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‘Tornado of Misinformation’ Spawns Bill Limiting County Authority Over Cannabis

An effort by some counties to use zoning to limit if not prevent the opening of cannabis dispensaries has drawn the ire of the powerful chair of a House committee in Annapolis.

House and Senate panels are considering legislation that would make it tougher for local governments to restrict where cannabis dispensaries can locate. House Economic Matters Committee Chair Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) said counties are trying to countermand the newly legalized cannabis market and the state’s efforts to limit if not end illegal sales.

In the months that followed the first legal recreational sales in July, some counties looked to zoning to slow the opening of new dispensaries. Those efforts are now the focus of legislation designed to block those attempts, which sometimes seek to prevent any sales of the drug or are born out of the concerns about the clustering of alcohol and tobacco shops in Black and brown communities.

“This was thought out,” said Wilson, speaking of the state’s entry into legal recreational cannabis sales. “This was not done randomly. And this is not about state control. It is about protecting people, protecting us and protecting a now legitimate business. So I want to make sure we understand that we are not here to stuff them, to cluster them.”

Wilson’s HB 805 prohibits counties from imposing zoning regulations more restrictive than those imposed on retail liquor stores. Current law prohibits dispensaries within 500 feet of a playground, recreation center, library, public park, or place of worship. Wilson’s bill qualifies that restriction to pre-existing facilities.

Wilson said he will ask for an amendment to increase the distance between dispensaries from 1,000 feet to 1,500 feet.

Counties can reduce but not increase the statutory distance requirements for dispensary locations.

Some lawmakers worry the bill will usurp county zoning authority.

Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), chair of the Education, Energy and Environment Committee and sponsor of the identical SB 537, said the state has the same interest in ensuring cannabis dispensaries can open as it does ensuring counties allow clean energy production.

“We need energy,” said Sen. Alonzo T. Washington (D-Prince George’s), a member of the Senate Finance Committee. “We don’t need cannabis.”

Some legislators representing rural, mostly Republican counties, also oppose the proposed changes.

Del. Steven J. Arentz (R-Upper Shore) said counties such as those he represents are being punished for what has happened in other counties.

“You’re taking other people’s problems, making them ours,” said Arentz.

The bill has the support of the Maryland Association of Counties, which is proposing certain amendments.

The first would expand the minimum distance between dispensaries to 2,000 feet. The association also wants to keep dispensaries more than 100 feet from residential areas.

“If my kid’s out front playing in the yard, I think it’s reasonable to expect that they wouldn’t be 100 feet from a cannabis dispensary,” said Kevin Kinnally, legislative director for the association.

The state is about to dramatically expand its cannabis industry as the result of a 2023 law.

Currently, there are 101 licensed dispensaries in the state. The licenses are distributed relatively equally across the state’s 47 legislative districts. Another 75 licenses are about to be issued in a social equity round.

When it is all said and done, there will be a maximum of 300 dispensaries in the state.

There are about 6,500 liquor stores in the state.

Prince George’s County has 18.1 liquor stores per 100,000 people, according to the Prince George’s County Health Department.

That same county of roughly 1 million people is eligible for about 20 total cannabis dispensary licenses.

Nineteen of the state’s 24 major political subdivisions will receive between one and three of those social equity dispensary licenses in the coming round. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties will receive nine and 11 will go to Baltimore City, according to the Maryland Cannabis Administration.

“I honestly am sorry, I just don’t trust counties to do it because I’ve watched what they’ve done,” Wilson said. “They complain about the way the smoke shops open up and they give them [use and occupancy permits] and they give them health occupancy, the health licenses to open up.”

Last year, the Prince George’s County Council considered legislation prohibiting cannabis dispensaries in commercial zones. The bill would have pushed dispensaries into industrial areas, which include business parks. That bill was not acted on.

But the council, in a letter this month, asked the county’s legislative delegation to oppose Wilson’s bill.

Wilson blasted unnamed local officials who have complained their counties will be flooded with dispensaries in the same way liquor stores have proliferated or that the state law would allow vape and smoke shops to also sell cannabis. He complained about what he called “a tornado of misinformation.”

By Bryan P. Sears

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More Juvenile Justice Bills Considered and They May Be Included in Bigger Package

Sen. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City) testifies before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Feb. 22, 2024. Photo by William J. Ford.

As Maryland’s top Democratic leaders continue to assess legislation to tweak the state’s juvenile justice system, all or portions of other juvenile-related bills could be incorporated in the bigger legislative package backed by the governor and key committee chairs.

Sen. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City) wants the state Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) to report all shootings that involve juveniles who are under the department’s supervision.

The legislation McCray is sponsoring — Senate Bill 652 — would require the agency to document whether juveniles were involved in fatal and non-fatal shootings, the age of each individual and the jurisdiction where the juvenile resided. The DJS report would be required to describe the process and actions conducted by the department after each incident.

