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First Click, Maryland:
Fact checking the cost of higher education

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010:

The Fact Checker

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In the final stretch of the governor's race, the Post's First Click will take a closer look at the major advertisements and assertions from former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. (R) and Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) in a once-a-week fact-checking operation. We welcome your suggestions and tips for subjects to examine. Today's topic is the cost of college tuition.

From his early days as a candidate four years ago, then-Baltimore mayor O'Malley campaigned to make higher education in Maryland more affordable. A series of TV ads O'Malley released last week highlights his efforts as governor, and have prompted a pointed response from Ehrlich's campaign.

In the first ad, college students from middle-class families praise O'Malley for making "the tough choice to freeze tuition." A second shows O'Malley standing in the Rockville neighborhood where he grew up as he says: "We've frozen college tuition for four years in a row."

Can O'Malley take credit for freezing tuition for four years? Not really. In the 2006 legislative session, before O'Malley took office, it was the General Assembly that passed a bill prohibiting the university system from raising tuition. Ehrlich did not sign the bill, sponsored by former senator P.J. Hogan, but he allowed it to become law. So, neither O'Malley nor Ehrlich can really take credit for starting the freeze in 2006.

"We can say we were certainly part of the conversation," said O'Malley's deputy campaign manager Rick Abbruzzese. "We weren't elected until 2007, but we can take credit for making it a campaign issue in 2006."

For the subsequent three years, however, O'Malley can take credit for the freeze. While the governor does not directly set tuition, O'Malley appointed the members of the university system's Board of Regents, who do. He also proposed budgets that included funding to ensure that the system could afford to leave tuition unchanged.

In response to O'Malley's ads, Ehrlich's campaign accused the governor of "covering up a secret plan to raise tuition" by 26 percent after this year's election, and said that the overall cost of college has increased 26 percent in four years.

Ehrlich pointed to a six-year forecast included in the fiscal 2011 budget that estimates that revenue from tuition and fees will increase 5.3 percent a year. The budget document that is the basis for the criticism is hardly "secret," although O'Malley's commercials do not mention that tuition for 2011 is set to rise 3 percent.

Ehrlich's spokesman Henry Fawell said the campaign characterized the document as "secret" because it is "tucked" in the back of the budget and he said O'Malley's "budget is in striking contrast to his rhetoric."

But the numbers included in the budget forecast are just that -- estimates. Regardless of the long-term revenue projections, decisions about tuition are not made until the governor begins to put together a budget. At a campaign event at the University of Maryland on Monday, O'Malley said he is still crafting his budget for next year and is not sure what tuition increase may be necessary. My colleague Aaron C. Davis reports that O'Malley did acknowledge that the state won't be able to keep a freeze for another four years, but will work to keep tuition competitive with other states.

The Ehrlich campaign also notes that the overall cost of going to the University of Maryland College Park, for instance, has climbed to $22,115 -- a figure that includes tuition and fees, plus housing, food, books and transportation. By the campaign's math, that's a $5,767 increase, or 26 percent. There's no question that costs have increased. But it's important to note that the governor does not control costs for on-campus fees such as housing and meal plans that are considered "self-supporting." Individual institutions set those fees.

As for the big picture for Maryland's college students and their families, public higher education has become relatively more affordable when compared to other states. The last full year of Ehrlich's term, in fiscal 2006, Maryland's in-state tuition was the ninth-highest in the country, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission. In fiscal 2010, the most recent number available, the state ranked 17th , according to an analysis by the commission of figures provided by the CollegeBoard's Trends in College Pricing reports.

O'Malley on Monday called the ranking a "moving target" and said he expects it to fall to somewhere in the mid 20s when new figures are issued. This too, it seems, is up for debate. Let us know what you think, and leave a comment or suggestion below.

-- Ann E. Marimow

News You Should Know

Developer criticizes O'Malley for siding with casino opponents
Casino developer David Cordish called out O'Malley Tuesday for opposing his planned location at Arundel Mills mall. In a meeting with reporters at his company's headquarters at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, The Post's John Wagner writes that Cordish tried to "push back against what he characterized as false television ads and mailers being produced by opponents of the casino. Anne Arundel voters must decide Nov. 2 whether to let a zoning law stand that is needed for Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. to move forward with its planned casino. Ehrlich, who lives in the county, has said he will support the measure. O'Malley said Tuesday afternoon that Cordish is 'a very successful businessman who is trying to do everything he can to put slots at a mall in a residential area, when most of us would rather see it go to a racetrack.'"" In related news, The Sun's Nicole Fuller reports that Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said in an opinion Tuesday that "Penn National Gaming, which operates the slot machine casino that opened last week in Cecil County, is free to support a campaign against construction of a similar parlor in Anne Arundel County.

Bill Clinton to help O'Malley raise campaign cash
Former President Bill Clinton will headline private fundraisers for Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the state's Democratic Party and Gov. Martin O'Malley this month, according to Democratic sources, The Post's Aaron C. Davis reports. Clinton may also star in a get-out-the vote rally for O'Malley and Democrats at the start of early voting, the sources said.

Ehrlich gets nod from New Jersey governor
O'Malley may have New York's Michael Bloomberg, but Ehrlich has New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who last year became the state's first Republican governor in 12 years, reports Wagner. "The Ehrlich campaign announced Friday afternoon that people who donate $50 to Ehrlich in the next 24 hours could be invited to the private reception with Christie where this will occur. 'If you like straight-talking governors who challenge the broken status quo, you will love Governor Christie and Bob Ehrlich,' said an email from Ehrlich's finance team to supporters."

O'Malley seeks to energize black voters
In advance of President Obama's campaign event for O'Malley in Bowie Thursday, The Sun's Julie Bykowicz reports that O'Malley is "stepping up his courtship of the state's African-American community -- a constituency with which the Democrat has had a complicated relationship, but which could decide the outcome of his race against Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr."

Montgomery executive proposes millions in cuts
Dozens of fire and rescue workers would lose their jobs and ambulance service would be scaled back under a plan to save $12.9 million if a referendum on a county ambulance free passes in November, reports The Post's Michael Laris. "In a letter to the county council, Leggett said the ballot question 'will likely succeed,' and outlined steps he said should be taken immediately to find the money to make up for losing the fee.Volunteers firefighters, who have opposed the ambulance fee, would see a cut of more than $1 million. Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), and ambulance fee opponent, said the list is a 'political document' meant to influence the vote."


Trust First Click for critical news and analysis you need to navigate Maryland politics each weekday. You can also find First Click on Facebook and Twitter.

By Aaron C. Davis  | October 6, 2010; 8:07 AM ET
Categories:  Ann Marimow, Fact-Checker, First Click  
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Next: Ehrlich ads going up on Washington TV Thursday

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