Maryland’s top Democratic lawmakers renewed calls Monday for Gov. Larry Hogan to release $68 million in extra funding for the state’s most expensive school districts, citing more than a half-billion dollars in budget surpluses over the next two years and what they described as pressing educational needs.
The news conference in Annapolis marked the opening salvo in what is likely to become another heated battle between the increasingly popular Republican governor and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly over spending priorities for the 2016 legislative session.
Hogan in May withheld half of the $136 million that lawmakers had allocated to the state’s 16 most costly school systems under a formula known as the Geographic Cost of Education Index.
The governor said the money — much of which would have gone to public schools in Montgomery, Prince George’s and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City — should instead be used to bolster the state’s underfunded pension system.
State Democratic leaders argued Monday that the legislature had — at Hogan’s urging — taken steps to put the state on stronger financial footing, paying an additional $50 million into the pension system and launching a two-year plan to close the state’s structural budget deficit. They released estimates showing surpluses of $520 million for fiscal 2016 and $215 million for 2017.
Given the current surplus, they said, Hogan should release the money that the legislature earmarked for schools in parts of the state where education is more expensive.
“Why wouldn’t you . . . want to utilize those funds to make sure our kids get the best education in the United States of America?” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (Anne Arundel), who appeared at the news conference with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (Calvert), House Appropriations Committee Chair Maggie L. McIntosh (Baltimore) and others. “We cannot shortchange our kids in the classroom.”
According to a recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, 37 percent of residents want education to be the top priority for Hogan and the legislature, up 11 points since February.
The economy and taxes, which have been two of the Hogan administration’s top priorities, came in second and third, at 20 percent and 13 percent, respectively.
Busch called on Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp to “step up to the plate” and press the governor to release the education funds. The two Democrats and Hogan make up the state Board of Public Works, which oversees major state spending decisions.
Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, described the governor’s decision to withhold the funds as “shortsighted,” saying many school districts suffered as a result.
He said, for instance, that Montgomery County eliminated 380 positions and that Prince George’s County could not fund a universal pre-kindergarten program.
But Hogan showed no signs of being persuaded. His spokesman said Monday that Democrats were prematurely declaring fiscal victory over deficits by touting numbers — such as the surplus — that don’t recognize the state’s long-term fiscal outlook.
The pension system needs additional infusions of funds, spokesman Doug Mayer said. And although the budget passed by the legislature this year put the state on track to eliminate its structural deficit over the next fiscal year, Mayer said the shortfall could reappear after that if additional cuts are not made.
“Now is not the time to abandon common sense,” Mayer said.
Over the next five years, he said, the administration projects a nearly $1 billion structural deficit.
The full school-funding supplement was allocated to the most expensive school districts each year from 2010 to 2012, but it has been reduced at times in previous years.
Mayer noted that neither of Hogan’s immediate predecessors — Democrat Martin O’Malley and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. — had given schools the full amount during their initial years in office.
Hogan’s first-year budget called for wiping out the structural deficit in one year and pouring an additional $150 million into the pension system.
But Democrats pushed through an amended plan to eliminate the shortfall over two years, add $50 million for pensions and fully fund the school systems affected by the cost-of-education index.
The legislature also passed a measure that guarantees full funding for those school systems in future years if Hogan does not allocate the full amount this fiscal year.
“I’m proud of what we did and how we did it,” Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer (D-Baltimore County), chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said. “Instead of making these really tragic, significant cuts that many states have made . . . we made sure that people’s lives weren’t drastically changed.”