By Megan Poinski
It took some Annapolis deal making in order to get the new 3% alcohol tax passed at the tail end of this year’s legislative session, and charges are being levied that politics are being played with where those proceeds are being spent.
Policymakers estimated that the tax would bring in $88 million in its first year. Initially intended to provide funding for people with disabilities, legislation that passed with the new tax directs most of that money – a total of $47.5 million – to school construction projects this fiscal year. The Developmental Disabilities Administration will get $15 million from the tax.
The alcohol tax itself was controversial, and the bill that directed most of the money to school construction made it more of a hot-button issue. Many members of the General Assembly protested, saying if a new tax should be passed, the funds should go to the part of the population that fought for it in the first place.
Now that funds are being allocated to schools, critics are saying that the money is only going to school buildings in districts where General Assembly members voted for the tax, especially in Howard and Baltimore counties. At last week’s Board of Public Works meeting, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said that the funds went to the districts of tax-supporters.
According to a map created by MarylandReporter.com, schools receiving the funds are mostly in districts that received wide support for the tax.
“No one should vote for a tax and get something in return to reward them for voting that way,” said Sen. Allan Kittleman, R- Carroll and Howard.
How the money gets spent
The money is divvied between counties and regions in the bill.
The largest shares are going to Baltimore City and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, with each of those districts getting $9 million.
Baltimore County gets $7 million, Anne Arundel County gets $5 million, and Howard County gets $4 million.
The rest of the counties are split into regions, and receive considerably less.
Construction projects must be recommended by districts and approved by the Board of Public Works, which consists of Gov. Martin O’Malley, Treasurer Nancy Kopp, and Comptroller Peter Franchot. The legislation specifies that the funds should be used on projects that benefit older school buildings – especially those that have a high percentage of students receiving free and reduced meals. They also should be geared toward getting rid of temporary classrooms, making buildings more energy efficient, and completed in a year.
Where the money went in Howard County
Several school districts have brought their spending recommendations to the Board of Public Works. So far this month, projects have been approved for Montgomery, Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties.
The five projects that were approved in Howard County – at Wilde Lake Middle, Wilde Lake High, Atholon High, Hammond High and Oakland Mills High -- are all in the Columbia area. All of these schools are in state legislative districts 12B and 13, where all legislators voted for the alcohol tax.
Kittleman, who represents District 9, voted against the alcohol tax. While the alcohol tax was being debated, he offered an amendment to direct all of the proceeds to the Developmental Disabilities Administration. Because his amendment was not adopted, he voted no on the bill.
Having a sort of “quid pro quo” – where yes votes trickle down to money for one’s district – is not fair, Kittleman said.
Howard County Public Schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan said that Ray Brown, the district chief operating officer, made the decision that the schools that get the money are in Columbia – and had told the district’s director of facilities to look there.
But, Caplan said, politics were not involved. She said that Columbia schools have the highest percentage of students receiving free and reduced price meals, and the buildings are among the oldest.
“It was totally his decision, looking at the criteria,” she said.
The projects at Atholon and Hammond high schools, which would install artificial turf at their stadiums, have been in the works for years, she added.
Where the money went in Baltimore County
When Kamenetz and Baltimore County Superintendent of Schools Joseph Hairston presented their list of projects to the Board of Public Works last week, Franchot was struck that all of the schools getting work were on the west side of the county.
“There’s some precision associated with that,” Kamenetz responded. “When the General Assembly agreed to create an opportunity for one-time funding using revenues from the alcohol tax, the delegation agreed those districts that supported the funding would be the beneficiaries.”
Kamenetz said that the seven schools that got the funding were selected based on the “hard vote” taken by their representatives, but all of the projects had previously been classified as high priorities.
Two of the schools receiving funds – Randallstown Elementary and Woodlawn High – are in District 10, which got votes from three of its representatives. (The fourth, Del. Emmett Burns, was excused from voting.) The other five schools – Pikesville Middle, Cedarmere Elementary, Franklin High, Chatsworth Elementary and Glyndon Elementary – are in District 11, where all representatives voted for the tax.
Sen. Jim Brochin, D- Baltimore County, represents District 42. His district has plenty of educational facility needs – he said that elementary schools are currently at 140% of their capacity – but they got no funds.
In the General Assembly, Brochin opposed the alcohol tax because he thought the money should go toward the disabled. School construction already has solid funding sources, he said.
“This is a very sophisticated shell game,” Brochin said.
At the beginning of every year, school districts come to Annapolis and plead their construction needs before the Board of Public Works. The state has $250 million for school construction that is given out that way. Kamenetz said that Baltimore County will keep in mind the funds that came to the west side of the county through the alcohol tax when putting together its proposal next year.