After McCray presented the bill before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Thursday, he said he doesn’t mind if his legislation gets included in the comprehensive Juvenile Law Reform bill.

“I don’t care who gets the credit. It needs to be done,” he said.

McCray said it’s important to know about all youth-involved shootings to help keep young people from retaliating or being retaliated against.

“How we do that is [to ensure] DJS [reaches youth] when they are supposed to,” McCray said.

The agency supports McCray’s legislation, according to a letter dated Wednesday from Karalyn Aanenson, director of legislation, policy, and reform for DJS. The letter states the agency already examines fatalities of youth under its care, but not non-fatal shootings.

The agency recommends that the Commission on Juvenile Justice Reform and Emerging and Best Practices review non-fatal shootings. That commission, established by 2022 juvenile justice reform measures, hasn’t been fully seated and its membership would more than double under this year’s proposed juvenile law labeled Senate Bill 744.

Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the goal would be to allow McCray’s bill to go through the approval process and then incorporate it into overarching juvenile law measures.

Smith said portions of a bill sponsored by Sen. Chris West (R-Baltimore County) could also be included.

Similarities with West’s Senate Bill 636 include the creation of a smaller commission to review and assess the department’s education and treatment programs, make recommendations to improve the department and research evidence-based programs.

West’s bill would assess the costs of the department’s programs over the last five fiscal years.

He said it’s the most important bill he will sponsor during this year’s 90-day session “because of the imperative short- and long-term impact.”

“As we’re all aware by now, both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor [have] signaled their intention to make juvenile justice a top priority this session,” West told the committee. “Regardless of which side one might fall on the policy issues presented by the various juvenile bills pending before us, I think we all agree that it’s absolutely essential that the state of Maryland be in a position to provide effective treatment services to juveniles who have gotten themselves in trouble.”

Another juvenile-related bill being considered separately is Senate Bill 2 sponsored by Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City). The bill is named after NyKayla Strawder, a 15-year-old girl shot in August 2022 by a 9-year-old boy. The shooting took place in Carter’s district.

The bill was slated to be included into the larger juvenile law package, but some of NyKayla’s family traveled to Annapolis and urged lawmakers to make it a stand-alone bill.

The measure would require a police officer to file a complaint to the department if a child younger than 13 years old commits a crime “that results in the death of a victim.”

In addition, it would make it mandatory for an intake officer with the department to file a Children in Need of Supervision petition. The petition, also known as a CINS, enables law enforcement personnel, social service representatives, educators and residents to fill out a form so a troubled youth and the youth’s family can receive a variety of services.

Those referrals, which are managed by the department, have increased, but referrals are not being made in some jurisdictions.

By William J. Ford

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Moore State of the State: teases State Plan, Emphasizes priorities, Partnership with legislature

Gov. Wes Moore (D) used his second State of the State speech Wednesday to tease a major policy announcement expected for Thursday.

Upon entering office, Moore vowed Maryland would “win the decade,” and in support of that goal, he said he would move quickly to make state “policies as bold as our aspirations.”

Moore touted his pending announcement of an updated plan for state government.

“It’s the first State Plan in nearly a decade,” Moore said in prepared remarks released in advance of the speech. “It doesn’t just set the agenda for the next three months. It will chart the course for the next three years. Our state plan is about more than big aspirational targets. We’ve laid out specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bound goals. We’ve built these priorities by listening to the people who sent us here: Our constituents.”

The plan is considered an expansion of a comprehensive annual report on state government operations issued by the Department of Budget and Management.

Last September, Moore announced the hiring of Asma Mirsa as his administration’s chief performance officer. Each government agency is expected to be required to send data to her for top state officials to analyze and develop policies.

“Money is important,” Moore said in selected portions of the speech released to reporters Wednesday morning. “But strategy, accountability, and partnership are imperative. We need to spend smarter and wiser across all state programs — in a way that respects the taxpayer, follows data, and responds to the needs of our communities.”

The governor and his staff are planning to roll out the strategy during a Thursday town hall meeting open to more than 40,000 state employees.

Moore’s speech ran 10 minutes longer than expected. At nearly 43 minutes, it was just two minutes shorter than the State of the State address he delivered last year.

‘Happy State of the State’

Before entering the House chamber, Moore walked down the steps from the second floor of the State House toward a few dozen people standing behind ropes in the lobby, who waved and acknowledged the governor.

“Happy State of the State,” he said to gathered onlookers.

Moore took a moment to acknowledge 12-year-old K.J. Lark.

“What’s up?” Moore asked the Crofton Middle School student who was at the State House with other members of the student council from his school.

“It felt pretty amazing. Like he recognized me as a person,” said K.J. “We came on a field trip…to see the State House. This is real life. Stuff is happening here.”

