Maryland Governor's Race 2010: Ehrlich, O'Malley split on school funding for Montgomery and Prince George's Counties

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said Thursday that he would fully fund a state education program that delivers millions in extra cash to Montgomery and Prince George’s county schools one day after his main rival for governor dismissed the program as a “political ploy.”

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Ehrlich, O'Malley split on extra school funding for MoCo, P.G. counties

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That's at least a digestible term for what's officially known as "the geographic cost-of-education index." The program awards extra money to jurisdictions — like those just outside of D.C. — where it costs more to hire teachers and educate children.

To deliver on the program's promise, O'Malley will need to find a new source of cash for its $126 million in disbursements. For the past two years, O’Malley has funded the index using federal stimulus dollars. While the stimulus ends next year, the governor says the economic recovery will generate enough additional tax revenues to make up the difference. Maryland is expected to face a budget deficit of more than $1 billion next year.

“It would be really devastating to Montgomery County and to Prince George’s County if those important education dollars became a casualty of a step back to the leadership of Bob Ehrlich,” O’Malley said after receiving an endorsement from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in Bethesda. “I’m putting together a budget right now that has no new revenues except for those that come from an expanding economy. We’re moving forward, not back.”

Last year, the index delivered $38.6 million to Prince George’s and $31.4 million to Montgomery.

The funding is the only non-mandatory part of the massive Thornton education bill the General Assembly passed in 2002, which increased funding for K-12 education by more than $1 billion a year. As governor, Bob Ehrlich never funded the index, and O’Malley failed to do so during his first year. The next year, he funded it at a 60 percent level before the stimulus funds allowed him to max it out the past two years.

"It was all about getting votes in the 2002 session," Ehrlich told the Associated Press Wednesday. "They just made it up to get votes from Montgomery County to pass Thornton in the first place."

On Wednesday, Ehrlich admitted he didn’t intend to fund the index when questioned about what state programs he would cut to fund a rollback of the sales tax to five percent. His dis of the index surfaced in an AP story that hit the wires around 2 p.m. Wednesday. 

Three hours later, the state Democratic party and the O'Malley campaign had completed their counterattack, blasting the Republican for bailing on education. Left exposed was the damned-if-he-does, damned-if-he-doesn’t nature of Ehrlich’s pledge to cut taxes. Without specifics, he’s accused of being evasive. With them, he’s attacked for wanting to cut popular state programs.

And Ehrlich will have to cut more than just the index to make up for the sales tax rollback, which is expected to cost the state $648 million. Eliminating the index covers less than a fifth of that.

Ehrlich's slip comes at a convenient time for O'Malley, who just unveiled a series of ads hyping his own education record while attacking the Republican's.

A Washington Post poll from earlier this week said education was the 2nd-most important issue for voters, behind only the economy. In 2006, education was the top issue as O'Malley beat Ehrlich in their first gubernatorial race.

And a promise to not fund the index can only hurt Ehrlich in Montgomery County, which is rich in the swing voters he needs to convince if he wants to win in Democratic-learning Maryland. The Post poll showed Ehrlich attracting a mere 27 percent of the vote in Montgomery, well behind what he earned during his previous two gubernatorial runs.

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