Gov. Wes Moore leaned back on the couch in his sparse office — undecorated, so far, aside from a portrait of Frederick Douglass — in the State House and said with a smile that the $63 billion budget he’d just proposed should be anything but surprising.
The Democratic governor campaigned on his support of transportation investments, such as the Baltimore east-west light rail route called the Red Line, and education initiatives, like the decadelong program to invest in public schools, called the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. Each — the Blueprint specifically and transportation projects generally — would get $500 million boosts in the budget plan he announced Friday.
And after weeks of warning the public that he would be cautious amid expectations of an economic downturn, he had said at a news conference that he’ll keep $2.5 billion in the state’s rainy-day fund and $820 million as surplus.
Moore sat down with The Baltimore Sun for an exclusive interview, his first since his inauguration two days earlier, to talk more about his spending priorities.
Keeping spending down
Moore’s total spending plan is slightly less than a $64 billion budget the legislature approved last year after negotiations with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
Asked why he’s aiming for a smaller budget, and whether it means any essential services are left out, Moore turned to the dim economic forecast, while also saying “nothing’s left out” of his plan.
“Marylanders are going to be safe and protected, regardless of the headwinds that might potentially be coming our way, and we know that a lot of the things we’re hearing about the future economic trends — they are just projections. But the projections are just completely underlined in uncertainty,” Moore said. “Literally 80% of economists believe that we’re going to have some form of a recession, and it could be short and soft, or it could be long and challenging. We don’t know.
“The only thing that we do know is if you look at the economic trends for the past nine months, they’re not moving in a direction that should give anyone hope that there’s going to be some form of economic rebound that’s coming anytime soon.”
With $500 million more dedicated to the Blueprint, Moore is making the first significant investment into the program, designated by lawmakers in recent years to send an additional $3.9 billion to schools by the 2034 fiscal year.
Hogan had not supported the plan, citing cost concerns. That lack of support, Moore said, contributed to an “uneven and sloppy” rollout of the effort.
“The former governor never believed in this and he showed that in the way that he wouldn’t fund it, in a way that he would not put together structures to support it,” Moore said.
“So I think one thing that we really wanted to show is that, one, I’m a believer in the Blueprint. I believe in this. I believe that our children deserve a world-class education … I believe that we should be starting earlier. I believe that we should create career pathways for our educators. I believe that not every student needs to go on to a four-year school and we need to create pathways to be able to focus on technical training and trade schools and apprenticeships. I believe in all that stuff. And we’re going to fund that.”
Beyond some capital funds already slated for transportation infrastructure, Moore is setting aside another $500 million that his administration will be able to dole out later.
Asked whether his priorities for that money will be transit or more traditional roads-and-bridges projects, Moore said he and his still-unnamed Maryland Department of Transportation secretary will have to figure that out.
He pointed to “congestion challenges” on highways in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and cost overruns and delays for the Purple Line rail project connecting Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park and New Carrollton, before turning to Baltimore’s transit issues.
Asked directly whether the money could be used for the Red Line project in Baltimore, which Hogan canceled when he took office, Moore said only that he’s been talking with federal officials about the light rail line and also that he does not want to “start from scratch.”
“There was a significant amount of work that’s already been done on the Red Line, to include environmental impact studies and that type of thing … Yet at the same time, we understand that the project that was pulled together before is now a decade old. We are now very actively working on how we can get this project back up online, so that we don’t have to redo a lot of the work that’s been done,” he said.
While the Purple Line’s issues are soaking up time and money, Moore said he doesn’t “think we can think about it as competing challenges, competing priorities.” But he said what happens next depends on funding and a transportation secretary who is “really going to focus on getting things done on time and on budget.”
He said he plans to use federal funds and public-private partnerships in transportation.
“We have to be able to leverage additional sources of capital. If not, if you don’t have that, then, yes, you’re having binary conversations. Then we get into the either/or situation,” Moore said of the Purple and Red lines. “That’s not how our administration plans on moving.”
Raises for state workers
The budget plan reflects raises for state workers between early 2022 and the middle of this year. They were already part of agreements negotiated by the Hogan administration and unions. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, for instance, announced Jan. 3 almost 12% in raises over that period for 20,000 members of its state worker bargaining units.
Asked whether there was anything in the budget that includes pay increases for state employees beyond that, Moore reiterated general ideas he’s spoken about before, regarding “incentivizing recruitment and retention” at a time when agencies have thousands of vacant or eliminated positions.
“It goes back to this whole larger movement that we have about how we want Maryland to be a state of service, where we want people to say and look at government work as something that they want to focus in on, whether it be working in nursing or in corrections or as an educator, whatever it is.”
“I think that if you talk to many people who are inside of these fields, the neglect that many of them have felt has been long-standing. … There’s a different type of posture that we want to take where we want to tell people that also being a public servant does not mean taking a vow of poverty.”
Asked whether he’s already had negotiations with labor organizations such as AFSCME and the Service Employees International Union, Moore said those conversations are still to come. But he noted he’s had relationships with some of their leaders for years.
“It’s already showing a different tone shift from what they’ve come to expect in terms of their relationship with the governor’s office,” Moore said.
In response to Moore’s budget proposal, the legislature’s Democratic leaders expressed confidence in negotiating with Moore on their many shared priorities.
Republican House Minority Leader Jason Buckel, meanwhile, suggested in a statement Friday that Moore may need to go beyond meeting his campaign promise of no tax increases, and suggested “a reasonable middle-class tax cut for Maryland’s hardworking families.”
“It is not enough to tout the lack of tax increases in a budget year if the level of spending will require tax hikes down the road,” Buckel said.
Buckel also took issue with a provision in the budget proposal to speed up Maryland’s increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour by October, instead of by 2025, and index it to inflation for future increases.
“At the same time, he talks about stalled economic growth in our state,” Buckel said. “I hope he realizes that wages won’t matter when there are no employers to pay them. We must find a path that works for employees and employers.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Hannah Gaskill contributed to this article.