Maryland Gov. Wes Moore — two months into an administration that he promised would move boldly, yet cautiously — is both racking up wins and coming up short.
The first-time politician entered office in January with ambitious goals such as ending child poverty, creating new pathways to public service, and making major investments in transportation infrastructure and education.
Now in the homestretch of the annual 90-day lawmaking session in Annapolis, Moore’s first year is likely to show progress in those areas — just not all at the levels he wanted.
Lawmakers are poised to pass all 10 of the governor’s bills. But even with Moore lobbying in person and in public and with Democrats in control of both the legislative and executive ends of the lawmaking process for the first time in eight years, legislators have scaled back many of his proposals.
A plan to increase the minimum wage was slowed down and legislators gutted a key provision that would allow for automatic yearly hikes. Tax cuts for veterans were slimmed down by more than half. Hundreds of millions of dollars set aside in the budget for unspecified transportation funds were eliminated.
Keiffer Mitchell, a former Democratic delegate from Baltimore who became Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s chief legislative officer, said Moore has had a successful first session so far, while facing necessary pushback from “prudent” legislators.
“Any governor has earned the right to set the agenda as they see fit. They spend over a year knocking on doors, campaigning, eating terrible food on the road, and they finally make it to the governor’s mansion,” said Mitchell, now a lobbyist with Washington, D.C.-based BGR Group. “The legislature respects that. It doesn’t mean the legislature is going to be a rubber stamp.”
Moore, a 44-year-old former nonprofit leader and veteran, was bound to end up needing to make some concessions as a young, first-time elected official, said Chyrl Laird, a University of Maryland associate professor of government and politics.
His clear signaling of his priorities and noncombative approach, though, likely will set him up well down the line, she said.
“Building morale and goodwill is an important part of that — and deciding when to push and deciding the time frame in which you want something to happen,” Laird said.
Moore, for his part, has struck a relentlessly positive tone.
In interviews since his inauguration, he’s declined to criticize lawmakers and talked about respecting the “democratic process” when asked about differences of opinion with them. Speaking with reporters Monday, he grinned as he focused on his accomplishments and refrained from expressing any disappointment over changes to his bills.
“I haven’t signed anything yet. There is no victory lap until we start signing things,” Moore said. “But the thing that I do know is that we’re incredibly excited about where we are.”
Top of the list
A trio of Moore’s bills has stood out as receiving his particular attention: the minimum wage hike, tax cuts for veterans and the creation of a paid service-year program for recent high school graduates.
He testified in support of each twice in legislative committees, and even heard some bipartisan support there for the veterans and service bills.
The service program was a hallmark of Moore’s campaign and, if fully realized, would be a first-of-its-kind program for a U.S. state. The SERVE Act (House Bill 546 and Senate Bill 551) would allow recent graduates to work for a business, local government or nonprofit organization for a $15 hourly wage and a $3,000 stipend after completing the year. The state would pay the stipend and the host organization would pay the wage, though the governor’s office has said grants would be available, at least initially, for the wages.
Lawmakers in both chambers took starkly different approaches and tried to balance the idea with Maryland Corps, a similar program established in recent years that hadn’t launched fully.
Both programs would exist under a Senate-amended version of Moore’s bill. It would create a “young adult pathway” and a “Maryland service year pathway.” Participants in each would receive a $15 wage and a $6,000 stipend if they complete at least nine months of service. The “young adult pathway” would start small, at 200 participants later this year, then grow to up to 2,000 in the fourth year, as the governor originally proposed for his program.
A house-passed version would repeal Maryland Corps. Moore’s program would be re-created to look like Maryland Corps and take its name.
Eric Luedtke, Moore’s top legislative liaison, said the governor’s preference is to end up with multiple options, because “service doesn’t stop when you turn 22.”
Raising the stipend and pairing the two programs would mean Moore’s bill would be bolstered by lawmakers’ changes.
At the same time, his other top priorities appear diminished.
For example, the Senate-passed version of the minimum wage proposal stripped out a provision that would have indexed the wage to inflation starting in July 2025. Senators said they were concerned about the cost to businesses. Moore had pitched the automatic increase as a way for employers to more easily predict labor costs instead of having to react to a stream of new laws in the future.
