Senate Moves Forward on Kirwan Recommendations, Funding

Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Chair Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's) on the Senate floor Tuesday night, after leading the debate on Kirwan Commission recommendations. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

The Maryland Senate moved forward on a scaled-back “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future,” setting in motion increased funding and expanded education programs in the next two years.

The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs and Budget and Taxation committees voted unanimously on Monday to move the bill to the Senate floor, where it was debated in two separate floor sessions on Tuesday.

The bill as introduced Senate Bill 1030 – crossfiled as House Bill 1413 – would have put $1.1 billion toward expanded educational programs through 2021.

As amended, the bill aims for a combined $725 million in expanded funding in 2021 and 2022, with an additional $130 million contingent upon revenue legislation passed this year or next year. The General Assembly already passed a fiscal year 2020 budget with $255 million in initial funding for recommendations of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, also known as the Kirwan Commission.

“The bill before you today, 1030, you can call it a downpayment, an introduction or some call it Year Zero,” said Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Chair Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s).

If the bill is passed and funded, it would take 11 years for full implementation of the commission’s recommendations, which have not yet been completed.

While county spending obligations are expected to increase when new funding formulas are developed before next year, this year’s bill focuses on increased state funding for prekindergarten, special education and grants to poor schools, without new local mandates. The only provision of this year’s bill that could increase county funding is an incentive grant to raise teacher salaries: If county school systems set aside 3 percent for salary increases, the state would provide an additional 1.5 percent.

Lawmakers and commission members will spend the interim identifying dedicated funding sources that could be funneled to the newly named Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Fund.

An amendment to the Senate bill would direct all online sales tax collections over $100 million to be directed to the Blueprint fund. That measure is in place even if lawmakers don’t pass a bill pending this session that would impose the online sales tax on marketplace facilitators – websites like eBay and Etsy that connect buyers with third-party sellers.

Since a change in state regulations this fall, Maryland has collected between $8 million to $10 million each month; analysts and lawmakers have suggested the marketplace facilitators bill, which passed the Senate and is pending in the House, could generate up to $95 million annually, though the figure is uncertain.

Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said the provision protects the state’s General Fund revenues first, but also sets aside some pot of money for Blueprint initiatives as they grow.

Another amendment states that a $130 million portion of the desired 2022 payment for Blueprint initiatives would be contingent upon the passage of other new revenue sources, including a potential tax on the sale of recreational marijuana or cuts to existing state programs.

“That’s why we made this contingent. It’s our job to come up with the revenues so we can predictably fund this over time,” Ferguson said.

IG office ok’d

The bill also now includes a lengthy amendment to create a Maryland Office of the Inspector General of Education that would focus on investigations of waste, fraud and abuse of public funds; violations of civil rights; child abuse and neglect; and other violations of law.

The provision comes after Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) sent a three-page letter last month outlining concerns about the cost of the bill, including that oversight provisions were lacking.

Hogan has proposed legislation over the last two years that would establish independent education monitoring units in state government. While his bill this year has not moved forward, some provisions are now in the Blueprint bill.

“We took some of the ideas that the administration did introduce in their legislation. There were parts that we thought were appropriate, there were some that we didn’t,” Pinsky said. “… But we also looked across the country, we didn’t want to be limited to just our experience in Maryland.”

One provision senators modified from another state, Massachusetts, would have the governor, attorney general state treasurer jointly appoint the inspector general for education.

Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore) introduced an amendment that would have required that appointee to be chosen by a unanimous vote of the trio, but that amendment failed 15-28. The appointment would still be subject to confirmation by the Senate.

Sen. Robert Cassilly (R-Harford) introduced several amendments that would have focused the inspector general’s office on financial issues and stripped the proposed office from oversight on issues like civil rights and child neglect.

Pinsky noted that those provisions had also been included in Hogan’s proposal and three of Cassilly’s amendments were voted down.

In future legislation, lawmakers said they also plan to implement a separate academic oversight board that would monitor progress on the bill’s policy initiatives.

Sen. Pamela G. Beidle (D-Anne Arundel) was concerned about new Concentration of Poverty Grants that would provide $248,833 grants to schools in which 80 percent or more students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The grants provide increased funding for healthcare and other services to be provided in the schools.

“Eighty percent seems really high – why not 75 or 70?” Beidle asked.

Pinsky said lawmakers would like to see the Concentration of Poverty threshold lowered in the future, but funds are limited during the Blueprint’s early implementation.

“Where it’s over 80 percent, where the whole neighborhood, the whole community, the whole area is in poverty, they face many more challenges,” Pinsky said.

About 219 schools would qualify now with the 80 percent threshold.

Sen. Jack Bailey (R-Calvert and St. Mary’s) introduced an amendment that would update the bill to include the state’s most recent calculation of schools with more than 80 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price meals. His amendment would have added 16 schools at a cost of $4 million.

The amendment, while supported in spirit but voted down 18-27, would have required lawmakers to cut $4 million from the committee bill. Instead, Ferguson publicly committed to writing a letter with Bailey asking Hogan to process a budget amendment for the additional funding without cutting elsewhere.

The bill is scheduled for a final vote in the Senate on Wednesday morning. On Wednesday afternoon, House committees are expected to meet to discuss and vote on the bill, pushing it to the opposite chamber floor as the end of session looms Monday.

At least one senator expressed doubt about how he would vote on the bill Wednesday.

Sen. Christopher R. West (R-Baltimore County) noted that there’s a serious need for school construction funding in his county, where “we have decrepit schools, we have overcrowded schools.”

West said he was concerned that a vote for the Blueprint bill would take away from the Budget and Taxation Committee’s appetite to pass a $2.2 billion construction bill called the Build to Learn Act, which passed almost unanimously out of the House of Delegates.

“I really want to vote for this bill, but I’m going to have a lot of trouble doing it if I believe that passing this bill will mean that we can’t pass any version of the [construction] bill,” West said.

Ferguson said the committee is still considering the school construction bill, but didn’t commit to a committee vote on the bill this session; lawmakers have already committed $500 million to the public school construction program for the coming year, but future years might require a more holistic discussion, Ferguson said.

“There is an urgent need for school construction funding throughout the state of Maryland, there is also an urgent need for us to really create world-class schools inside of those buildings,” he said.

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