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Politics

Maryland Gov.-elect Wes Moore vows ‘disciplined’ approach to requests for more than $2B in spending

CAMBRIDGE — Maryland Gov.-elect Wes Moore, entering office in less than two weeks with an ambitious agenda and unusually flush government spending accounts, is trying to manage expectations after receiving what he says is an unprecedented number of requests for state funding.

The incoming Democratic governor said state officials have received requests totaling more than $2 billion — more than seven times greater than the total requested in other recent years — for projects outside government that would like to receive taxpayer-funded support in the state budget plan due later this month.

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“Maryland’s treasury cannot responsibly accommodate all the funding requests that have come in if we are going to fulfill the primary obligations of state government,” Moore said in a speech Thursday night to hundreds of attendees at the Maryland Association of Counties’ winter conference in Cambridge. “My administration’s commitment to support the needs of communities that have been long neglected has not, and it will not, waver. … But we must also be clear-eyed about the future.”

Stressing a “murky” economic outlook that could include a recession, Moore said the state should “maintain robust reserves.”

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Officials announced a $2 billion surplus in September, which Moore said spurred the influx of requests. An additional nearly $3 billion sits in a rainy day fund. Meanwhile, officials last month lowered state revenue projections for the 2024 fiscal year, citing a decrease in capital gains income, stagnant projections in some tax collections and the end of federal pandemic-related assistance.

Maryland Gov.-elect Wes Moore, pictured Thursday in Annapolis, said that officials have received requests totaling more than $2 billion for nongovernmental projects — far more than the $277 million average in recent years.

“People see a surplus number and it’s exciting. Everyone understands that,” Moore said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun after his speech. “But we have to understand that we’re talking about a one-time budget that will not repeat itself next year. So, we’re going to have to be disciplined.”

The first-time elected official said he and his team are taking steps to determine whether each request is effective, is fiscally responsible and fits with the upcoming administration’s long-term goals. The process, he also said, is not “based on favors or loyalties.”

His comments come three weeks after Republican Gov. Larry Hogan publicly urged the new administration to budget with caution. At the same time, Hogan recommended hundreds of millions of dollars in potential projects.

Moore, in the interview, said he appreciated Hogan’s recommendations, but emphasized that “we have a responsibility to be honest and transparent” about the economic outlook.

Asked whether there were items on Hogan’s list that he would support in the budget, Moore didn’t answer directly, but brought up the $100 million toward behavioral health services that the outgoing Republican proposed.

“Elements of behavioral health, for example, have been ignored over the past eight years, and I’m thankful for the fact that the governor now thinks that we should put money into something that has not had resources put into it for a while,” Moore said.

Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci, in response to Moore’s comment, said the administration has involved Moore’s team in the budget process during the transition and he noted $996 million aimed at mental health and substance use disorders in Hogan’s budget last year. That included nearly $300 million for substance use disorder services, about $230 million for mental health and substance use treatment for uninsured people and $5 million for grants to local behavioral health authorities.

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Moore, for his part, offered few hints about specific projects for which he’ll seek funding — and he declined to say how much of the billions in reserves he intends to keep there. His budget is due Jan. 20, just two days after the inauguration.

Still, he reiterated several longstanding campaign promises that could require hefty investments. Ending childhood poverty and addressing rising public safety concerns remain top goals. Clean energy and early childhood education are still priorities for state resources, he said.

“We are going to be bold. But being bold does not mean being reckless,” he said.

One specific program he said will be reflected in the budget is his year-of-service initiative. The idea, another top campaign pitch, is to offer all Maryland high school graduates a paid year of public service.

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With state agencies facing a historic number of vacant or eliminated positions, Moore also said he’s working on ways to incentivize recruitment and retention of public employees. He has argued the budget surplus is partially due to positions not being filled.

As of November, there were nearly 11,000 vacant or eliminated positions, according to recent figures from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Maryland Council 3. The union, the largest for state workers, recently announced a new agreement negotiated with the Hogan administration to use about 2% of the state budget surplus for recruiting and retaining workers, though union leaders called the wage increases in the contract “insufficient.”

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Moore highlighted nurses, as well as public safety officers, as examples of public employee workforces that he’s concerned about being short-staffed.

“It is not lost on anybody that [a smaller workforce of parole and probation officers] is having a significant impact on crime and public safety,” he said. “You have people who are not being monitored because there were not people there to monitor them.”

Moore will negotiate the budget with legislators, who return Wednesday to Annapolis for their annual 90-day legislative session. The Democratic supermajorities in the General Assembly are largely expected to have similar priorities as the new governor, but legislators also will have new authority this year to shift money around in the governor’s budget.

Moore said he’s looking forward to working with them. In the meantime, he said he’ll continue the deliberative process of weeding through the budget requests — some of which bypassed official paperwork and are instead emails asking for funding that were forwarded to him directly.

“We owe it to every single Marylander to be able to make sure there is a real process,” Moore said. “There is a high bar. And it’s going to be an immovable bar. And, frankly, it’s going to be a different standard than I think the state is used to seeing.”


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