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Votes

Funding Success for Montgomery School Children

This legislative session is memorable for what it did, and frankly, for what it did not do.

Transportation, an issue of great urgency which we have all discussed and worked on in Montgomery County, saw some attention in Annapolis. A new environmental study of the Inter County Connector (ICC) was approved. Telecommuting, an issue both Sen. [Jean] Roesser (R-15) and I had pushed, grew in interest and support. The clock ran out before we could get individual bills passed in both Houses, but it is clear, this issue has claimed the support of the General Assembly.

THE GREAT ISSUES that dwarfed all others on the 2002 agenda were the Governor's huge $21 billion budget, the essential need to reform education funding, and the ploy by a California firm, Wellpoint, to buy Care First (Blue Cross, Blue Shield) — Maryland's insurer of last resort — and turn it into a for-profit company.

Despite the Governor's budget being one of the biggest ever presented, it still left mandated needs not covered. Among the first cuts were all bond bills. Although interest rates are historically low, the Senate decided that no capital improvements were to be approved by using the traditional bond bill. That means for us here at home that there was no state money for BlackRock Cultural Arts Center in Germantown, or for the Scotland Recreation Center in Potomac.

I want to acknowledge that the presentations made before the House Appropriations Committee for these projects by the staff and supporters of both these facilities were superb. I know the members of the House Appropriations Committee were most impressed with the projects and the testimony offered. Next year, I will bring back these bond bills.

ANOTHER CASUALTY of the Governor's budget and dropping tax revenues was any tax reduction. The "No Sales Tax Week" for shoes and clothing under $100, which I had pegged to "Back to School' week, was an enormous success for Maryland families, Maryland retailers and for the state as a whole. Some retailers, particularly those with less expensive goods, saw sales hit with a 40 percent increase during that week. I will put the bill in again next year. I anticipate that revenues will be up and the next Governor will embrace my bill and it will pass easily.

THE GREAT ACHIEVEMENT of the 2002 session, and for education, for the last decade, is passage of the legislation resulting from the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence, also called the Thornton Commission. I am both exhilarated and humble to have been part of this funding reform.

Every school child in Maryland — whether from its cities, its suburbs, its rural areas — will benefit from this education change. From Maryland children born far away, speaking a language other than English, to children challenged with special needs, to children born into poverty, Maryland is pledging funds for quality education.

The specifics of the plan are that over $1 billion of new education funds will be allocated over the next six years.

For example, all day kindergarten will be phased in so every child across the state will be covered. Pre-kindergarten classes will be available for children in financially-strapped areas.

DESPITE THESE SOLID good plans, in December, after two years of work as a member of the task force, I had to vote "No" to the Thornton Commission recommendation as first presented. Del. Sheila Hixson, also of Montgomery County, and I cast the only "No" votes because as originally presented, the plan did not provide enough money for Montgomery County.

We have one in four children living in poverty. We have the largest population in the state where English is not the first language and we have a great number of special needs children. We need to use current population figures as the basis for funding to show our growing student population. Our unique school funding problems simply were not met.

UP UNTIL the last days of the 90-day session, the fate of the Thornton Commission was uncertain. Montgomery delegates and senators, joined Del. Hixson and me in saying a firm "No." County executive Doug Duncan and Sen. Chris Van Hollen worked hard in the Senate to change the formula to help Montgomery County. We were in agreement. The billion dollar plus cost of these changes would not pass if Montgomery County children did not receive their fair share.

Finally, in the dying days of the session, an agreement was reached. Montgomery County children would get what I believe is their fair share of state funding. To fund it, the legislature would increase the tax on cigarettes.

Important for Montgomery County, the state contribution for out county was increased, our special needs transportation is to go to $1,000 per child. Our children for whom English is not their first language are recognized for funding. Enrollment figures that are current will be used.

Montgomery County school children were part of the Thornton Commission funding package. The work had paid off for our county.

TWO GREAT LOCAL moments of the session 2002: when the General Assembly saluted our Churchill High School girls basketball team for wining the state championship and our Poolesville High School girls indoor track for winning the state championship. Go Girls!