In the weeks leading up to Gov. Wes Moore’s swearing in Wednesday, some of his advisers privately suggested that the early days of his administration would reveal some uncomfortable truths about outgoing Gov. Larry Hogan’s stewardship of state government.
Hogan (R) had campaigned vociferously against the record of his predecessor, former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) in 2014 — particularly when it came to spending, taxes and economic development — and continued to use O’Malley as a punching bag for the entirety of his administration. Moore (D), in contrast, was considerably more circumspect on the campaign trail, referring obliquely to challenges facing the state without directly attributing problems to Hogan.
But Moore and his Budget secretary, Helene Grady, dropped the niceties Friday, as they discussed details of the new governor’s $63.1 billion budget proposal. Time after time during a State House news conference, Moore and Grady spotlighted funding shortfalls, policy priorities and spending decisions of the previous administration that they suggested imperiled the state’s economic well-being.
The news conference began with Moore recounting that he’d started the morning having breakfast with state lawmakers of both parties and briefing them about his spending plan — “for the first time in recent years.”
“It was a wonderful conversation,” the governor said. “…It’s also an important sign of the new partnership we plan to have with the legislature.”
Administration officials also spread the word that they had spent the previous several hours briefing local leaders about the key provisions of Moore’s budget proposal.
Moore repeated, as he asserted during his inaugural address, that “we are asset-rich and we are strategy-poor.” He also suggested that “an unsustainably high number of vacancies” in state government hampers the ability of Maryland’s economy to grow.
Grady said that state agencies had a 13.4% vacancy rate, compared to 6% a decade ago.
“If we’re going to accomplish all that we said we’re going to do…we’re going to need to refocus on building state government,” she said.
Grady said the budget proposal includes raises of up to 18% for most state employees, which officials said should help with recruitment and retention for the state bureaucracy.
Grady, who came to the administration from Johns Hopkins University, where she was a vice president and chief financial officer, said Maryland’s gross domestic product has fallen behind other states over the past five years, citing the state’s “poor record of economic growth despite our great wealth and tremendous assets.”
Over the past decade, Grady said, Maryland’s GDP grew by 11%, compared to a 23% growth in GDP nationally. In 2022, she reported, Maryland ranked 47th among states and the District of Columbia in overall “economic momentum;” 45th when it came to change in personal income; and was tied for 40th in population growth.
Maryland’s unemployment rate was 4.3% in November 2022, compared to a 3.7% unemployment rate nationally. Regionally, unemployment was only higher in Delaware (4.4%), she said. In Pennsylvania it was 4%, in New Jersey it was 3.4%, and in Virginia it was 2.8%.
“There are very real economic headwinds that we’re facing,” Moore said.
He pledged to add $500 million in extra spending for the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the sweeping education reform plan that the General Assembly passed a few years ago. Moore said the plan’s progress has “been hobbled by an executive” who refused to fully fund it.
The Maryland State Education Association, which had fraught relations with Hogan, who once referred to their leaders as “union thugs,” applauded Moore’s spending plan.
“Governor Moore’s budget marks the beginning of a new era of commitment and leadership to ensure that every student has an outstanding public school where they can pursue their dreams,” MSEA President Cheryl Bost said in a statement.
Bost noted that Moore’s budget proposal includes money for a $1,000 retention bonus for school support professionals that the legislature passed but that Hogan’s budget didn’t fully fund.
“We appreciate that Gov. Moore’s budget recognized these employees and their contributions to our schools,” she said. “It’s clear: Gov. Moore gets the importance of our public schools and investing in the future of our students. We are excited to work with a governor who has our backs and puts students first.”
Moore saved some of his harshest criticism for the Hogan administration’s transportation policy legacy, as he announced that he was adding $500 million for transportation to his spending plan.
“In just the past few days, we’ve seen a few examples of a transportation system that’s failing people’s needs,” he said.
Earlier this week, state officials announced that the Purple Line rail project in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which is already 4 1/2 years behind and millions of dollars over budget, was being delayed another several months and would not open until mid-2027.
Moore accused the Maryland Department of Transportation of “withholding information from the legislature” about the Purple Line, a circumstance he deemed “not satisfactory.”
Moore, who has yet to nominate a secretary of Transportation, reiterated a pledge from the campaign trail that he plans to seek significant changes to Hogan’s plan to widen the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 by installing toll lanes on the highways, saying the prior administration’s proposal is at odds with his own philosophy that major state infrastructure projects must take equity, the environment and community input into account.
“I have real issues with the way it was laid out,” he said.
Critics of the highway widening plan and the execution of the Purple Line have blasted the state’s handling of the public-private partnerships (P3s) meant to manage the two projects. Moore said he recognized the utility of P3s for certain large-scale proposals, but added, “I’m not against public-private partnerships. I’m against public-private partnerships that don’t serve the public.”
As Moore and Grady criticized prior Hogan administration decisions, they must also deal with another legacy of the Hogan era: A move by the General Assembly, later ratified by state voters, to give the legislature more say over the state budget.
For the past century, lawmakers could reduce a governor’s budget, but they could not add to it or shift funds in a significant way. But they moved to change those limitations in part over their pique with Hogan. Now Moore must deal with the consequences.
“I was for it and voted for it and then I realized I was running for governor,” he lamented, half-jokingly. But he quickly added: “We take the word partnership seriously.”
By Josh Kurtz