April 10, 2010

House committee kills tax credit for private schools

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By Erich Wagner
Erich@MarylandReporter.com

A House subcommittee killed a Senate-passed bill to aid private schools, as members cited uncertainty about whether late changes proposed for the bill would be constitutional.

The House Ways & Means Education Subcommittee rejected amendments late Monday evening that would have changed the bill from a tax credit to a $10 million grant program for private schools. The money in the House plan would have been restricted to institutions with declining enrollment that have been in the same location for 25 years.

An opinion from Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Rowe said direct funding of private religious schools would have to be restricted to be neutral in nature, but hedged her review after being asked in the closing hours of the session.

“The time frame in which this advice necessarily had to be given did not allow a full review of the available case law,” Rowe wrote

Del. John Olszewski, D-Baltimore County, made an unsuccessful attempt to adopt the proposed changes, but the subcommittee voted unanimously against the bill.

Education Subcommittee Chair Anne Kaiser, D-Montgomery, said the original bill did not solve the problems facing private schools. The Senate passed a bill that would have provided a broader tax credit for contributions to private schools, rather than a grant program.

“And there are still so many outstanding questions on the amendments that I cannot move forward with them,” Kaiser said.

She said the subcommittee couldn’t iron out the issues because an “attractive” alternative proposal did not emerge until late in the session, despite lengthy discussions of the issue.

“We wanted to do something to address the problem, but we just needed more time,” Kaiser said.

Religious advocates who pushed for the tax credit program said the House proposal would have gutted the bill. They also pointed out that none of the state’s Jewish schools would have qualified.

Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, and wondered whether members were ever serious about the proposal.

“I think the communities felt disappointed by the way the bill was handled from the start, and the games that the committee played with it right up to the last minute,” she said.

And Sen. James “Ed” DeGrange, D-Anne Arundel, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, lamented that the bill failed for the sixth consecutive year.

“I’m disappointed that certain [House] members didn’t see the value,” DeGrange said. “If it was given an opportunity to be voted on on the House floor, I think it would have passed.”