In state budget preview, Purple Line, Montgomery school funding still uncertain

Gov. Larry Hogan has proposed funding for the Purple Line, but Montgomery County’s top priority of more school money appears to be a mixed bag in his proposed fiscal 2016 budget.

A supplemental education funding program that benefits Montgomery County will continue, but at half of its typical level, which could force cuts in Montgomery County Public Schools.

Funding for the proposed $2.45 billion Purple Line light rail project from Bethesda to New Carrollton — specifically, how much state money it would get — remained a mystery on Thursday.

Hogan (R) spoke in broad terms Thursday about his spending plan at a briefing with reporters, but does not plan to release it until Friday, the introduction deadline, leaving many details unknown.

Hogan, who was sworn into office Wednesday, said his proposed $16.4 billion operating budget is “structurally balanced,” eliminating an approximately $700 million structural deficit and closing a $1.2 billion budget gap.

Hogan said his administration balanced the budget with several key cuts, including a 2 percent across-the-board reduction in funding for state agencies, a $156 million reduction in employee compensation and a 50 percent cut to the Geographical Cost of Education Index.

The index is a formula that provides about $132 million each year in additional money to counties where the cost of living and education are higher. The governor is not required to budget the index money each year, despite attempts in 2013 and 2014 led by Montgomery Del. Eric Luedtke (D-Dist. 14) of Burtonsville to make it mandatory.

Much as Montgomery County lawmakers feared, Budget Secretary David R. Brinkley said the proposed spending plan cuts the geographical index money, but only by 50 percent.

With Hogan’s administration not divulging more details, it was unclear Thursday exactly how that will affect Montgomery County.

If Montgomery County loses half of its index allocation, that would be more than $17 million.

Larry Bowers, chief operating officer for Montgomery County Public Schools, said $17 million is the equivalent of about 250 teachers or about 400 support positions, which include teacher aides and building services staff.

“It’s a lot of people. It’s a lot of dollars,” he said.

Montgomery County received about $34.4 million through the geographical index in the current budget.

The county’s Senate delegation chairwoman, Sen. Nancy J. King, said county lawmakers were expecting to lose all $34 million, so the 50 percent cut is better than expected.

“The [index] funding, I get it. It’s an easy cut. Funding is not mandated,” said King (D-Dist. 39) of Montgomery Village. “But it really disproportionately hurts Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore city and Baltimore County. It’s concerning.”

Given the county’s current financial situation, losing the geographical index money is “problematic,” said county school board President Patricia O’Neill.

“This is better than nothing, but it will have an impact on our schools and our children,” O’Neill (Dist. 3) of Bethesda said, adding that school officials were disappointed by the news.

Fiscal leaders in the legislature received just as little information at their briefing with Hogan as did the media, said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Dist. 43) of Baltimore.

At first blush, McIntosh said, Hogan appears to have balanced the budget on the backs of teachers, students, state employees and the state’s most vulnerable through cuts to education, employee compensation and Medicaid provider rates.

Information from the administration showed a $143 million cut to education aid.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis said it appears the proposed budget would cut education funding from every county in the state.

Still, Hogan said his budget provides “record” $6.1 billion funding for education, an increase of $45.3 million from the current fiscal year.

Busch said the mandatory funding for education means every year’s allocation is a new record.

Without details on how the budget was balanced, comments about record education funding appeared to some as the administration being misleading.

“On one hand, the governor is telling us that education is going to be fully funded. Then, in the next breath, he is talking about cutting” the geographical index, King said. “If that is the case, that is not really fully funding education.”

Where Montgomery County hoped to see more dollars was in school construction, its top legislative priority both this and last session.

In his capital plan, Hogan has proposed $280 million for school construction, a $5 million increase from the current year. He has proposed $30 million in current money, as opposed to borrowed funds, for school construction.

Whether Montgomery County actually will see an increase in school construction money from the state for fiscal 2016 was unclear.

Also unknown is exactly how much money Hogan has figured for the 16-mile Purple Line and whether the project still has a future.

Brinkley said money is in the budget for the light-rail line, but quickly added that both the Purple Line and the $2.9 billion Red Line proposed in Baltimore are under “review and re-evaluation.”

When asked if the review is concerning, King said, “Well, yeah. Obviously, he hasn’t made up his mind if he is going to fund it or not.”

While he campaigned for governor, Hogan made clear his concerns with the project’s price tag and emphasized his preference for road projects.

Still, transit advocates were quick to praise the announcement of the money.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, applauded Hogan’s decision to keep the Purple and Red lines in his first budget.

“The Purple Line is a good deal for Maryland, good for jobs, good for the economy and good for commuters,” he said in a news release. “Walking away would waste taxpayer money, discourage future public-private partnerships, and forego [sic] a significant economic development opportunity.”

Lawmakers have until early April to either approve or reject Hogan’s budget. The General Assembly cannot add to the governor’s budget.

“It’s a matter where the cuts will be,” King said. “Hopefully, we can rearrange some of it anyway.”

While Hogan said he balanced the budget without eliminating state agencies or imposing layoffs, he told reporters he was talking only about spending on Thursday and to expect proposed tax cuts later this session.

Hogan has been openly critical of the tax increases he says former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) imposed on state residents and businesses and promised during the election that he would work to “roll back” those increases.

Staff Writer Lindsay Powers contributed to this report.

Read the original article here.