The students didn’t know that their trip was going to coincide with the State of the State address.

Moore entered the House chamber to the same level of the applause as a year ago. But gone were the repeated selfies with lawmakers that delayed his arrival on the rostrum. House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) had chided him about the delay last year.

From the opening, Moore fell back on the theme of partnership he has broken in since becoming governor.

“Now I know I talk a lot about partnership,” said Moore. “And I know if the state received a nickel for every time I said the word ‘partnership’ we would have all of our budget issues solved. But let’s be clear, partnership is not the goal. Fulfilling the Promise of Maryland is the goal. Partnership is how we’re going to get there.”

Moore benefits from a legislature in which his party holds a supermajority in both the House and Senate.

“We can’t agree on everything, and we won’t,” Moore said. “The truth is, it would be weird if we did. But we can and we will work together to achieve common goals.”

The governor has also reached out to Republicans, including hosting them at a breakfast late last month in the governor’s mansion.

Senate Minority Leader Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore) said his party was “fully prepared to work alongside Governor Moore and his administration to seek and find common ground that will advance the interests and welfare of all Marylanders as we embark on this journey of collaboration is also our duty to raise concerns whenever we proceed that actions taken may not be in the best interest of our constituents.”

Hershey, in his party’s response to the governor’s address, described Moore’s goals at various times as bold, ambitious, and lofty, but said they require “much more than grand declarations. It necessitates concrete actions and collaborative efforts.”

Moore, in his first year in office, has rallied supporters to his vision of combating generational issues including the elimination of both childhood poverty and the wealth gap between whites and Blacks.

The state plan Moore will highlight Thursday will be a roadmap to accomplishing some of those goals.

“It will chart the course that we will take for the next three years, and our state plan is about much more than just aspirational targets,” Moore said. “The plan that we are going to lay out it will lay out specific actionable realistic and measurable goals.”

The governor touched on several priorities that were reflected in his recent budget proposal.

“Public safety remains our administration’s top priority and that will not change,” he said.

Earlier this year, Moore announced three bills that make up his public safety package. Topping the list is the creation of the Center for Firearm Violence Prevention and Intervention. The program, to be housed within the Department of Health, would treat firearm violence as a public health issue. Moore has asked for $10 million to establish the center.

Republicans are unlikely to see eye-to-eye with Moore on public safety.

Hershey said Moore’s public safety proposals fall short and described the firearm violence center as “an Obama-Biden scheme.”

“Our vision for Maryland is one where public safety is not just the priority, but the foundation upon which all other aspects of society rest. It is impossible to envision a thriving state without a strong commitment to ensuring that repeat violent offenders are held accountable and that our communities are protected from harm,” Hershey said.

Republicans are backing bills that would increase penalties for violent crimes committed by offenders armed with guns, would make the theft of a gun a felony, and would end so-called good behavior credits for offenders convicted of first- and second-degree murder.

The governor wants to expand victim compensation programs and establish an apprenticeship program to eliminate vacancies in police departments across the state.

Moore’s legislative agenda also includes bills expanding access to affordable housing, aid for entrepreneurs and an expansion of childcare assistance.

“In 2022, Maryland was ranked the seventh most expensive state to live in,” according to the printed version of Moore’s speech. “And that statistic tells a story. It’s the story of the entrepreneur in Hagerstown with a bold idea for a new business, but who doesn’t have the money to make rent this month — let alone start a company. It’s the story of a single mom in Leonardtown who works multiple jobs just to put food on the table. This year, we will address two big items on every family budget: Housing and childcare.”

GOP warns of ‘tax heists’

Moore entered office a year ago on a wave of optimism as the state’s first Black governor. He promised quick, bold actions for state government.

Since then, the tenor has changed.

Moore has found some promises, such as filling half of the estimated 10,000 vacant jobs in state government in his first year, easier made than fulfilled.

The governor spent the better part of his first year rarely saying no.

By August, he began hinting at a coming retrenchment of state government.

By January, Moore, avoiding use of the phrase budget cuts, announced some programs would be “rebased” to pre-pandemic funding levels.

Some stakeholders warn that the possibility of tax hikes could impede Moore’s aspirations for expanding economic opportunity in the state.

“The small business community is ready to partner with the Governor, his administration, and the General Assembly on making Maryland the best place to start and run a business,” said Mike O’Halloran, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business. “But we have to be honest on what it will cost Marylanders to fund the programs that are adding billions of dollars to our structural deficit. Small business owners do not have a choice. They must operate within their means or rethink how they do business. They expect policy makers to do the same. And do it without resorting to tax hikes on them and their customers.”

The state now faces mounting structural budget deficits that quickly approach $3 billion in coming years. And while Moore staved off initial cuts to transportation, local and state leaders are facing more than $3.1 billion in cuts without new ways to pay for road and transit projects.

