Senate President Bill Ferguson said there are going to be some “very tough choices” ahead for Maryland’s budget after more than $2 billion worth of spending requests have come in.
The Baltimore Democrat also indicated that he has struggled with Democratic Gov. Wes Moore’s proposal to reduce funding for a scholarship program that sends students from families with low incomes to private and parochial schools.
Moore’s proposed budget plan is $63 billion.
Ferguson said a “historic amount of requests ... have come in” — more than $2 billion worth. Ferguson said there is always “an inexhaustible demand and a limited supply” of what can be covered in the budget, but this year’s demand is “exceedingly inexhaustible.”
“We have to be very realistic about what resources we have available and how we must be fiscal stewards that are responsible with the state’s dollars,” Ferguson said. “Even though we’ve had a surplus, there are an historic level of new requests coming in. Inflation has hit the state just as much as it has hit individual families.”
Ferguson spoke Friday at his weekly news conference during the General Assembly session in Annapolis.
Maryland’s Board of Revenue Estimates is poised to release a new report of the state’s financial projections in March.
“We will see what the revenue estimates bring forth,” Ferguson said. “What we know is that there are going to be very tough choices ahead.”
The budget for fiscal year 2023 appropriated $10 million for the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today, or BOOST, program, which provides funding for students across the state to attend private institutions. Moore’s budget proposed reducing that funding by $2 million for 2024.
Ferguson, who represents neighborhoods in South Baltimore, said he has struggled with that because he has many constituents who benefited from the BOOST program. He said there is rationale to do “both-and” rather than “either/or.”
“I also understand the value of public education, how critical it is,” said the Senate president. “We are making significant investments to the tune of 12[% to] 13% above what we spent last year. In nearly $7-and-a-half billion that we spent on public education, $10 million on the BOOST program doesn’t seem like a heck of a lot.”
Republicans in the General Assembly have discussed attempting to invoke the legislature’s new authority to re-appropriate budgeted funding proposed by the executive branch, as long as the moves don’t increase the budget’s total.
“The $10 million BOOST budget is just one-tenth of 1% of Maryland’s $8.8 billion public school budget,” Senate Minority Leader Steve Hershey said at a news conference Wednesday.
The General Assembly has a Democratic supermajority, so Republicans would need support from Democrats to invoke this authority. Republican Del. Jefferson Ghrist of the upper Eastern Shore, said Wednesday that no lawmakers from the other side of the aisle have committed to joining their cause.
Ferguson said it’s “too early to say for sure” if the legislature will choose to invoke its new authority on any particular measure, but he is “absolutely willing to use it, if necessary.”
Maryland Policy & Politics
He also said that there is no “strong desire or need” to override Moore’s budget appropriations.
“We’re starting from the place of collaboration and partnership,” he said of the General Assembly’s relationship with the Moore administration. “All actions have shown, from the administration, that they want to work very closely with the legislature to make sure that the budget prepares us for this four-year term.”
At a news conference Thursday on another topic, Moore said of the BOOST issue: “Public dollars should not be going to private schools. Public dollars are going toward ensuring that we’re building a world-class public school system for all Maryland students.”
According to Hershey, 3,286 kids have scholarships from the BOOST program and their families’ average household income is $35,000. Each student qualifies for free or reduced meals, more than half are students of color and for 31%, English is their second language.
Ghrist is sponsoring the Right to Learn Act, which would require $10 million be budgeted annually to fund the BOOST program. It also would create an education savings account. The bill would provide money for families to send their children to private, parochial or home schools, or a public school in a different jurisdiction.
Ghrist suggested the act be funded with money from the state’s transportation trust fund or the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education fund.
“This is a step the General Assembly should’ve taken years ago,” Ghrist said. “If we’re going to end child poverty in Maryland, we have to give these children living in poverty more lifelines when it comes to their futures.”