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Vote for Question 1 and give legislators more say over the state budget | COMMENTARY

Jeanette Witherspoon casts her ballot at the Board of Elections drop box installed on the Morgan State University campus, on W. Cold Spring Lane near Hillen Road.
Jeanette Witherspoon casts her ballot at the Board of Elections drop box installed on the Morgan State University campus, on W. Cold Spring Lane near Hillen Road. (Amy Davis)

Question 1 on this year’s state ballot represents an important step toward making Maryland’s budget process more democratic — and ensuring we are devoting adequate state resources to meet vital needs.

Currently we give Maryland’s governor near-exclusive authority to create a budget each year. The General Assembly can only cut items; it cannot add. Under Question 1, the state constitution would be amended to allow the legislature to make changes to the state budget to better address challenges facing Marylanders.

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If this measure passes, legislators could act to shift money to quickly bolster such things as the state’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak or transfer more money for public transit or drug treatment programs. In short, more people would have a hand in creating the budget, which is the essence of democracy.

I know firsthand how our state’s budget process hurts our ability to serve vulnerable communities. For five years, I have led a Maryland nonprofit that provides residential and other vital services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

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A combination of state and federal funds pays for our work to serve this population of Marylanders. Like many other organizations in the state, we face a major challenge attracting and retaining qualified workers to provide front-line care. Even so, the governor’s budget over the past few years has failed to include enough money to offer meaningful wage increases to our caregivers — people who work tirelessly to serve our clients but make, on average, $13 per hour.

If Question 1 is enacted, the General Assembly could act to address this problem and add funds to allow us to pay better wages. Even a small increase in our hourly wages helps us with recruitment and retention, resulting in better outcomes for people with disabilities.

It’s important to note that Question 1 is not a budget-busting amendment. If enacted, the General Assembly will have the ability to move funds between budget items, but not to increase the budget’s overall size. The ballot question would also give the governor, for the first time, the authority to veto specific line items in the budget, ensuring a more collaborative approach to state spending.

A state’s budget reflects what we prioritize and embodies our values. We spend money on the things we care about, whether it’s K-12 education, colleges, transportation or services for people with disabilities.

With this amendment, we will allow legislators to have a stronger role in budgeting. These legislators represent diverse communities and bring a range of priorities and points of view to establishing a budget. That is inherently a more democratic process than allowing one person to have an outsize role in spending.

In my experience, state legislators are far more familiar with the challenges facing organizations like us, serving people in need. Many have taken the time to visit our facilities and hear from families, giving them a better understanding of the challenges. These legislators know just how critically needed state resources are and can help shape the budget to reflect that.

Our current system was put in place more than 100 years ago during a fiscal crisis. It may have been prudent then, but today Maryland stands alone among states in giving its chief executive so much budget authority.

Service providers like me and good government advocates have repeatedly called for a change that would bring more people to the table to craft a budget. The legislature passed the measure earlier this year and now the voters have the opportunity to weigh in.

I love my work serving people with disabilities, but our team cannot do it without the right resources. It’s clear to me that Question 1 will make sure voices like ours — from people serving the community — will be heard more forcefully as each year’s budget is crafted in Annapolis if we pass this ballot measure.

Support a stronger democracy in Maryland by voting for Question 1.

Robert Malone (rmalone@thearcofpgc.org) is executive director of The Arc Prince George’s County.

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