An impasse over education funding in the state budget was short-lived, as General Assembly negotiators struck a deal on Friday.
The discord was briefly dramatic on Thursday, as House of Delegates budget negotiators showed up to an afternoon meeting without Senate negotiators, who said they’d never been notified of the meeting.
“It’s water under the bridge,” Del. Ben Barnes, the chief House negotiator, said Friday morning.
Barnes, a Prince George’s County Democrat, and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Guy Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat, stood together in the State House and told reporters that they’d talked overnight and reached an agreement. Essentially, they met in the middle on the two disputed areas of education funding within the $63 billion overall state budget.
The most important sticking point was whether to go along with Gov. Wes Moore’s plans to begin to phase out a private school tuition program known as BOOST, for “Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today.”
Supporters often call it a “scholarship” program, while opponents refer to it as a “voucher” program. The debate over BOOST often boils down to a philosophical position of whether it’s appropriate to use public tax dollars for private schools.
The BOOST program had been funded at $10 million last year, and Moore brought that down to $8 million in his budget proposal — enough to keep current students and their siblings enrolled in private schools, but not enough to allow new families to join.
The Senate moved the funding back up to $10 million.
In the end, Barnes and Guzzone said they agreed to fund the program at $9 million.
The two sides also agreed to a maneuver proposed by the Senate to take $2.5 million from the state’s Cigarette Restitution Fund Program to pay for nurses, security and other resources for private schools participating in the BOOST program.
The Senate’s support for BOOST was on display earlier in the morning at Senate President Bill Ferguson’s weekly press conference, where he spoke at a lectern in front of a group of students and parents who have participated in the program.
Ferguson highlighted the record funding levels for public education, including for the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a multiyear plan he called “one of the most aggressive reforms and improvements of public education of any state in the entire country.”
The state has enough money to help low-income families have the option to attend private schools, too, Ferguson said.
“We also have the opportunity to invest in institutions and most importantly, into parents and to children, so they have the opportunity and the advantage to be able to maximize their potential in a different environment, should that be their choice,” Ferguson said.
He added: “We’re really blessed in the state of Maryland, to have the resources to do both. It’s not an ‘either-or.’ It’s a ‘both-and.’”
Republican leaders hailed the deal over BOOST as “a great day for students and families.”
“Today’s compromise as an example of how we can work across the aisle and use all of the tools available to us to negotiate and do what’s best for Maryland’s students and families,” the Republican statement read.
The other key difference in the budget was about how much money to sock away to pay for future costs of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, an ambitious and expensive plan to improve the state’s public schools. While there is expected to be enough money for the Blueprint for the next couple years, the state may eventually run short of cash to pay for all the Blueprint programs.
Moore set aside $500 million in his budget proposal for the Blueprint education plan, and another $500 million for future transportation costs.
The House proposed moving money around to get the extra funding for the Blueprint — up to $900 million or possibly $1 billion — while the Senate bumped it up to $800 million. Both sides relied on shifting much of the transportation money over to education.
Barnes and Guzzone said they agreed to $900 million in extra money for the Blueprint. As for transportation, the agreement is to leave $100 million in place, plus allow the governor to tap the Rainy Day Fund for another $100 million, if necessary.
The transportation money could be used if the state needs to cough up a match to federal funding for projects. Among the potential projects: reviving the proposed east-west Red Line transit project in Baltimore or a transit project in Southern Maryland.
“Guy and I, we came in the House together, right?” Barnes said of the detente. “We’ve known each other for 20 years. We’ve been working the entire time.”
As word of the deal spread around the State House complex Friday morning, the governor said he hadn’t gotten directly involved in BOOST funding.
“I’ve been very clear as to where I am and where my position is,” said Moore, a Democrat. “And so I’m thankful that they’re working closely together to come up with what they find to be a compromise on the issue.”
Budget negotiators met Friday afternoon to make the deal final. At the end of the brief meeting, Barnes and Guzzone each declared that the budget is a good one for Maryland and they shook hands.
The budget has no across-the-board tax increases and leaves a combined $3.6 billion between the Rainy Day Fund and an overall surplus.
Time is of the essence, as lawmakers face a requirement to pass the budget by the 83rd day of the General Assembly session, which is Monday.
Lawmakers adjourn for the year on April 10.