March 3, 2010

Private school aid might get vote in House

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By Erich Wagner
Erich@MarylandReporter.com

A key House committee might finally vote on giving tax relief to businesses that donate to programs for private schools, its chairwoman says, after shelving the proposal for the past two years.

The Building Opportunities for All Students and Teachers in Maryland tax credit (BOAST), would allow businesses to recoup 75 percent of their donations to need-based scholarships for private school students or other nonpublic educational programs. Supporters are scheduled to rally for the legislation prior to a hearing Wednesday at the State House.

The House Ways and Means Committee has been a stumbling block for the bill in recent years despite bipartisan support in both chambers.

Committee Chair Sheila Hixson said she was “sure” that the panel would bring the bill to a vote. But she said the committee would wait and see how the Senate acts on the legislation before moving on it.

UPDATE: Gov. Martin O’Malley threw his support behind the bill Wednesday morning. He distributed a letter addressed to the Senate Budget and Tax Committee, and called the measure “crucial” in stabilizing enrollment in nonpublic schools. He has not taken a position on it before.

“It will save public schools systems from added costs that are far in excess of the public revenues needed to fund the tax credit,” O’Malley wrote.

The bill is a priority for the Maryland Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s three dioceses and their schools. Mary Ellen Russell, the group’s executive director, said the proposal is critically important to private schools’ enrollment and financial viability in the difficult economic climate.

“The bill has had bipartisan support, but has only failed because of an obstacle in one committee in the House,” Russell said. “We sure wish we could have done it a few years ago.”

The Archdiocese of Baltimore plans to announce school closings Thursday, which could give lawmakers a greater sense of urgency to pass the tax credit this year. Sponsors took out the funding mechanism in this year’s bill, in the hopes of making the legislation more politically palatable.

Previous bills had looked to set aside $5 million for the program.

Hixson does not vote on bills that come through her committee, but expressed concern about the bill’s intent.

“I have some questions when we’re taking money from public schools and taking it to the private school sector,” Hixson said. “But we’ll see what we can do.”

Senate leaders are confident the bill will make it to the floor in their chamber.

Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Ulysses Currie said he was confident the bill had a “pretty good chance” of passing through his committee, as it had in 2008. Committee Vice-Chair Edward Kasemeyer, also the majority leader, pointed out that the problems passing the bill have been in the House side.

“[The bill] has always had fairly overwhelming support,” Kasemeyer said. “The problem is that it never came up in the House.”

Currie was uncertain about how BOAST will do on the Senate floor, but Kasemeyer said that it “stands a good chance.”

House Minority Whip Chris Shank, R-Washington, said he thinks the landscape may have changed on the bill this year.

“There’s a lot of support in the private school community,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of support in the Senate.”

Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery, proposed a number of amendments limiting the bill’s scope when the Senate passed it in 2008. His concern lies with how the legislation will affect funding of public education.

“I think it attempts to address an important need for some people in our community,” Madaleno said. “My question is finding a way to do it that is financially responsible and that maintains our primary commitment to public education.”

Asked whether he would try to amend the bill again this year, he replied, “I don’t know. We’ll see.”