Maryland Democrats Advance Tax Hikes And Expensive Education Plan Despite Coronavirus Pandemic

Patrick Hauf Contributor
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Maryland Democrats advanced tax increases and a multi-billion dollar education bill Saturday as the public is barred from the statehouse and the legislative session is ending early due to the coronavirus. 

The Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval Saturday to an education plan that would cost $4 billion annually to reform the state’s public school system. To fund the plan, Democrats gave preliminary approval to tax increases on tobacco products and digital downloading, a move Republicans said is unpopular, as the economy is expected to struggle in the coming months of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“I’m shocked that Democrats are moving forward with taxes,” Maryland Senate Minority Leader J. B. Jennings told the Daily Caller. “Now is not the time to pass tax increases.” (RELATED: Gov. Larry Hogan Feuds With Maryland Democrats Over Baltimore’s Violent Crime)

The state legislature announced Sunday that it will be ending its session Wednesday in response to the coronavirus. Normally, the session is from January to April. The legislature announced Thursday that there would be no public gatherings at the statehouse, meaning lobbyists, activists, and concerned citizens are unable to attend hearings. 

“We should be walking to the floor dealing with legislation about the coronavirus,” Maryland Senate Minority Whip Steve Hershey told the Daily Caller. “Either bring the public in or go into recess.” 

Hershey called it “damaging” for the Democratic-led legislature to push through such an expensive plan during a state of emergency. He said the Senate is currently understaffed due to concerns over the coronavirus making it difficult to go over all the proposed amendments to the education plan. (RELATED: White House Adds United Kingdom To Expanded Coronavirus Travel Restrictions)

Members of the Democratic leadership in the Maryland Senate did not respond for comment. Democrats have a veto-proof majority in the House of Delegates and Senate.

Marylanders gathered in Annapolis in early March to protest potential tax increases to fund the education plan.

The education plan, which was recommended by the Kirwan Commission, spends nearly $3 billion on raising teacher wages from the current mark of slightly under $70,000 to more than $90,000 by 2029. The proposal also increases funding for child services in poor communities and overall vocational training.

Five Maryland school districts ranked in the top 10 per-student spending in the country for fiscal year 2016. Baltimore city’s school system is currently the third highest funded per-student among the largest 100 districts in the nation despite ranking the third lowest in performance among the 21 largest systems. 

Jennings said he’s “split” on the Senate Democrats’ decision to push through the legislation prior to the potential suspension of the statehouse. He said that there are some aspects of the bill that are needed but that the timing of such a historically expensive education bill could further damage the economy. 

“They got the votes so they’re gonna do it,” he told the Caller. “I can’t stop the train. All I can do is steer it in the right direction.”

One aspect regarding the education proposal that Republican leadership expressed optimism in is the changes established in Senate committee hearings that altered the Maryland House of Delegates version of the bill that passed last week. These changes included setting financial and performance based expectations to ensure future funding of the education reforms. 

“This is different than the House bill,” Hershey told the Caller. “The most important issue was that we were fairly successful in making changes through the committee process.”

The third reading for the Kirwan plan is scheduled for Sunday and is expected to pass. 

Hershey said the majority leadership had “misplaced priorities” when deciding to focus on the Kirwan recommendations in recent weeks rather than Gov. Larry Hogan’s crime bill package that was largely rejected

Gov. Hogan released a statement Friday encouraging the legislature to focus on passing the budget, confirming his appointee for superintendent of the Maryland State Police, and passing emergency legislation to address the coronavirus. (RELATED: House Passes Coronavirus Bill That Provides Free Testing, Sick Leave Benefits)

Peter Franchot, the Maryland Democratic Comptroller and leading 2022 candidate for governor, urged the legislature Thursday to avoid raising taxes due to the crippling economic impact of the coronavirus. 

Maryland currently has 26 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The state’s public schools are canceled for the next two weeks.