Much of the state’s growing operational budget shortfalls are the result of growing costs of the educational reforms known as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.

“Democrat legislators are now proposing an omnibus tax increase proposal that would raise taxes on job-creating corporations, raise the state’s so-called death tax and increase the capital gains taxes,” Hershey said. “Even if these tax heists were passed, this $1.6 billion annual projection does not incorporate how much revenue would be lost from individuals, businesses and jobs, leaving the state as a result of them.”

The tax bill highlighted by Hershey is likely to stall in the Senate this year. Even so, Republicans warn that a reprieve on tax increases is temporary.

Moore’s speech offered an acknowledgement that his honeymoon is over, and he is no longer the newcomer he was a year ago.

“I’m proud of what we’re doing. But I’m most proud of how we’re doing it,” Moore said in the excerpt. “The executive and the legislature are working together again. We chose to sweat the details of governing, knowing that our constituents deserve nothing less. And by moving in partnership, we’ve helped make life better for the people we serve.”

The governor received praise from other Democrats, including Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D). She was one of several county executives who sat inside the House chamber to hear Moore’s remarks, and was especially pleased that he spotlighted the future FBI headquarters relocating from Washington, D.C., to her jurisdiction, the second largest in Maryland.

“I think that is one of the single, largest economic accomplishments that we have seen in Maryland in many, many years. The impact of it cannot be overstated,” Alsobrooks said. “It will literally give a boost to our economy [with] 7,500 jobs, cybersecurity and technology jobs.”

Moore’s words also were emotional for Del. Vanessa Atterbeary (D-Howard), who he personally mentioned — along with a handful of other lawmakers — in his speech.

Atterbeary connected the governor with Elizabeth Clayborne, a medical doctor and an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, who Moore singled out during his speech for her entrepreneurial achievements. Both Clayborne and Atterbeary are African American single mothers.

“I can just relate,” Atterbeary said. “I just felt an incredible sense of pride to be able to help people and to have him recognize it was pretty amazing.”

By Bryan P. Sears and William J. Ford

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Lawmakers Renew Effort To Extend Access To Health Care For Undocumented Marylanders

Thousands of undocumented immigrants live in Maryland and many of them do not have health insurance that covers regular health check ups and other needs. Some members of the House of Delegates are renewing an effort to allow Maryland’s undocumented population to buy private health insurance through the state’s insurance market place.

The legislation, which does not have a bill number yet, is referred to as the Access to Care Act and is similar to a bill from the 2023 session that passed in the House of Delegates but stalled in the Senate.

It would prompt the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, the state’s insurance marketplace created as a result of the national the Affordable Care Act, to file a federal waiver to permit undocumented Marylanders to buy and use individual health care plans.

Currently, federal laws say that undocumented residents are “not eligible to enroll in federally funded coverage… or to purchase coverage through the ACA (Affordable Care Act) Marketplaces,” according to KFF, a nonprofit health policy research and polling organization.

“The way that the Affordable Care Act works as written, is that unless you are here legally or you’re authorized with proper documentation, you are not allowed to purchase health care coverage through the Exchange. And that’s just part of the underlying law,” Michele Eberle, executive director for the exchange, explained.

“We can ask for that rule to be waived so that we can allow anyone, any Maryland resident, whether they have documentation or not, to purchase their health care through the exchange,” she said. The waiver has been approved in other states.

She said that there are about “300,000 Marylanders who don’t have health coverage…about a third of those don’t fall into the category of having proper documentation.”

Del. Bonnie Cullison (D-Montgomery) said that she filed the legislation for the Access to Care Act Friday, and it should receive a bill number Monday. Sen. Antonio Hayes (D-Baltimore City) will be handling the bill on the Senate side, she said.

“It really is beneficial, not only to the families to have health care insurance, but to the state to have as many people as possible,” she said.

“You put more healthy people into the [insurance] pool, it stabilizes insurance rates,” Cullison explained. “We have the worst emergency room wait times in the country, and a lot of that is because people don’t have preventive and primary care, so they end up in emergency rooms, whether they are undocumented or not…If they don’t have health care, that’s uncompensated care.”

Cullison said that in her talks with insurance companies, it’s apparent that expanding health care options to undocumented immigrants is good for business.

“There’s a benefit to them. When I’ve talked with insurance carriers, what they’re telling me is, the more people we can insure, the better for us. It’s better for their companies,” she said.

Del. Ashanti Martinez (D-Prince George’s), previously a research and policy analyst with the regional immigrants’ rights group CASA, said that lacking health care is one of the top concerns for Maryland’s undocumented population. He plans to co-sponsor the bill.

“This is not free health care. This is not a handout,” Martinez said. “This is an opportunity for folks that work hard, who pay taxes, who live here in Maryland, who impact our communities. These are people who go to church with us, their kids go to our schools…We want them to be as healthy as we are,” he said.

