Budget Negotiators: Private School Voucher Program Fully Funded, Pre-Release Facilities to Close

The Maryland State House. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Negotiators from the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates finalized details of the state’s 2022 budget on Thursday, approving a plan expected to tally more than $52 billion.

That figure represents a dramatic increase over the $49.35 billion budget as originally introduced by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) thanks to a rebounding economy and federal stimulus funds flowing to states.

Negotiators made short work of ironing out differences between the budget bill as it passed in each chamber.

On Thursday, the budget conference committee agreed to restore $10 million in funding for a controversial private school voucher program, BOOST, which is a priority of the Hogan administration.

For the last few years, House lawmakers have attempted to reduce funding for and slowly phase out the program, limiting new scholarships to students currently enrolled in the program and their siblings. The Senate has consistently funded the program at a higher level.

As part of a budget compromise struck with the administration, negotiators agreed Thursday to fund the program at $10 million, the level the Hogan administration has consistently sought.

House Education and Economic Development Subcommittee Chair Ben Barnes (D-Prince George’s), who has opposed BOOST funding in the past, noted that while compromising to fully fund the program, House Democrats also received a long list of spending priorities important to them in this week’s multi-billion supplemental budget, including $450 million for public school education reform, $80 million to improve school heating and air conditioning systems, broadband funding and more.

Private schools that participate in the BOOST program are still prohibited from discriminating against students based on race, color, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.

But House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) said she remains “very concerned” about cases pending in federal court challenging anti-discrimination language restricting state funds for private schools.

“And if we are told that we must use state money to discriminate, the House is very firm that we will just not continue funding this program or programs like it,” McIntosh said.

Negotiators removed language added by the House to fence off $2.8 million to be used only for operations at the Southern Maryland Pre-Release Unit in St. Mary’s County and the Eastern Pre-Release Unit in Queen Anne’s County, in an effort to keep those facilities operating. The conference committee agreed with Hogan, who proposed eliminating funding for the facilities in his initial budget. A provision in the spending plan requires the state to transfer workers’ jobs to other facilities.

The conference committee agreed to a Senate amendment that reduces funding going from the Bay Restoration Fund to Valley Proteins – a company that processes chicken byproducts into an ingredient for pet food. The company had been slated to receive more than $12.7 million from the state for wastewater treatment improvements at its Linkwood plant. Lawmakers expressed concern that so much state funding, 83% of the project’s total cost, was going to a private company with a history of water pollution concerns, and the Senate reduced the allocation to $7.675 million, or half of the project’s cost.

Negotiators also agreed to add $510,000 to the General Assembly’s budget to create five new positions in the Office of Policy Analysis for the purpose of writing Racial and Equity Impact Notes on pending legislation. Analysts wrote such analyses for selected bills this year, including police reform measures, as part of a pilot program.

The conference committee also voted to restrict $500,000 for the office of Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D). That money could be used only for federal stimulus funding oversight. Last month, Franchot pressed lawmakers to create a special commission to probe all COVID-related spending. The funding restriction requires the comptroller’s office to provide quarterly reports on stimulus spending, beginning July 1.

Final approval of the budget on the House and Senate floors could come as early as Friday.

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