House overrides Hogan’s veto of education reform plan, other measures

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The House voted Monday to override Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s veto of a multibillion-dollar education reform plan, known as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.

The vote, 95-37, surpassed the three-fifths majority required and was mainly along party lines.

The Blueprint bill is a 10-year plan that would expand pre-kindergarten programs and increase funding for schools with high concentrations of poverty, increase pay and career opportunities for teachers, create new career pathways for high schoolers who don’t plan to attend college, and establish an accountability board to ensure that the government and school districts properly implement the Blueprint plan.

These programs were recommended by the so-called Kirwan Commission, which for three years, reviewed best practice standards to rebuild Maryland’s public school system.

Hogan had vetoed the bill in May, claiming that it was untenable to raises taxes during an economic downturn induced by the COVID-19 pandemic in order to fund the Blueprint plan.

However, Democrats contended that this comprehensive education reform bill is more necessary now than ever, as the pandemic has only exacerbated already existing disparities for Black and Brown students.

“The target funding in the Blueprint would work to balance the scales of justice and education for the first time in our state’s history,” said Del. Alonzo T. Washington (D-Prince George’s), a co-sponsor of the bill. “It would invest in historic levels of systemic accountability.”

In an hour of debate on the House floor, a slew of Republicans urged colleagues to sustain the Governor’s veto, arguing that the COVID-19 pandemic is not the right time to pump millions of dollars into a 10-year education reform plan.

“This massive spending bill costs billions of dollars and we are already running a budget deficit,” said Del. Jesse T. Pippy (R-Frederick). Sustaining the governor’s veto is “the responsible decision based on our financial climate and on behalf of struggling Maryland families that will ultimately be forced to shoulder the burden of these costs,” he continued.

Under this measure, education funding would increase by $3.2 billion by 2030, a cost the state and local governments would share.

“Passing along a massive spending plan…while we are in the throes of the fallout from the pandemic is just tone deaf,” Del. Haven N. Shoemaker Jr. (R-Carroll) said.

Late last session, the Senate added a provision that would postpone the Blueprint plan if state revenues dropped by 7.5%, but that threshold has not been reached.

This funding for the Blueprint plan primarily comes from online sales taxes and gaming revenues. There would be more sources if the General Assembly also overrides the revenue bills that Hogan vetoed last session ― one that would mandate a sales tax on digital downloads and another that would create a digital advertising tax and increase the tobacco tax, both of which are intended to help fund the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future fund.

Republicans were skeptical that the state would be able to fund the Blueprint plan for the next decade “unless we impose dramatic and serious tax increases over the coming years,” said Del. Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany).

But Del. Ben Barnes (D-Prince George’s) pointed to analysis from the Department of Legislative Services, which said there is enough money in the Blueprint fund to implement the education reform plan through 2026.

“We can clearly afford this…we have the money right here in the Blueprint fund — it’s there,” Barnes said.

Buckel countered that there is not a deficiency in the Blueprint fund because the state has “steered tax monies” away from public safety, health and other social services.

“We’ve created a special fund called the Blueprint fund that we steer monies to that otherwise could be used for anything else under the sun for the benefit of our citizens,” Buckel said.

Some opponents argued that funding for additional staff does not necessarily mean better schools.

“One would imagine that more students with disabilities would warrant more positions to support the needs of these students, but is that necessarily true? I say, no it isn’t. More staff doesn’t impact student outcomes,” said Del. Brenda J. Thiam (R-Washington).

Rather, “we must hold school districts accountable to make sure they’re utilizing existing resources and supports efficiently to benefit students,” she said.

Before the House convened, advocates from the Maryland State Education Association and Strong Schools Maryland stood alongside a line of 20 cutout life-size images of students in Lawyers’ Mall, leading up to the State House. Some lawmakers passed these cutouts on their way to the State House.

“We think that the bipartisan vote in the spring shows that this is really something that Marylanders want, whether they’re Democrats or they’re Republicans,” said Cheryl Bost, the president of MSEA. “It’s about the students, it’s not about politics.”

Some Republican lawmakers argued that the pandemic had revealed outdated provisions in the Blueprint plan.

“There are lessons to be learned from COVID, there are things we can glean from that we can use to make our education system even better and stronger,” said Del. Johnny Mautz (R-Lower Shore).

“We could vote the way we voted last year, but we’re in a different place. Where we stand today looks nothing like where we stood last year,” he continued.

However, House Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) said that this bill has already been extensively vetted.

“There is no issue in my 10 years in the legislature that has been debated and discussed more thoroughly than this one,” he said. “We included experts from around the country and around the world. We brought in parents and students and educators and school board members and county council members and superintendents and members of this body, and they put their heads together and came up with the best plan that they could.”

More vetoes overridden

With safety concerns limiting floor time, few members of the Democratic majority joined the debate during the floor session, which clocked in just shy of the chamber’s two-hour maximum.

The only other lengthy debate was over House Bill 932, the “21st Century Economy Fairness Act,” though that lasted just about 15 minutes.

That bill would impose the state’s sales tax on some digital products, including steaming services like Netflix and Hulu, e-books, digital music and online newspaper and magazine subscriptions.

Digital goods tax revenue ― which is estimated to be $83 million in the first year, and increasing in the future ― will be distributed to the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Fund to support education reform efforts.

Del. Anne R. Kaiser (D-Montgomery), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, read a short speech in favor of the legislation ― which had actually been delivered by former Republican Sen. Andrew Serafini of Washington County last session.

At the time, Serafini was one of few Republicans to vote in favor of the bill. He said it was not a new tax, or an expansion of taxation, but an adaptation to recover taxes that were being lost.

Kaiser said the bill would “treat like products alike,” create new policies for a digital world and modernize Maryland’s tax code.

Several Republican delegates spoke in favor of sustaining the veto, noting that digital goods have become more popular than ever during the pandemic.

“At this point, these services are much more than luxuries, they’re necessities,” Del. Mike Griffith (R-Cecil) said.

A handful of Democrats joined Republicans, but the chamber ultimately voted to override the veto, 90-42.

The House overrode Hogan’s veto of nine other pieces of legislation on Monday, including bills to shield some marijuana possession charges from online court records, guide the process for the state purchase of land, and expand MARC train service.

The chamber put off until later this week override votes on bills to require background checks on all sales or transfers of rifles and shotguns and the $350 million revenue bill for the Blueprint legislation that would establish a tax on digital advertising and expand the state’s tobacco tax.

The Senate is scheduled to consider overriding the Blueprint and digital tax bills, among others, later this week.

This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

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