Last year, activists from CASA staged acts of civil disobedience around the legislative complex in the final days of the legislative session in an unsuccessful effort to pressure the Senate to pass the measure.

Affordability could still be an issue

If the Access to Care Act were to become law, and undocumented immigrants in Maryland were legally able to purchase health care on the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, many may still struggle to afford the plans currently offered on the marketplace.

“I am very, very supportive of opening up the exchange to all Marylanders,” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said during a news conference at the start of session. “The real question, though, is affordability. And this is where the rubber hits the road.”

Earlier this month, the Maryland Department of Health briefed the House Health and Government Operations committee on how much it might cost Maryland taxpayers to provide health care coverage to the state’s undocumented populations.

According to health department analysts, it could require millions or even a billion dollars in state funding through subsidies that would ease the financial burden of health care for undocumented residents, a population that is often low-income.

California, Colorado and other states provide state-funded health care programs to some low-income residents regardless of documentation status.

In Maryland’s constrained fiscal year, lawmakers are saying it’s unlikely that state funds will towards creating those subsidies in the 2025 budget.

“We don’t have the state dollars right now,” Cullison said.

The Access to Care Act will have a provision that authorizes future legislatures to create those subsidies down the line if they are interested in doing so, Cullison said.

“This is a challenging budget year. And we can’t make any promises about funding going forward. We don’t want to increase our structural deficit,” she said. “So, we can’t consider that right now.”

Ferguson said that the 2024 fiscal year was about “normalizing” the state budget now that additional federal funds from the COVID pandemic are less available.

“In a world of inexhaustible resources, it would be an easy answer, but we have a lot of competing pressures,” he said. “So if we’re just focused on the exchange, I think that’s a little bit of an easier conversation. I just don’t know if that solves the problem of expanding the number of insured Marylanders.”

By Danielle J. Brown

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Analysts: ‘A Lot to Like’ in Moore Budget but ‘Minimal Progress’ on Looming Deficits

$63 billion budget proposed by Gov. Wes Moore (D) resolves short-term budget concerns but does little to address billions of dollars in projected budget shortfalls in coming years, legislative analysts said Monday.

The outlook, which House Appropriations Committee Chair Ben Barnes (D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel) called “frightening,” was part of an analysis delivered to House and Senate budget committees Monday. Billions of dollars in ballooning projected deficits over the next three years fed questions about possible tax increases.

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“There’s a lot of things that most people will like about the budget. There’s no tax increases. There’s a small amount of fees however, that come up,” said David Romans, an analyst for the Department of Legislative Services. “On the spending side, there’s a number of initiatives and enhancements, many of which I suspect will be popular. There’s also a little bit of cost containment, including some that are true ongoing reductions in funding for certain groups and it leaves a healthy balance in the rainy day fund. So, a lot of things to like. The thing not to like about the budget is that it really makes minimal progress in addressing the general fund structural deficit.”

By next year, the state’s projected structural budget deficit grows to $1 billion. In fiscal 2027, the last year of Moore’s term, it grows to $1.3 billion. A year later, it more than doubles to $3 billion — about 12% of the general fund revenues projected for that year.

“That is the largest structural gap we’ve had forecasted since back in the Great Recession,” said Romans. “Generally, we haven’t seen that kind of gap except for during periods of recession or shortly after a recession. So, it’s a particularly large challenge given that we are not coming out of recession or in the midst of one right now.”

Barnes in recent weeks has signaled an interest in looking at taxes or other revenues to address both the state’s general fund budget issues and billions of dollars in potential cuts to transportation projects.

“It’s certainly something we need to keep in mind and particularly because we’ve done so many one-time actions to resolve this year,” he said, adding that the current budget proposal replaces cash for projects with bonds, takes interest from some accounts and reduces a revenue volatility fund meant to protect the state from wild swings in capital gains tax collections.

Barnes asked Romans about the timing of potential increases and how long it would take for new money to land in state coffers.

“Revenues are tricky,” said Romans. “There are certain revenue changes that can be done very quickly. If you’re just changing the sales tax rate, for example, that’s an easy fix. Everyone’s used to paying it.”

Others might have a longer lag time.

“If there’s sort of new and creative ideas taxing a new group of services that we haven’t taxed, it just takes more time,” Romans said. “It’s going to be regulations to find exactly what you’re taxing. It will take many more months to do something new and creative than it does to just do something simple like changing a rate.”

Senate leaders and Moore have so far seemed reluctant to look at tax increases in this legislative session.

State Budget Secretary Helene Grady, in last week’s budget briefing, said Maryland families “are still managing the shock of the steep inflation that we experienced through 2021 and midway through 2022 in their household budgets. This has directly informed the governor’s position against raising taxes at this time.”

