massage it. Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Harford) said Democrats would better served by focusing on that task, instead of trying to score political points at news conferences. “I think they need to get down to work,” Jennings said.
The issue has become more politically potent because of the nature of some of the education reductions Hogan is proposing. In addition to slowing growth in spending statewide, he has proposed cutting in half funding for the so-called Geographic Cost of Education Index, a formula that sends more money to school districts where the cost of educating children is higher.
Among the largest recipients of that funding are Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and the city of Baltimore — all populous jurisdictions where Hogan trailed far behind Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D). Some Democrats have questioned whether Hogan is punishing counties that he didn’t carry — a nation Hogan dismisses.
Unlike other education spending, the governor has discretion over whether to fund the geographic index. The state’s last Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., did not include any money for the initiative in his budgets.
Republicans point out that former governor Martin O’Malley (D) didn’t fully fund the program in his first two budgets, at a time when the state was facing shortfalls. Busch said that difference now is that counties have come to expect the full allocation, which was included in O’Malley’s last six budgets. “It’s now embedded in the funding formulas,” he said.
In recent weeks, the battle over education funding has been playing out in conversations in Annapolis both large and small. Late last week, as the Senate was preparing to convene, Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore) spotted Martin G. Madden, a Hogan adviser, talking to another lawmaker outside the chamber.
Conway pressed Madden on when Hogan might reschedule a meeting with her.
“Education – that’s going to be the war,” Conway could be overheard saying. “That’s the war, Marty.”
Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.