The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lawmakers launch override of Hogan vetoes of schools overhaul, digital ad tax

Maryland teachers showed their support for public education funding in 2019.
Maryland teachers showed their support for public education funding in 2019. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The Maryland General Assembly is poised this week to override several landmark bills that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) rejected last year, including a multibillion-dollar overhaul of the state’s public education system and two taxes that would help pay for the restructuring: a tax on digital streaming and a first-in-the-nation tax on digital ads.

In its first floor session since the legislature convened last month, the House of Delegates voted 95 to 37 on Monday to override Hogan’s veto of the school overhaul bill. The Senate is expected to vote to overturn the veto later this week.

The bill would set in place a 10-year plan to expand prekindergarten; increase funding to schools with a high percentage of poor, special-education or limited-English students; raise teacher pay and increase standards for teachers; and add more programs to ensure students are prepared for college and careers. Its authors say the legislation is designed to move Maryland from a “middle of the pack” system to one of the best in the world.

The overhaul in education policy is the biggest effort by a state to reshape public education since Massachusetts — now considered to have the top-performing school system in the country — passed legislation more than 30 years ago.

House Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) said the Maryland measure will give students “a better start in life than we have given them in the history of the state.”

When he vetoed the measure last year, Hogan criticized its $4 billion-a-year price tag as too costly — especially with the coronavirus pandemic impacting state revenue. He also said it lacked accountability and a funding source.

The governor also vetoed the digital ad tax and the streaming tax, however, which were two of the ways Democrats planned to pay for the education overhaul. Hogan and a coalition of small business groups argued the digital ad tax would ultimately be passed along to advertisers, hitting small businesses and entrepreneurs trying to stay afloat during the pandemic.

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Legislative leaders say schools and the widespread distance learning that resulted from the pandemic highlight and exacerbate the inequities the bill aimed to address.

Democrats said the bill is designed to ensure that a child receives a top education regardless of where they live, their skin color or how much their parents earn. They said the state cannot afford not to address the inequities that currently exist.

“Even before the pandemic, the disparities were stark and widespread,” Del. Alonzo T. Washington (D-Prince George’s) said Monday. “Disadvantaged students aren’t asking for a handout. They are asking for a level playing field.”

Republican lawmakers countered that the plan costs too much money, especially given the toll the pandemic has had on the state’s economy and Maryland families. Others questioned whether more money will result in better outcomes for students.

“I care deeply about the success of our students . . . but surely our students and teachers can understand we cannot spend money that we don’t have,” Del. Jesse T. Pippy (R-Frederick) said.

The legislation was based on recommendations by a commission of policy experts and lawmakers who presented the legislature with a grim picture of the current state of education in Maryland.

It found that fewer than half of Maryland kindergartners enter school ready to learn, and fewer than 40 percent of high school graduates are prepared for college or a career. The commission predicted that the future would be bleaker and that there would be dire consequences for the state’s economy if sweeping changes were not made.

The House voted 90 to 42 on Monday to overturn Hogan’s veto of the digital streaming tax, which would include video, music, books, apps, games and software. Based on data from other states, legislative analysts project that the tax could raise $83.1 million in fiscal 2021 and $118.6 million in fiscal 2025.

On Thursday, the House will take up the pioneering tax on targeted digital ads, which aims to collect up to $250 million a year by taxing media giants such as Facebook and Twitter. Lawmakers who crafted the tax say it is designed to make companies pay for using personal data to serve up tailored advertisements on Web browsers and social media platforms.

In addition to Hogan and the business groups, a trade group representing regional newspapers has encouraged lawmakers to nix the digital ad tax. The Maryland, Delaware, D.C. Press Association, to which The Washington Post belongs, argues that local news organizations already in dire economic conditions would be subject to the tax.

The Maryland Senate is expected to take up the override vote on Friday.

Technology industry groups have long signaled they will consider challenging the constitutionality of the tax if it becomes law. They say it would infringe on both First Amendment rights and the federal laws against taxing Internet companies in a discriminatory way.

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