Referendum would upend more than a century of governors' control over budgets, give more power to legislators

Maryland voters will be asked to decide whether to give more power over the state budget to state lawmakers. Maryland's governor currently has the most control over the state budget of any governor in the nation. In this Jan. 15, 2020, photo, workers cart boxes full of state budget books on State Circle in Annapolis.

Maryland voters are being asked to consider giving more budget power to state lawmakers, upending more than a century of governor-controlled budgets.

Question 1 on the ballot proposes an amendment to the Maryland Constitution that would allow state senators and delegates to move money around within a governor’s proposed state budget — provided they keep the budget balanced and don’t go over the total amount set by the governor.


In return, the change would give the governor the ability to veto any addition or increase that lawmakers made to the budget, which this year totals nearly $48 billion. The legislature would have to hold a special session within 30 days of such a veto to vote to restore any spending.

If passed, the change would tilt the balance of power in Annapolis, where governors and lawmakers have perennially tussled over spending priorities. Proponents say the shift would give lawmakers power that most people think they already have; opponents say the current system works well.


“It’s an authority most people assume we already have because it’s so common,” said Del. Marc Korman, a Montgomery County Democrat who is one of the leading proponents of the change.

Maryland is the only state in the nation where lawmakers are only allowed to cut from the governor’s proposed budget but can’t move money around, according to supporters of the referendum. They say Maryland’s governor has the strongest budget powers in the country.

Del. Nic Kipke says the current system doesn’t need changing, because it forces lawmakers to work with a governor to get money for their priorities in the budget.

“Without the governor having that strength in the budget process, it reduces the interaction between the legislature and the executive,” said Kipke, an Anne Arundel Republican who is the House of Delegates minority leader. "It makes it lopsided, where the legislature has too much power.”

The change, if approved, would not affect the current governor, Republican Larry Hogan. It would go into effect starting with the next governor, who will be elected in 2022. Term limits hold Maryland governors to a maximum of two, four-year terms, so Hogan can’t run again.

Through a spokesman, the governor declined to comment on Question 1.

The proposal has bounced around Annapolis for decades, and has been supported by both Democrats and Republicans at times, though this year’s push came from Democrats.

P.J. Hogan sponsored the same amendment multiple times when he was a state senator in the 1990s and early 2000s, as both a Democrat and Republican. Now a lobbyist and member of the state elections board, he testified for the change in the 2020 legislative session.


“It has never been a partisan issue for me,” said Hogan, who is not related to the governor. “I viewed it previously, and still view it, as good governance and the balance of power between the coequal branches of government.”

The current setup has been in place since 1916, after state lawmakers overspent the state’s accounts significantly, creating a deficit. The state had to borrow money to pay it off, P.J. Hogan said.

While the reforms enacted then ensure a balanced budget, it has created other problems, he said. Chief among them is an annual fight over what’s known in Annapolis as “fenced off” money.

If lawmakers find areas of the budget to cut, they can’t move it to another area. They can only set it aside and instruct the governor that to spend it, he or she must fund a certain program the lawmakers have designated.

But the governor can opt not to spend some or all the “fenced off” money, frequently leading to squabbles between governors and lawmakers. Last year, for example, the governor declined to spend hundreds of millions in fenced off funds, including money that lawmakers wanted to divert to testing rape kits and boosting the financially struggling Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Since lawmakers have little say in the state budget, they also have taken to passing laws that require governors to put certain money in future budgets, known as spending mandates. Gov. Hogan has complained that more than 80% of the budget is spent on mandates, leaving him little room to work with.


Supporters of the constitutional amendment believe that if lawmakers are given a more authority to reallocate spending, there may be fewer fights over fenced-off money and fewer bills passed that require future spending.

“It’s Democracy 101,” said Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Prince George’s Democrat who sponsored the constitutional amendment this year. “We don’t have a king. We have a governor and a legislature and a judicial branch. The legislative branch represents people from across the state, different constituencies, different backgrounds. Those people should have a voice in how the state’s tax money is spent.”

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The prospects of the amendment’s success are unknown; there has been no public polling on the issue and there are no organized campaigns for or against it.

It’s unclear why the constitutional amendment moved forward this year after failing so many times before. Some attribute the momentum to new leaders in the House and Senate or an influx of progressive members.

The calendar may have played a role: By sending this question to voters this year, voters are deciding on a policy change separate from picking the first governor who would have to grapple with it.