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February 13, 2004

Removing the Thornton Trigger

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Well, so much for fiscal responsibility! We all know what Thornton means, but if you just happened to step off the ship from Jupiter, let me remind you.

Thornton refers to the Bridge to Excellence in Public Education Act. This landmark piece of legislation implemented a historic increase in funding ($1.2 billion) for public schools in Maryland. Unfortunately, when it passed the General Assembly in 2002, it was passed without an identified source of funds beyond the first year (the cigarette sales tax increase).

On Tuesday Del. Sheila Hixson (D., Montgomery County) stood on the floor to request consideration of an emergency bill to remove the “trigger provision” on the Bridge to Excellence in Public Education Act (I'll refer to it as Thornton from now on).

In her floor speech, Chairman Hixson urged the body to vote in favor of the bill, based on the fact that Attorney General Joseph Curran has offered a non-binding opinion that holds that the trigger provision may be unconstitutional. According to Attorney General Curran, the trigger provision may constitute a legislative veto, something not allowed by Maryland law.

So what is the trigger? It is a provision that states that if - by the 54th day of the legislative session - the General Assembly cannot confirm that funds are available to fund that year's obligation under Thornton, then a provision referred to as Thornton Lite kicks in. Thornton Lite funds an increase of 5% over the previous year's budget. This would be substantially less than what the bill provides.

You might think this trigger provision was a well thought-out addendum to the bill, the result of a larger strategic view. Nope! It was an amendment, forced into the bill to get the more fiscally responsible members to vote for it. In fact, the late Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings (D., Baltimore City), the legendary chair of the Appropriations Committee, said: "By adding this amendment, this bill meets our demands for being fiscally responsible."

His replacement on Appropriations, Del. Norman Conway (D., Salisbury), voted AGAINST the Thornton bill because no funding source was identified.

So what has changed since the bill was passed with no funding source identified? Nothing, that's what!

There is still no dedicated revenue source, although Gov. Robert Ehrlich has offered a slots proposal as a way to generate about $700 million in new revenue per year. The Speaker of The House of Delegates Michael Busch (D., Anne Arundel) has been arguing for a 20 percent increase in the current sales tax of five percent.

Governor Ehrlich has made very clear his intent to veto a sales or income tax increase. The Speaker and Chairman Hixson have made it clear that they won't bring a slots bill to the floor unless a broad-based tax is included. This all begs the question: why remove the trigger?

If the trigger is removed (and it will be if the majority wants it done), and no funding source is identified, guess where the money comes from to pay for Thornton next year? It comes from local government, that's who. As it stands now, most of the mandated increases are covered in the governor's FY ‘05 budget. He specifically left out the disputed $45 million that was added specifically to get enough Montgomery County legislators to vote in favor of the bill in 2002.

Governor Ehrlich doesn't feel obliged to pay back this blatant greenmail, and the teacher's union and education advocates call that reneging on the Thornton promise. That promise is like the promises made by the Corleone family, and the attorney general has agreed with the governor.

If the General Assembly were serious about solving disparate education problems, or raising standards for all school kids, we wouldn't be entertaining this irresponsible idea. The trigger was inserted into the Thornton bill to insure that the hollow election year rhetoric was backed up by a real financial commitment.

The concept of fiscal prudence and quality education are not mutually exclusive. Governor Ehrlich has offered a way to pay to improve public education without a regressive sales tax increase or an income tax that slows the now-emerging economy. The same voices who argued eloquently for installation of the trigger are now urging its removal.

What changed, other than the election of the first Republican governor in 36 years? Some have suggested that the vote on the Thornton bill was done with the full belief that Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend would be elected governor. Once installed, Governor Kennedy-Townsend and the House and Senate leadership could easily push through a sales tax increase, thereby paying for Thornton without regard to the trigger.

Clearly, that strategy was worked out in advance with everyone but the voters of Maryland!

I can hear the advocate's argument: They (anyone who votes against removing the trigger) are against improving education! The truth is that the trigger was installed to avoid a massive additional mandate to local government. Removal of the trigger is irresponsible, and those who suggest otherwise are playing with fire!

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