The amended bill (Senate Bill 555) also pushed back the timing, from Oct. 1 to Jan. 1 of Moore’s planned jump from a $13.25 state minimum wage to $15 per hour. Under current law, the wage isn’t scheduled to increase to $15 until Jan. 1, 2025.
In committee testimony, the governor argued for the indexing provision more than almost any other piece of his legislative package, saying “families will fall further and further behind” without it.
He said he still supports the idea, but is “not losing sight about what we’re about to accomplish” in fulfilling a campaign promise of raising the wage to $15 earlier than planned.
The Keep Our Heroes Home Act (House Bill 554 and Senate Bill 553), meanwhile, also was slashed. Instead of Moore’s idea to exempt up to $40,000 of military retirement income from state taxes, the amended House and Senate versions would extend current exemptions on a smaller scale.
Current law exempts $15,000 of military retirement income for individuals age 55 or older and $5,000 for those who are younger. The amended bill would keep those age brackets and expand the exemptions to $20,000 and $12,500, respectively.
“Those weren’t random numbers,” said Moore, when asked about whether lawmakers had valid concerns about the cost of both his veterans tax cuts and minimum wage indexing.
“These were fact-based and evidence-based indications as to where we thought policy could go,” he continued. “So we’re proud that, in partnership, we’re able to land on bills that I’m excited about.”
Moore bills, more changes
He’s also particularly excited, he said, about the mostly unchanged Family Prosperity Act (House Bill 547 and Senate Bill 552), which would permanently extend an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and expand the Child Tax Credit at a cost of about $172 million starting in the next fiscal year.
The latter would expand a $500 state tax credit for each child under age 6 in families that earn $15,000 or less. The current law applies to those who make $6,000 or less. Moore has said the bill would impact 40,000 families.
“We are about to make the most full-frontal assault on child poverty that this state has ever seen,” Moore said.
Other plans that aren’t shaping up to pass through the legislative process so cleanly include:
- Legislation (House Bill 551 and Senate Bill 547) to incentivize companies to deploy broadband more fully by offering tax incentives at a cost of nearly $200 million per year, according to a legislative fiscal analysis. The amended bill would simply require a study to be completed on incentivizing broadband expansion.
- Senate Bill 554 and House Bill 553, which would have allowed for full reimbursement of health care and dental costs for members of the Maryland National Guard. The amended bill would cap monthly reimbursement of health and dental insurance premiums at $60.
- A part of the state budget (House Bill 200) would have reserved $500 million for the governor to use on future unspecified transportation infrastructure projects. The House budget eliminates that money, moves most of it to additional education funding, and adds $100 million for future grants for transportation projects like the east-west Red Line light rail project in Baltimore that Hogan canceled in 2015. The Senate’s version of the budget keeps another $100 million for “some additional flexibility” for the governor to get matching federal funding for projects.
Mitchell, Hogan’s former legislative officer, said a governor will never get everything they want — even someone like Moore, who is “very charismatic, very engaging” and in a “honeymoon period” with a General Assembly dominated by his own party.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Nonetheless, given Moore’s status as a rising star in the national Democratic Party, it should come as no surprise that his proposals are ambitious, Mitchell said.
“You’d have to be from Mars if you didn’t think Gov. Moore was going to set a bold agenda,” Mitchell said.
He contrasted Moore’s approach of testifying directly in legislative committees to that of Hogan, who refrained from testifying on any. Faced with a divided government, Hogan maintained high approval ratings from voters by traveling the state and appealing directly to them, Mitchell said. That led lawmakers to eventually advance some of his ideas, like a compromise version of retirement income tax cuts in 2022, Mitchell said.
Other observers say Moore’s direct appeals have had a stronger impact.
Steve Kearney, a former spokesman for Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, said Moore’s “willingness to stand up for his priorities by testifying absolutely makes a difference. It tells the General Assembly — and the public — what he’s willing to fight for.”
That message could make a difference in the years ahead, Laird said.
“It sets up a goal post about what to expect … and a vision of the style of legislation” he will focus on in the future, she said.