Maryland legislature facing crunch time next year

State House on sunny, warm February day 2-5-2019

By Len Lazarick

The easy part of this legislature’s four-year term is over.

By most standards, these 90 days were fairly smooth, especially when it comes to money matters, which are often the most contentious.

True, the legislators did pass a $15 minimum wage, overriding the governor’s veto — essentially an escalating tax on the employers of close to 600,000 people. With the employer payroll taxes that are invisible to employees, the cost by 2026 will actually be over $16 per hour.

Just before the next regular session begins, the minimum wage will go up to $11 per hour, or at least $11.75 in the cost to most employers.

Structural deficit, recession

In January, legislative analysts were already predicting a structural deficit of $1 billion for FY 2020. There was already a slight write-down in projected revenues last month.

Also in January, Moody’s Analytics told the Senate Budget Committee that they fully expect a recession in June of 2020. The U.S. has already had 10 years of slow but steady growth, an unusually long period without a downturn. President Donald Trump will do his best to keep that from happening — or blame someone else when it does. But presidents have little sway over economic cycles.

On top of that, “Maryland’s economy has lagged the nation in this period of growth,” Vicki Gruber, head of the Department of Legislative Services, told newly elected lawmakers in January.

Cost of Kirwan

Even more daunting is the full cost of the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, expected to be funded by both state and local governments.

This year, the legislature passed what one senator called “a down payment” of $800 million on its reform package. It remains to be seen whether Gov. Larry Hogan has been mollified by the addition of an inspector general for education spending in the school funding jump he has questioned from the start.

Again, this year’s Kirwan funding was the easy part. It pays for modest moves toward universal pre-kindergarten, more health and social services in schools and a modest bump in pay for beginning teachers.

By the fall, the Kirwan folks are supposed to come up with the funding formulas to implement their changes. This will put a price tag on how much the counties will have to kick in on top of what they already pay for local schools, more than half their budgets in many places.

Expect some sticker shock from county officials and fierce competition among their state representatives over who pays what.

What teachers are paid, how they work

Then there comes the most complicated and controversial part of the Kirwan Commission plan — totally revamping the way teachers are recruited, trained, how they work and what they are paid.

There is already a teacher shortage in Maryland. Some of the blame is laid at their low pay, lack of autonomy and poor working conditions compared to equally educated professionals.

To turn the profession into a career ladder with all teachers certified and then paid $80,000 to $100,000 or more for “master teachers” will require the cooperation of every stakeholder.

This includes university schools of education, dozens of local school boards, superintendents and unions with multiple contracts spelling out different working conditions, benefits and demands.

Commission chairman Brit Kirwan says the commission cannot achieve its goals of a world-class education system without a “grand bargain” among the stakeholders in which each gives a lot to make it happen. That’s hard to do when they’re haggling about the price tag.

Then, of course, there will be dozens or scores of bills, as there were this year, mandating new categories of funding or spending.

Replacing Busch

And on top of all these issues, the House of Delegates must replace Speaker Mike Busch, a leader for 17 years who pushed for higher funding for schools, health care, and the environment.

Busch was well-liked and respected across partisan divides. His successor may not be able to do as well.