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore) said, when asked about tax increases to bolster the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, that such talks are “not going to happen this session.”

Moore entered the session facing roughly $1.1 billion in cash deficiencies and a structural budget deficit of $761 million for fiscal 2025.

Last week, Moore rolled out his fiscal 2025 budget. During a briefing, the governor claimed victory over those short-term budget challenges by flipping the cash shortfall into a $100 million projected surplus to end the year. It also reduces a projected structural budget deficit for fiscal 2025 by 34% to $502 million.

Moore manages the reversal of budget fortunes through a series of maneuvers including nearly $680 million in spending reductions the governor called “rebasing.”

The largest of those is nearly $500 million that was expected to be transferred into the state’s so-called rainy day fund, a reserve for recessionary periods and other fiscal challenges. The fund, required to be maintained at 5% of revenues, stands at $2.5 billion or twice the legally required level.

Moore will also skip $50 million in expected payments to offset the state’s retirement fund liabilities.

The governor will also cut more than $86 million from two higher education programs, including nearly $64 million from the Sellinger program for students at private colleges and nearly $23 million from a program for community colleges.

All those cuts are part of a separate budget reconciliation bill.

Moore will also tap $40 million from a fund meant to guard against wild swings in capital gains tax collections.

He will save another $35 million by reducing 6% commissions to businesses that sell lottery tickets to 5%. The plan also includes reducing the 3% commissions to agents cashing in winning tickets to 2%, according to analysts.

Another $29.3 million will come from interest earnings on some state special funds accounts.

Moore will also reclaim $1.3 million through the repeal of a small business tax credit.

Moore also transfers nearly $245 million in dedicated funds into the state General Fund.

The largest of those transfers totals nearly $150 million from a dedicated account to pay for cybersecurity upgrades. That cut comes at a time when Moore recently announced efforts to modernize state computer systems and improve cybersecurity. Some estimates place the total cost of modernization in the billions of dollars.

Also on Moore’s cutting block is a $44 million reduction to some capital projects; $40 million from an unemployment insurance fund for state employees which analysts said was overfunded; nearly $11 million in combined reductions from a fund a state pediatric cancer fund and another fund that provides grants for community microgrids; and a $400,000 reduction to state domestic violence grants.

Moore, in his budget, also proposes several new programs including:

The governor’s budget also adds 2,500 new state positions, analysts said. That comes on top of an overall state employee vacancy rate of 10%. The new positions layer another challenge on Moore, who wants to cut into state vacancies.

Analysts project that the state will see $100 million in salaries revert to the government from unfilled positions in the next year, a sign of just how daunting it will be for Moore to close the vacancy rate.

Moore also pumps $150 million in cash from the state’s rainy day fund reserves. The money will go to help offset the state’s financial obligations to the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority and free up cash that will offset proposed cuts to the state’s Consolidated Transportation Program.

That solution also resolves only one year.

On the table for the following five years is more than $3.1 billion in proposed cuts. The state will also reduce its Highway User Revenue aid to 23 counties and Baltimore City.

By Bryan P. Sears

The Spy Newspapers may periodically employ the assistance of artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance the clarity and accuracy of our content.

Governor’s Budget Focuses on Core Priorities without Tax Increases

Gov. Wes Moore (D) unveiled a new spending plan Wednesday that he said provides additional funding for public safety, child care and raises for employees, as well as staving off some cuts to transportation projects.

Moore and his Budget Secretary Helene Grady said the fiscal 2025 proposal protects core priorities and attacks a growing structural deficit without the need for tax increases. But Moore and Grady said the proposed budget “rebases” spending at several agencies and programs to pre-pandemic funding levels, including aid for students attending community and private four-year colleges.

“We will make Maryland safer. We will make Maryland more affordable. We will make Maryland more competitive,” said Moore. “And we will continue to make Maryland the state that serves and we will achieve each of these goals without raising taxes on Marylanders.”

In general, lawmakers offered positive comments on the $63.1 billion plan that includes $25.8 billion in General Fund spending. The comments were based on a budget overview presented to them by Moore over breakfast Wednesday morning.

“I think this budget has some things to like, including full funding of the Blueprint,” said House Appropriations Chair Ben Barnes (D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel).

Moore is required by law to fully fund K-12 education.

Barnes said the plan sidesteps thornier issues involving projected structural budget deficits and more than $3 billion proposed cuts to transportation over six years.

“It does ignore some of the long-term issues of funding for things like the Blueprint and transportation,” said Barnes. “I think that is something that we should not put off until tomorrow. These are things that Marylanders are expecting us to solve now and things we need to get to work on this session.”

Senate Budget and Taxation Chair Guy Guzzone (D-Howard) called the proposed budget “a very solid start.”

“We’re going to have to deal with issues we’ve previously suggested we fund at different levels,” said Guzzone, noting Moore’s cuts to some higher education programs. “It’s the beginning of having those discussions about the long term.”

