Dems: Md. Needs Casino Revenue ‘Lockbox’ to Boost School Funding
By Bruce DePuyt
A proposal unveiled by General Assembly Democrats would give Maryland voters the opportunity to guarantee that state proceeds from casino gambling benefit public education.
“Everywhere we go people say to us, ‘what about the promises you made about gambling revenues going to education?’” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said at a news conference Tuesday. “It’s time to keep faith with the people.”
Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) support a measure, still being drafted, that would place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. The measure, if approved by voters, would mandate that the roughly $500 million that the state receives in casino revenue each year go to education, on top of the funding already mandated by law.
“With almost half of Maryland kids now coming from low-income families, and academic standards higher than ever before, our public schools are underfunded by billions of dollars in combined state and local funding each year,” said Betty Weller, head of the Maryland State Education Association, speaking after Miller, Busch and a handful of committee chairmen. “It’s time for a bold plan to improve learning and working conditions in our schools.”
Douglass V. Mayer, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan (R), said the governor “has already said he’s supportive of this idea. We’re happy to help them clean up the mess they created” by not creating a lockbox in the first place.
Miller said the legislation will be modeled after the 2013 increase in the gas tax, which required that increased revenue flow into the state’s transportation trust fund. The bill will include a “escape hatch” that allows the assembly to divert casino revenues into the general fund if a fiscal emergency occurs, aides said.
Any discussion on school funding in Annapolis these days includes a healthy dose of partisan politics.
“We’ve prided ourselves, and worked very hard, to make Maryland number one in the country, for five years in a row, under the [O’Malley] administration,” Busch said, referring to Education Week’s annual rankings. “The same publication has us ranked sixth in the country today.”
“We want to find a way to go back to number one,” he said.
The state’s ranking dropped to No. 3 during the last full year of the O’Malley administration.
The Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, commonly known as the Kirwan Commission, is expected to make a series of education funding and policy recommendations after the 2018 session. Backers of the proposed constitutional amendment on gaming funds said the increased revenue would at least partially fund the panel’s proposals.
Del. Anne Kaiser (D-Montgomery), head of the Ways and Means Committee and a member of the Kirwan Commission, said, “We’ve been dropping each year with Gov. Hogan. His priorities are not our priorities.”
“More and more of our students are coming to us with emotional trauma and mental health needs,” said Carissa Barnes, a teacher at Stonegate Elementary School in Silver Spring. “We want to see every student succeed, but right now we just don’t have the support we need to do it.”
Mayer rejected the notion that schools have been inadequately funded.
“We have had record levels of funding for education four years in the row,” he said. “That’s just a fact.”
Mayer also took a swipe at the cozy relationship between assembly Democrats and the state teachers’ union. Hogan has referred to the union’s leaders as “thugs” in the past.
“You had a large number of people running for re-election standing next to the people who fund their campaigns,” Mayer said. “The things they were saying either didn’t make sense or just aren’t true.”