Whether the governor's statement that "we've been kind of busy saving the city," is an accurate reflection of his role in calming the storm that erupted across Baltimore recently, what is clear is that Gov. Larry Hogan has a number of important tools at his ready to immediately tackle some of the underlying needs of vulnerable communities — both in Baltimore City and beyond. While it's clear that the events of the past few weeks point to the need for a longer term, comprehensive analysis of systemic issues related to poverty, the governor has the opportunity, at this very moment, to make some meaningful decisions with regard to both resources and policy.
After reducing our structural deficit by nearly 70 percent, protecting the state's coveted AAA bond rating that ensures the lowest possible borrowing rates, adopting no new taxes and surpassing the recommendations of the Spending Affordability Committee, the budget adopted by the General Assembly in our recently concluded 90-day session made very clear our legislative priorities.
As our bipartisan budget-fashioning crumbled in the final days of the legislative session, the General Assembly set aside nearly $200 million of the budget and urged the governor to fund these priorities, including nearly $70 million for education funding for Baltimore City, Baltimore County and 11 other counties. It is terrific news that the governor announced the release of nearly $70 million to fulfill our commitment to state employees for a 2 percent cost of living adjustment that had been promised earlier in the year. It is the governor who has the sole discretion to release the education funds and, as stated by the CEO and superintendent of Baltimore city and county school systems on these very pages, "it is essential for our young people to know, and most importantly to believe, how bright their future can be through access to a high-quality education." Nearly 35 percent of adults aged 25 and older in Sandtown-Winchester lack a high school diploma. As our education leaders also stated, "this is the time to deepen our engagement and investment in youth." The legislature has enabled the governor to make this investment real.
With regard to policy changes, the governor could make a real difference for thousands by signing bills that address enfranchisement and employment. We support the removal of obstacles that prevent the reintegration of convicted felons who have paid their debt to society back into the community. Nothing is more fundamental to that effort than the right to vote, and current law is confusing. Ensuring that individuals who have been convicted of a felony are able to vote upon being released from incarceration is symbolically important to the reintegration of ex-convicts, but more importantly, it is a concrete example of the individual's fundamental right to be a full-fledged participant in democracy. Estimates are that voting rights could be restored to 40,000 individuals on parole or probation if the governor signs this legislation.
We know that one of the most common obstacles to finding employment is the presence of infractions on a prospective employee's criminal record. Legislation passed by the General Assembly would shield certain nonviolent misdemeanors from employers no earlier than three years after the individual has satisfied their sentence. We applaud the governor's signing Tuesday of the Second Chance Act which, we believe, will remove a significant barrier to employment for thousands of individuals.
Issues about poverty, race, policing and equity deserve our collective attention and focus in the coming months. And we look forward to working with the community to craft legislative initiatives that will address these critical issues. But in the immediate aftermath of our unrest, we believe the governor has significant power to make a fundamental difference. The question remains, will he?