The proposal even received some early positive comment from Republicans happy with the absence of proposed tax increases.

“It seems like a fiscally responsible budget this year,” said Del. Jefferson L. Ghrist (R-Upper Shore). “We just got an overview. Over the next couple of weeks, once we start diving into the budget, we’ll see if there is any devil in the details.”

Bolstering aid to child care

Overall, Moore’s fiscal 2025 budget weighs in about a billion dollars less than the current year.

Moore and Grady said the administration plans to adjust the current year budget to make cuts to some areas and increasing funding to other programs, including a $218 million increase to bolster the state’s child care scholarship program for pre-kindergarten students.

The adjustments, made through legislation, will allow the administration to close a $1 billion projected cash deficit and reduce a projected structural budget deficit by 34% from $761 million to $502 million.

That move is in line with recommendations made in December by the legislature’s Joint Spending Affordability Committee.

Looming in the out-years of a five-year budget forecast are deficits that balloon to $2.7 billion by 2029.

Much of that is caused by spending spikes tied to education reforms in the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.

“So, I think we’re able to show that we could still make big investments in things like childcare … things like housing, and also still shrink the structural deficit,” said Moore.

Other investments include $127 million to local law enforcement, a $5 million increase, and $10 million to create the new Center for Firearm Violence Prevention and intervention within the Department of Health.

“We also need to confront the inexcusable fact that 75% of homicides in our state are committed with a gun,” said Moore. “This is a public safety crisis. This is also a public health crisis.”

His budget also includes an additional $16 million for the Department of Juvenile Services.

“It’s going to help to ensure that we can stop the cycle of crime in our communities,” he said.

Moore also proposes increasing aid for affordable housing, including $110 million for rental housing.

His expansion of aid for child care scholarships will include an additional $270 million in fiscal 2025. That is on top of the $218 million for the current year that he is asking the legislature to approve.

Moore called it “the largest single year investment in child care” in the history of the state.

The governor said he will look to make the state more business friendly by introducing legislation to “streamline the permitting process to reduce regulatory red tape and to direct investments towards the industries of the future.”

Additionally, he proposed earmarking $100 million for the new FBI headquarters planned for Greenbelt.

Moore’s budget includes an increase for the Maryland Corps and Service Year Option within the Department of Service and Civic Innovation. The additional money would allow Moore’s signature program to increase the number of participants from 280 to 500.

State employees will also see a raise that includes cost of living and longevity increases at a cost of about $400 million.

Finally, Moore included $150 million from the state’s rainy day fund that will stave off cuts that were part of a $3.3 billion reduction in proposed transportation funding over six years.

The move is a one-time fix and some lawmakers including Barnes said there is an urgent need to resolve long-term transportation funding issues this year.

Currently, the state has $2.5 billion in reserve — about 10% of state expenditures. The amount is about twice that required by law to be held in reserve.

Even after tapping the fund, Moore and Grady said they will leave more than $2.3 billion in the emergency account.

No tax increases but some “rebasing” of spending

The governor signaled a reluctance to address budgetary challenges with taxes, though some Republicans complained that he is moving to increase fees in some agencies.

Grady, the state budget secretary, said Maryland families “are still managing the shock of the steep inflation that we experienced through 2021 and midway through 2022 in their household budgets. This has directly informed the governor’s position against raising taxes at this time.”

Grady added that the state needs to focus on population growth as one part of a broader strategy to grow the state’s economy.

Moore was reluctant to discuss cuts to programs, euphemistically referring to reductions as “rebasing” budgets.

“If you are the CEO of a company and your business is not growing then maybe it is time to rethink your business model. It will not be enough to simply rebuild state government,” said Moore. “We need to refocus state government. This budget is an important step in order for us to achieve that long term goal and taking it in a fiscally responsible way and a fiscally responsible way that the people obviously have become accustomed to with this administration.”

Lottery agents who saw a bump in fees paid by the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Agency will see reductions back to pre-pandemic levels, Moore said as an example of “rebasing.”

In another example, state aid to students at 13 private colleges through the Joseph A. Sellinger grant program will also be reduced under Moore’s proposal. The program has grown exponentially from roughly $59 million in fiscal 2020 to about $130 million in the current year. The Moore administration also hopes to focus future grants to undergraduate students.

Moore also will seek to “rein in” spending that is part of the Cade funding formula for community colleges around the state. Senior administration officials said the increases annually have grown while the number of students over the last decade has decreased.

Moore said the money, driven by federal aid during the pandemic, created an unsustainable long-term budget problem.

“So, there is a rebasing that we had on a few different state programs that we think are still showing our measurement of being aggressive, yet at the same time dealing with current economic problems,” Moore said.

by Bryan P. Sears

The Spy Newspapers may periodically employ the assistance of artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance the clarity and accuracy of our content.

