To force counties to pay their share of the cost of operating K-12 schools, top legislators in Annapolis want the state to seize local tax dollars and deliver them directly to school systems.
The plan is outlined in legislation introduced Tuesday by delegates backed by House SpeakerMichael E. Busch. Some senators are developing a similar plan with the blessing of Senate PresidentThomas V. Mike Miller.
If the approach is adopted, it could set up a clash between county governments and the state over their respective powers.
The plan — which would also allow county officials to ignore voter-adopted tax caps if the money were needed for schools — won praise from the head of the state school board but condemnation from some county officials, including Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold.
"The bill is a menu of distasteful dietary choices causing acute indigestion," said Leopold, a Republican.
"It's the state mandating county expenditures," said Leopold. "The counties should be given the autonomy to make their own funding decisions without the heavy-handed, mandated spending formulas from the state."
Anne Arundel County is among seven municipalities that the state says have failed to keep up with required contributions to schools under rules known as "maintenance of effort."
State officials argue that some counties used an increase in state education aide under the Thornton legislation adopted a decade ago to spend fewer local dollars in the classrooms. The maintenance-of-effort provision prohibits counties from spending less on education from one year to another.
"This is going to help turn the corner and see that the counties fulfill their obligation to education," said Del. Anne Kaiser, a Montgomery County Democrat who helped draft the legislation.
The clash over maintenance of effort rules would be the second important confrontation this year between state and local governments over education-related responsibilities. The two levels of government are also at odds over who should bear the responsibility for teacher pension payments. The O'Malley administration wants to shift part of the costs to the local level, and county officials are fighting back.
The proposed maintenance-of-effort bills in the House and Senate, which are close in concept but not identical, would penalize county governments that fail to maintain funding levels without securing a waiver from Maryland State Board of Education.
Counties that fail to pay their share of education costs could see the state take part of their piggyback tax revenues, a surcharge on the state income tax that goes to the counties, and deliver the money directly to a local school board.
Currently, the penalties available to the state involve reducing a county's education aid — in effect punishing a school system for being underfunded by underfunding it again the next year.
"In some ways the existing maintenance of effort is a little bit of a toothless tiger," said Del. John Bohanan, aSt. Mary's CountyDemocrat who is the lead House sponsor.
James H. DeGraffenreidt, Jr., president of the state school board, said the provision allowing diversion of piggyback taxes to education a great idea. Taking money from school systems because their counties aren't contributing enough is counterproductive, he said.
"I think it is one of the fundamental flaws [in the current law]," he said. "The penalty falls on the victim."
DeGraffenreidt said that while he hasn't seen the bills, they seem to represent a fair approach. He said they would protect school systems and explicitly recognize that there are several counties that exceeded the required funding level before slipping in recent years. He said the proposal would "establish a framework for rational decision-making."
The House legislation introduced Tuesday would also give counties the ability to go beyond the current piggyback tax limit of 3.2 percent, but only for the purpose of funding education. It would also override the property tax caps that have been adopted at referendum in some counties to allow the local governments to raise revenues for education.
Senate President Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, said he agrees with the approach in general and the property tax provision in particular. "You can have a property tax cap, but you can't use it as an excuse not to fund education," he said.