Monday, July 27, 2009

Politics and Policy With Anthony Brown, Part One

By Marc Korman.

Last week, Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown sat down with Cavan Wilk from Greater Greater Washington and me at the Silver Spring Library for a blogger roundtable where we discussed policy and politics.

Lieutenant Governor Brown is a New York native. He served in Iraq, but has been in the Army or Army Reserve since 1984. In 1998 he was elected to the General Assembly from Prince George’s and reelected in 2002. In 2005, he joined the O’Malley ticket. He is Maryland’s eighth LG, a position created in 1970.

Brown opened by discussing what a Lieutenant Governor does. In his case, the Governor has given him a few specific assignment areas to pursue. These include: chairing the BRAC Subcabinet, veterans issues, chairing the Maryland Healthcare Quality and Cost Council, addressing higher education with a focus on community colleges, foster care, and domestic violence. According to Brown, the Governor does not send him on specific errands so much as give him room to run with these broad issues to make progress for the state.

Brown acknowledged that the O’Malley/Brown Administration has been about the budget more than anything else, including cutting spending, cutting programs, and containing costs. Brown emphasized that when elected officials talk about cuts, they are usually talking about curbing the rate of growth and not actual cuts. But Brown said the budget was smaller this year than the previous year, and for the first time since the 1970s the budget is actually smaller than it was three years previous. Presumably, Brown was referring specifically to the General Fund which has dipped below $14.5 billion in spending this year, a few hundred million less than the last few years.

Our conversation took place just after the Board of Public Works (BPW) cut $280 million from the current budget. But preserved from the cuts, and according to Brown what will continued to be preserved, is K-12 Education. Brown trumpeted O’Malley/Brown’s funding of Thornton, including the Geographic Cost of Education Index and disparity grants which have at least seen partial funding under O’Malley/Brown. It was not clear if preserving education funding going forward meant not passing the approximately $125 million in Montgomery County teachers’ pensions down to the county.

Brown also highlighted the Administration’s three consecutive years of higher education tuition freezes. But BPW just cut approximately $40 million from higher education, undercutting the argument that tuition freezes can be sustained because the state is providing enough in direct appropriations. Because Brown was a member of the Commission to Develop the Maryland Model for Funding Higher Education, I asked him about the sustainability of tuition freezes. The Commission report set ambitious goals for how much Maryland colleges and universities should charge compared to institutions in other states and how much they should provide in financial assistance. But to reach the goal, the report estimated a $750 million increase in costs and failed to recommend a funding mechanism.

Brown said the funding mechanism was the set aside from slots proceeds for higher education. But funding for capital projects at community colleges and other higher education institutions is just one use of the education trust fund slots are supposed to benefit. And of course, slots do not appear able to deliver on their fiscal promises. The Lieutenant Governor recognized the limitations of the slots account even as he was explaining the funding.

I asked Brown about the possibility that freezing tuition, as opposed to moderate increases tied to inflation or some other measure, would lead to large increases once the freeze ends, not unlike what has happened with energy rates. Brown said Maryland would not follow Florida, which has hiked public tuition by 15% this year. But he also said he preferred a year by year approach, rather than establishing formula funding tuition increases.

Brown next turned to a long conversation on transportation, which we will discuss in Part Two.