House, Senate Differ on Initial Approach to Transportation Funding

House and Senate leaders appear to be on opposite sides of the road when it comes to solving the problem of how to fund transportation projects in Maryland.

Maryland faces a funding deficit of more than $3 billion over the next six years. An expected infusion of $150 million, while welcome, is viewed as a small bandage on a gaping wound.

“We should solve the problem in this session this year and not leave the uncertainty sitting out there and resolve what are really important Transportation Trust Fund shortfalls and needs,” said House Appropriations Chair Del. Ben Barnes (D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel).

Maryland is facing a series of fiscal problems including how to pay for road and transit projects. State and local leaders find it harder to keep up with the cost of basic maintenance. Little is left to pay for extras such as a Red Line east-west transit project in Baltimore or congestion relief efforts on the Maryland portion of the Capital Beltway.

Long-term, the state will need to modernize its approach to how it pays for transportation projects. The current system, built on gas and vehicle taxes and other fees, is not keeping up with demand and inflationary pressures.

The Transportation Revenue and Infrastructure Needs Commission is tasked with recommending changes to how the state pays for future transportation needs. Its final report is due at the end of this year.

Resolving the problem will take time, said Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore).

“That’s not going to happen this session, but we have to really discuss it,” Ferguson said. “If we want to expand the system, if we want to invest in greater transportation options in the state of Maryland be it from the airport to roads and bridges to transit, we have to find the money. That’s not an easy conversation. It’s going to take a lot of detailed work to make sure we’re doing it appropriately and thoughtfully. It’s going to take the next 12 months to figure that out.”

In December, Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld announced $3.3 billion in cuts to transportation spending over the next six-years, a period covered by the agency’s Consolidated Transportation Plan.

The announcement meant the cancellation of major projects in every political subdivision in the state. It also meant a reduction in state aid to local governments that already had been slashed more than a decade ago as the state tried to balance its budget during the Great Recession.

“We are upside down on managing local roads,” Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said Tuesday during testimony before the House Appropriations Committee. These cuts make it worse, but we are already circling the drain on this.”

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski (D) said his jurisdiction needs more money to pay for basic road maintenance and new projects including the potential expansion of the Red Line into eastern and western Baltimore County.

“One time funding means that we’re back to square one again next year,” said Olszewski, who is also president of the association of counties. “So, while appreciated and helpful, we do want to sort of work with all of you to make sure we’re thinking about those long term, sustainable solutions so that we’re not back at the conversation about the department having to offer additional cuts, reductions and commuter bus service, local transit systems or other desperately needed projects. So the bottom line is the cutbacks mean lost service down the road, but not very far down it.”

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said he “cannot plan for future years without assurances of funding.”

The city will disproportionately feel the pain of the proposed cuts.

As part of billions in cuts that Gov. Wes Moore (D) and transit officials announced, Baltimore would lose nearly $33 million in Highway User Revenues, a decrease of about 14%.

The state’s 23 counties and nearly 160 small, incorporated subdivisions combined will see a cut totaling more than $19.7 million.

Baltimore will also see a 3% reduction in funding earmarked for the locally operated Charm City Circulator.

“There have been instances before where it has been easy to balance the budget on the back of Baltimoreans,” said Scott. “We know that previous administrations took that route, but we don’t have to take that route again. But I know that you know, and Governor Moore knows that as Baltimore goes so does the state of Maryland. We have the opportunity, a responsibility,  to chart a different course and stop the legacy of putting the burden of budget cuts on the back of our most vulnerable residents.”

Sanderson and other county leaders applauded an announcement by Wiedefeld and Gov. Wes Moore (D) that grants a one-year reprieve.

Moore is expected Wednesday to deliver a budget to lawmakers that pumps $150 million in cash into the Transportation Trust Fund.

The infusion offsets the December plan to reduce transportation spending by $184 million in fiscal 2025.

Barnes said the use of cash “probably not sustainable long term.” Still, he and others said they backed the move for one year.

“Every dollar restored is going to make a difference in people’s lives,” said Barnes. “It doesn’t solve our long-term problems. We’re going to be back here next year unless we get serious about it.”

Most important to local governments would be the full restoration of proposed cuts to Highway User Revenue and aid for locally operated transit systems, totaling $52 million and $28 million, respectively.

“This is the right solution for this year but all of these places that are being backfilled I believe are really ongoing costs,” said Ferguson. “There is an ongoing question. This is the right way to approach it this year — let’s use the rainy day fund for a one-time expenditure for this year because we know over the next 12 months, we have to have a robust conversation over how we fund and what we want to fund in transportation moving forward.”

By Bryan P. Sears

The Spy Newspapers may periodically employ the assistance of artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance the clarity and accuracy of our content.