State Journal: Suit-fighting Funding Faulted; Monumental Strategy

September 25, 1991 2 min read

A finance-equity lawsuit filed by five New Hampshire school districts is causing ripples of political infighting among state lawmakers.

The suit contends that the state, which finances schools almost entirely through local property taxes, allows unconstitutional disparities in spending between rich and poor districts.

The finance challenge is strongly opposed, however, by Gov. Judd Gregg, who has called it “a diatribe more than a legitimate suit.”

Attorney General John Arnold asked the legislature this summer for $50,000 to begin research for a court battle against the suit. But the Legislative Fiscal Committee in July voted 6 to 2 against the request.

Funding opponents faulted the administration for not asking for the money during regular consideration of the budget.

In addition, heavy-handed tactics by Mr. Gregg may have contributed to the initial defeat. Representative Douglas E. Hall, a member of the panel, said he voted against the request after heating reports that the Governor had been pressuring school districts not to join in supporting the suit.

The attorney general subsequently cut his request to $25,000, however, and the committee approved that funding level this month.

Assistant Attorney General Leslie Ludtke said the state will argue that its funding formula is equitable, especially given changes that were made by the legislature in 1985.

Some Maryland lawmakers think that Gov. William Donald Schaefer may be resorting to a state version of “the old Washington Monument trick” in a bid for a tax increase.

The strategy calls for an agency facing a budget cut to threaten to shut down its most popular programs; in the apocryphal version, the Interior Department announces the closing of the U.S. capital’s tourist-magnet obelisk. The resulting public furor ensures that the agency receives its full funding.

There may have been something of that approach in a letter Mr. Schaefer wrote late last month, in which he told a state education official that, “given the austere fiscal picture for FY ‘93, I must caution you that it is unlikely that any funds will be available for public-school construction purposes.”

Particularly in the fast-growing Washington suburbs, Maryland schools rely heavily on state construction aid, which provided $65 million last year.

Cynics suggested the Governor was pressuring lawmakers to raise taxes, and noted that state capital spending was funded mostly by bends rather than regular revenues. --W.M. & H.D.

A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 1991 edition of Education Week as State Journal: Suit-fighting Funding Faulted; Monumental Strategy