By MICHAEL CHARLES
ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Gov. Wes Moore exits his first General Assembly session with all 10 items on his legislative agenda passing. And, despite the tweaks to those proposals from legislators, Moore laid the foundation for a strong working relationship with the legislative body, analysts say.
“If you’re a governor and you’re going into a (legislative) session and you make it clear at the outset that these are the things that I want to have accomplished, then the session comes to an end and you get to sign some variation of each of those things, that’s the definition of success,” said Todd Eberly, professor of Political Science and Public Policy at St. Mary’s College. “In broad strokes, his agenda was passed, but when you get into the details, it’s different from what he wanted and that shouldn’t really be surprising.”
Moore was inaugurated on Jan. 18, vowing to leave no Marylander behind. He compiled an agenda of 10 bills, spanning issues from raising the state minimum wage, and alleviating child poverty, to aiding Maryland’s veterans. Although most of his proposals endured changes, Moore’s early-formed relationship with the General Assembly made his successes possible and bodes well for future partnerships.
“I think he’s going (to continue) to have a fantastic relationship with the General Assembly. After eight years of a Republican governor who did not see it as appropriate to go to the legislature and to testify behind bills that they want, Moore has taken a completely different approach,” said Eberly. “(Moore) views them as a partner, went down, testified and sent folks to testify in favor of the legislation. That establishes a very different working relationship. I suspect that he’s going to have a very productive and fruitful relationship with the assembly.”
On Feb. 16, Moore became the first sitting governor to testify on a bill since 2014, when he spoke to the House Ways and Means Committee on his Keep Our Heroes Home Act. He testified several other times on his legislation and joined the General Assembly in celebrating its adjournment earlier this month.
That collaborative relationship with the General Assembly was also noticed by Len Foxwell of Tred Avon Strategies, a Democratic consulting firm.
“It has to be considered a success all around for Governor Moore. This session was less about the mechanics of legislative minutia and more about establishing his framework of leadership,” said Foxwell. “He established a strong, substantive and stylistic contrast to his predecessor. It sends a clear message that he is planning to pursue a strong progressive policy agenda and do so with a sense of collegiality with the legislature, which hasn’t always been there, even with Democratic governors in the past.”
While Moore advocated strongly for his agenda, he empowered the General Assembly to do its job and make the necessary changes where they saw fit. One example of this was his proposals to address health care and tax cuts for veterans.
As a former captain and paratrooper with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne, including leading troops into combat in Afghanistan, Moore emphasized supporting veterans from the outset of his campaign. This took the form of two bills addressing assistance – state health insurance for Maryland National Guard members, or the Health Care for Heroes Act, SB 0554; and a tax cut on military income during retirement, the Keep Our Heroes Home Act, or HB 0554.
Both pieces of legislation passed with changes to decrease costs, although they have yet to garner Moore’s signature. Moore’s health care proposal was modified by legislators to provide $60 monthly assistance payments to Guard members to help them with covering insurance prices. Similarly, the Keep Our Heroes Home Act, HB 0554, increases the amount of military retirement money for modest-income veterans that is exempt from state taxes to $12,500 for veterans under 55 and $20,000 for individuals 55 and above.
The amendments from lawmakers, Eberly said, gave the governor the programs he wanted at a rate the legislators could accept.
“In multiple instances, he didn’t get exactly what he wanted. … Instead, he got the broad strokes of what he was looking to, but reflected what members of the legislature were willing to approve as well.”
The governor said he’s satisfied with his first time working with the General Assembly.
“For the last 90 days, our legislators and this team have worked together to advance our administration’s bold, leave-no-one-behind agenda, which earned overwhelming bipartisan support. We entered this session authoring 10 bills and all the 10 bills have passed with both Democratic and Republican support.” Moore said in a video statement. “The 2023 session showed that not only is this administration keeping its promises, but that Maryland is moving in the spirit of partnership. These legislative victories delivered targeted investments to folks across the economic spectrum to provide vital investments in infrastructure, education, housing, and public safety.”
Here are the other components of Moore’s agenda. All have passed the General Assembly and either await Moore’s signature or are now law:
The Family Prosperity Act, introduced in both chambers as HB 547 and SB 552, was proposed by Moore and expands Earned Income and Child Tax Credits. The bill, effective June 1 and applicable to the tax year 2023 and moving forward, eliminates the $530 limit for adults without qualifying children, and expands the definition of “qualified child” to benefit taxpayers with children aged 6 and under who have a federally adjusted gross income of $15,000 or less. This legislation was signed by Moore April 11 during his first batch of bill signings.
SB 0555, the Fair Wage Act, will raise the minimum wage from $13.25 to $15 per hour beginning on Jan. 1, 2024. Moore’s efforts to index this wage to inflation and start it as soon as October, were unsuccessful. This bill was also signed into law April 11.
The Access to Banking Act, HB 0548 and SB 0550, will incentivize credit unions and banks to assist lower-income Marylanders. The legislation creates funds for both private and state revenue to aid this process.
The Clean Transportation and Energy Act, HB 0550, would invigorate the state’s energy program, primarily by creating a grant program for “qualified medium-duty or heavy-duty zero-emission vehicles.”
The SERVE Act, SB0551, has been a major goal for Moore since the campaign. Moore’s vision is that this act will promote a spirit of community service and togetherness among all Marylanders, primarily youth, in the form of a service year option for high school graduates. Overseen by the newly created Department of Service and Civic Innovation, the program will begin with 200 participants in year one, and include 2,000 participants by year four.
In a similar theme of building for the future, Moore’s Innovation Economy & Infrastructure Act, HB 0552, looks to support technological innovation across the state. This legislation creates a grant program, up to $2 million, that allows private companies, nonprofits, local governments, or colleges and universities in Maryland to invest in, “eligible innovation infrastructure projects.” Such projects include, “advanced manufacturing; aerospace; agriculture; artificial intelligence; biotechnology; blue technology; cybersecurity; defense; energy and sustainability; life sciences; quantum; and sensor and robotics.”
Another campaign focus has been major investments in Maryland’s youth through revamping the state’s education system. An example of this is HB 1219, the Educator Shortage Act. To address a depleted teaching force, this legislation will create the Teacher Development and Retention Program with the goal of promoting futures as educators to college students. This bill also makes additional changes to the retention and recruitment of teachers.
Finally, the Study of Broadband Expansion Incentives legislation was also passed and is awaiting Moore’s signature. Through the Office of Statewide Broadband, this bill requires the study of how Maryland can “incentivize” broadband companies to expand its infrastructure to communities currently lacking such broadband services. Studies will also focus on how other states have executed similar plans and how federal broadband grants can be effectively spread throughout Maryland.
Getting the legislature to agree to the governor’s agenda gets more difficult after the “honeymoon” phase of having a new officeholder fades. But the analysts say building these initial relationships may ease this process.
“The first year is always easiest. You have a new governor and the legislature that are all still becoming acclimated to the job, and the two branches are feeling one another out,” said Foxwell. “There will inevitably be bumps in the road as you move forward, but what the governor was able to do in this first year was build a reservoir of goodwill and signal a sense of both collegiality and personal engagement in the legislative process that he’ll be able to fall back on when inevitable differences arise.”