Friday, January 12, 2007

MoCo Loses Again in New Budget?

(Cross-posted on Maryland Politics Watch)

Governor-Elect O'Malley has won plaudits for presenting a balanced budget without using the same accounting gimmicks as outgoing Governor Ehrlich:

The source said the budget is balanced, which is required by law. O’Malley closed an estimated $413 million shortfall, without tax increases or major staff cuts. Program Open Space and the Transportation Trust Fund — two pots of money governors have used to balance the books — were not touched.

In fact, O’Malley was expected to tout his funding of Program Open Space in a town hall meeting Thursday night in Southern Maryland.

However, O'Malley's key to balancing the budget without gimmicks appears to be stepping back from his support for the geographic cost of education index (GCEI):

O’Malley tipped off reporters Wednesday about one way he trimmed the budget. The geographic cost of education index, or GCEI, will not be fully funded in his first budget. The GCEI is part of the 2002 package of education aid reforms called the Thornton plan.

Although state budgets have embraced Thornton aid, GCEI has remained unfunded. About $100 million would be distributed to 10 jurisdictions in the state; Baltimore city and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties would benefit the most.

‘‘We will be looking to ramp up the [formula] in the years ahead,” O’Malley said in an impromptu press conference outside the State House.

During the gubernatorial campaign, O’Malley pledged support for the GCEI.

O’Malley told reporters that his administration would ‘‘make progress” in funding GCEI, as well as more money for school construction and holding down college tuition.

Although GCEI remains unfunded, the state is scheduled to spend an extra $580 million in other education aid, O’Malley said.

‘‘You can’t say you’ve fully funded Thornton until GCEI is funded,” said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan (D-Dist. 39) of Montgomery Village, vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

But even without GCEI, the budget would increase education aid by $580 million with Thornton, O’Malley said.

Montgomery is a major beneficiary of the GCEI. No doubt O'Malley will argue that he has gone further toward funding the GCEI than Ehrlich. However, GCEI remains the key part of the Thornton plan which is unfunded and it is very important to funding education in Montgomery. Montgomery may be a wealthy county but the kids in the schools tend to come from less economically privileged backgrounds than the average county resident and often need more services. Of course, school construction also remains a major issue.

Unsurprisingly, O'Malley didn't let this cat out of the bag at the town meeting held the other night at Einstein High School. Supporters of higher funding for Montgomery schools are now going to have to press their case not just at the County but at the State level. However, getting full funding for the GCEI was never going to be easy so I imagine proponents of it are preparing to lobby hard.

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