By KIERSTEN HACKER, ANGELIQUE GINGRAS and TYRAH BURRIS
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Gov. Wes Moore and top lawmakers headed into the 2024 General Assembly session Wednesday with a looming budget deficit in mind, hoping to avoid tax hikes and dramatic cuts and focus, instead, on their important priorities.
Moore and his fellow Democrats made clear they would rather work on improving the juvenile justice system, fighting climate change, funding transportation and making housing more affordable – all possible, they say, if lawmakers are collaborating.
“The thing that we have seen now in the state is that Maryland is doing big things again,” Moore told reporters shortly before the General Assembly convened. “And the reason Maryland is doing big things again is because we are actually doing them together.”
Earlier in the day, Moore said he is excited to work with the General Assembly to achieve the goals of making Maryland more safe, affordable and competitive.
Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore City, and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, D-Baltimore, appeared at the same panel discussion, sponsored by The Maryland Daily Record, and praised their own relationship with Moore. They talked about working together to address budgetary concerns regarding new avenues of revenue, taxes and the expensive education reform passed in 2021 known as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.
The way to reach a solution on crime in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, Jones said, is for the three of them to “close the door and (say) this is what makes sense.”
Ferguson also emphasized the need for collaboration.
Communication is going to be “crucial,” Ferguson said, adding, “I am confident that we are going to work through the budget. I do not doubt at all.”
There are likely to be many tough decisions ahead this session. The state budget is facing what state officials agree is a structural deficit. The Department of Legislative Services estimates the deficit will be $1.78 billion in fiscal 2028.
But while cuts may occur, the governor and two Democratic leaders all said they are not likely to make substantial changes to the education Blueprint. This is despite concern from county governments grappling to fund the law’s requirements.
“We have to have a world-class education system in our state, full stop,” Moore said. “That is my point of no compromise. If we do not have an education system that is preparing our students for the 21st century and to be leaders in the 21st century, we repeatedly find ourselves putting money into trying to fix brokenness.”
During public comments Wednesday morning, Democratic leaders avoided specifics about how to pay for state programs. In Moore’s press conference, he said government officials need to ensure they will be “good stewards of taxpayer dollars and getting the economy going.” The state can be fiscally disciplined, Moore said, while making investments that yield long-term gains.
Moore made the argument that the gas tax is a bad system for trying to fund the transportation needs of a state that includes both the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., metro areas. With more fuel-efficient vehicles, more electric vehicles and fewer miles driven, the gas tax is not as productive a revenue source.
“I’m new to politics but I’m not new to balance sheets,” Moore said. “We need to come up with a system that is sustainable and that works and that actually is responsive to people of the state.”
Leaders also talked about climate change and affordable housing as important priorities. They also want to tackle juvenile justice reforms and illegal guns.
Guns and crime issues are also top priorities for Republican lawmakers, who sounded a collaborative note during the first day on the floor.
“To all my colleagues, again, we look forward to working with you all in the spirit of cooperation while still maintaining our Republican values and holding the chamber accountable and form a transparent government that we all want to see happen,” Senate Minority Leader Stephen Hershey, R-Kent, Queen Anne’s, Cecil and Caroline, told colleagues.
Hershey has been more critical of Democratic policies in recent weeks. In unveiling Republicans’ legislative priorities in November, he referred to Maryland’s policies as “soft on crime.” GOP lawmakers have called for toughening penalties and reversing recent juvenile justice reforms passed by the legislature.
Outside the State House, advocates offered viewpoints on what the legislature should do in the coming weeks.
Environmentalists called for investing $9 billion to prepare for and recover from escalating natural disasters.
“Climate change impacts in Maryland are going through the roof,” said Mike Tidwell, the founder and director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, during an interview with Capital News Service.
“We saw flooding today in Annapolis and it’s expensive and we have to pay for it and taxpayers shouldn’t pay for it,” Tidwell said. “The polluters should pay for it.”