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Maryland lawmakers move to ensure that all casino funds go to education

The Maryland State House in Annapolis. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Maryland lawmakers gave final approval Friday night to a measure that would allow voters to decide whether all of the state’s casino money should be spent on K-12 public education.

The “lockbox” bill is intended to stop future governors and lawmakers from diverting casino funds toward balancing the budget. Since 2009, when the Education Trust Fund was created, $1.9 billion in casino revenue has been redirected from public school spending, according to the Maryland State Education Association, the leading teachers union.

“We applaud the General Assembly for taking the first step in making a new Maryland Promise to every family, in every community, that the state will fund a strong public school for their children,” said Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association.

The bill asks voters to approve a constitutional amendment in the fall that would establish the lockbox law. When Marylanders approved constitutional amendments allowing slot machines starting in 2008 and table games in 2012, lawmakers promised that funds would go toward education. But there was no legal requirement that revenue be spent that way.

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In the past decade, Maryland public schools have slipped in rankings, lost teachers to other states and suffered through crowded classrooms, Weller said in a news release.

In Prince George’s County, the school system has been roiled by allegations of grade inflation and unauthorized pay raises. In Baltimore, students were bundled in coats inside their classrooms during the past winter to cope with broken heating systems.

“Educators will not accept this shortchanging of education any longer,” Weller said.

The lockbox bill unanimously passed the Maryland Senate in March and was overwhelmingly supported Friday in the House of Delegates.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) proposed a bill similar to the one that was approved Friday. His bill would have required that the state’s share of casino money be spent on education. But Hogan’s proposal, which failed to advance, did not include a constitutional amendment needing voter approval.

Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said the governor “made it clear at the beginning of the session that it was high time to keep the promise to Marylanders made by the previous administration and ensure that all casino funds go toward new education funding.”

She added that Hogan’s administration will continue to push for additional money for school safety and construction, which were included in his bill. The legislature is considering a separate school safety bill that would require public schools to have police coverage or school resource officers, classrooms that can be locked and age-appropriate active-threat drills.

The measure approved by the General Assembly would require the state to gradually increase education funding until fiscal 2023, when 100 percent of casino funds would be used for supplemental education spending.

Lawmakers approved a $44.5 billion budget last month that allocates $200 million in new education funding, using additional tax revenue that residents are expected to pay in state taxes because of changes in the federal tax code. The money will go toward proposals expected from the Kirwan Commission, which is studying how to make education in the state more equitable.