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Teachers sound off on ‘doomsday’ budget at town hall

Teachers from across the state expressed anxiety about education funding and the teacher pension plan to a panel of state and local officials at a town hall event Monday evening near the State House.

Hosted by Marc Steiner of WEAA 88.9, the town hall came as legislators turn their attention to the budget a week after Senate President Mike Miller’s comments about a “doomsday” budget that could see $1 billion in cuts. This could affect maintenance of effort funding for schools and a shift of teacher pension costs to the counties.

The panel, which consisted primarily of legislators who champion education funding, was receptive to the audience’s concerns and vowed to protect education in the days ahead, but seemed well aware of what could be a trying few weeks as the two chambers negotiate Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposed budget.

Several members of the panel blasted any plan to shift teacher pension costs to the counties, stating it would have devastating effects on local budgets.

“I would argue that shifting teacher pensions to the county is tantamount to a cut in education,” said Senate Majority Leader Robert Garagiola, D-Montgomery.

Sen. Joanne Benson, D-Prince George’s, echoed Garagiola, stating that there was “no way under the sun” counties could account for the same amount of money the state provides for pensions at this time. To cheers and shouts of “amen,” Benson, who previously worked as a school principal, added that she was unsure if O’Malley and other leaders in Annapolis truly understood the message of support for education some legislators are trying to send.

Del. Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, described Miller’s warning as nothing more than a “political game,” stating that the the proposed pension shift would play no role in the General Assembly’s attempt to balance the budget this year due to offsets from various “sweetners” promised to the counties. Miller said last week there would either be “profiles in courage or profiles in hell” as revenue and cuts are considered.

Mizeur also noted a long list of non-regressive revenue options not being explored, including a surcharge on millionaires, luxury taxes on purchases such as boats, and closing corporate tax loopholes that provide exemptions to corporations with headquarters in other states.

Several teachers noted the dire state of the pension plan, which ranks 54th in the nation despite Maryland ranking first for public schools, and lamented how the state would continue to recruit new teachers as many baby boomers approach retirement.

Another issue that dominated the discussion was the state’s maintenance of effort law, which was meant to protect education funding, and the 2002 Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act. However, advocates argue that faulty language in the law as written led to abuse and opened the door to cuts at the local level. Several teachers at the town hall expressed the need to reinforce the maintenance of effort law during this session.

“If this pension shift gets put through, the budget we are going to be stuck with it all being counted as maintenance of effort and even more cuts are going to be made to our schools,” said one Baltimore County teacher.

Describing maintenance of effort as a partnership between the state and local governments, Del. Anne Kaiser, D-Montgomery, vowed to “put the teeth” back into maintenance of effort with a bill that was introduced in the House of Delegates later that night.

The town hall will air in its entirety during a special edition of “The Marc Steiner Show” later this week.

Originally published by MarylandReporter.com.

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