By DANIEL LEADERMAN
ANNAPOLIS (March 18, 2010) - Archbishop of Baltimore Edwin O'Brien personally asked the House Ways and Means Committee Wednesday to support a controversial tax credit for donations to scholarships and enrichment programs for public and private schools.
The Building Opportunities for All Students and Teachers, or BOAST, bill would offer businesses an income tax credit for contributions to nonprofits that provide scholarships to private school students and grants to teachers in both public and private schools.
"At the same time that our own resources are decreasing, the needs of those we serve have become greater and even more compelling," O'Brien said.
The tax credit has been introduced in previous legislative sessions, but is yet to get the approval of both chambers of the General Assembly. In the past two years, the House Ways and Means Committee hasn't brought the bill to a vote.
The bill has the support of Gov. Martin O'Malley. It passed the Senate Wednesday morning, and Delegate Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, the Ways and Means chair, has hinted that the tax credit could see a vote this session.
But some committee members expressed concern that private schools without non-discrimination policies would be able to take advantage of the tax credit. Washington recently began allowing same-sex marriage, a move that prompted Catholic Charities in the district to change its health benefits to avoid providing them to same-sex couples.
In addition, Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler last month issued an opinion that the state should recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
"If a high-school child is openly gay, would that prohibit them from going to ... your schools?" Delegate Justin Ross, D-Prince George's said to O'Brien.
Ross then asked if the archbishop would be opposed to an amendment that would establish a non-discrimination policy for the children that attend those schools.
"I think we would expect to have the values that, traditionally, we do embrace, to be retained, whether or not we get a tax credit," O'Brein said. "I would hope that this would not become a political football ... our kids are at stake."
O'Brien's testimony comes in the wake of the Archdiocese of Baltimore's announcement earlier this month that it will consolidate 13 of its 64 private schools at the end of this year due to shrinking student populations.
Opponents of the bill, which include organizations such as the Maryland chapters of the American Federation of Teachers and the American Civil Liberties Union, argue that it would undermine funding for public schools.
"This bill would create a quasi-private school voucher system, which would draw needed funds away from public institutions meant to serve all Marylanders," said Michael Minh Nguyen of AFT-Maryland in written testimony submitted to the committee.
But the bill's sponsors say that while it would establish the tax credit it wouldn't provide money for the program right away.
"It is not being funded now," said Delegate James Proctor, D-Prince George's. Instead, the credit will go unfunded until "happy days are here again, when the state can afford to put this money in the program."
The 2011 budget "is already out," Proctor said. "We cannot add to that budget."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.