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Lawmakers Eye, Counties Attack Suggestion to Share Teacher Pension Costs

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By Rick Docksai
Capital News Service
Friday, Nov. 2, 2007

ANNAPOLIS - Not all the measures being considered by lawmakers would raise taxes to close the state's looming budget deficit. Some would cut spending.

But they're not much more popular than the tax bills, if hearings this week are any indication.

One bill, to save the state $334 million a year by requiring counties to pay half the costs of teacher pensions, got a scathing review from groups representing teachers and county executives.

"I can't begin to tell you how devastating this would be to school employees," said Clara Floyd, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, at the Thursday hearing before the House Appropriations Committee.

Critics said that passing the bill on to local governments might "solve it (the deficit) at the state level," but it would force county governments to raise property taxes or cut funding for other programs in return.

"When county governments decide to pony up and come up to the plate, what happens to other services? The money is going to have to come from somewhere else," said Michele Lewis, legislative director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

But lawmakers said sharing costs with the counties at least has to be considered, as the state looks at ways to rein in increases in education funding.

"We've got to equalize things here," said Delegate John Bohanan, D-St. Mary's. "What's a way to share some of the costs?"

Education funding has increased by $1.3 billion since 2002 under the so-called Thornton plan, which aimed to equalize education spending between rich and poor counties in the state. But while the plan mandated increases in education funding, lawmakers did not include any new funding sources when they passed it.

According to the Department of Legislative Services, Maryland counties have increased school system funding by an average 5 percent a year for every fiscal year since 2002. Much of that, according to lawmakers and education officials, has gone for higher teacher salaries.

The state this year allocated $5.2 billion to K-12 education, an increase of $680 million -- or 15 percent -- from the year before. Bohanan noted that the state "did three times better than" than county governments did when it came to increasing school spending last year.

"We've made an enormous sacrifice with Thornton," Bohanan said at Thursday's hearing. "I think we're all going to have to figure out how to step up and solve this. It can't all be done by the state."

Not every delegate would go on record in support of the bill, but many also said something needs to be done.

"We're going to have to look to some help from local governments to keep that pension system viable," said Delegate Mary-Dulany James, D-Harford, at the hearing.

Delegate Melony Griffith, D-Prince George's, said the state cannot continue to fund school systems at the level it is funding them now.

"We've made a concerted effort to recruit teachers, and to do that we've had to sweeten the pot," she said. "But we need to dialogue with the counties on what we can continue to afford."

Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman Conway, D-Wicomico, said the pension bill is "an idea that deserves discussion." But he added that, "There are a lot of discussions about Thornton."

Bohanan was skeptical that the bill would pass, but he said that it raised a crucial debate.

"Part of it was intended to put out the whole notion of 'here is an obligation that we are carrying...at what point do you say were going to need to share some of the costs?" he said.

But he said that current levels of funding are unsustainable.

"We can't continue to do that. We're starving many of our state agencies," he said.

Copyright 2007 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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