Gov. Wes Moore (D) told a gathering of county leaders still reeling from news of deep cuts in transportation projects that he backs the proposal, describing it as hard medicine.
For two days, officials from around the state have grumbled about $3.3 billion in cuts including deep reductions to highway user revenues, the primary source of local road repair funding for counties.
“I know that our trust is being tested,” Moore said during a dinner speech at the Maryland Association of Counties winter conference in Cambridge. “I believe the course we’ve taken is the right one.”
Moore’s speech also included some details of a dozen bills that will be his legislative agenda for the 2024 session.
“The year will be hard,” he said. “But I have never been more optimistic about the future of our state. Because we will tackle this moment together. I’ve always believed you can never learn anything about anyone when times are easy. You learn about someone when times are hard – when you’re tested – when the only choices left are tough choices. That time is now.”
The speech is a public recognition by Moore of the anger expressed by many county leaders who complained about the 11th hour nature of delivering news of extreme cuts. Moore vowed to repair any damage to the relationship.
“Trust demands transparency and truth, even if it’s hard,” said Moore. “This evening, I offer both – to you and to the people of Maryland. And if there’s one argument I hope to make clear before I leave the podium, it’s this: In this challenging time, we have a duty to act with discipline. Because discipline is what the people of Maryland deserve; And by acting with discipline, I believe we can build a better state for the long-term – and strengthen the bonds of trust.”
The governor also acknowledged the economic pinch felt by Marylanders. His speech contained no mention of tax increases.
“So, at a time when Marylanders are feeling squeezed and skeptical, we need to do more than tighten our belts – we must rethink how state government does business,” he said. “That work won’t happen overnight. Our administration is still gathering a deeper understanding of where structural gaps exist – and why we keep coming up short. But we must start doing the hard work now. That’s what our transportation proposal is about.”
But Moore added: “I don’t have all the answers right now.”
For the better part of a year, Moore has traveled the state preaching the gospel of false choices, promising to do bold things even if the mechanism for paying for those promises was not always clear.
Earlier this week, Paul Wiedefeld, Moore’s transportation secretary, released plans to cleave $3.3 billion in transportation funds. The cuts hit every corner of the state and in many cases, projects long expected by the state’s 23 counties and Baltimore City.
Moore said the state is now “forced to reckon with structural challenges that have plagued our state for years.”
“If we don’t make hard choices now, Maryland’s budget challenges will grow,” said Moore. “We will have fewer resources to supercharge our economy; We will have less power to win the decade; And the public won’t trust us to use their taxpayer dollars responsibly.”
Moore, in his prepared comments, appeared to walk back the idea that the state could do “everything all at once.”
And he laid blame on his predecessor, Gov. Larry Hogan (R).
“We’ve seen the last administration preside over transit lines that were late, over-budget, and unfinished,” said Moore. “Just today, light rail cars in Baltimore that were purchased years ago had to be taken out of service because they were deemed unsafe. Marylanders feel like they’re paying a lot – and aren’t getting the best in return. I believe we have a responsibility to invest in our priorities. But first, we need to build a strategy for investment that shows the public we can deliver results in a sustainable way. Here’s the hard truth: We’ve spread ourselves too thin.”
Moore, who never mentioned Hogan by name, said the Republican “turned away from making hard choices on what we should and shouldn’t prioritize as a state government.
“So, we say we’ll invest in everything – without the resources to do it. And the budget gap is the result,” Moore said.
The comments could also be a hint of self-criticism from the first-year executive.
Moore has promised major projects including easing traffic congestion on the Capital Beltway and I-270 as well as a new American Legion Bridge — a project first promised by Hogan.
Hogan vowed to complete the project as a public-private partnership. Moore nixed that plan but has yet to identify funding.
Similarly, Moore announced this summer he would build an east-west “Red Line” corridor in Baltimore that was canceled in 2015 by Hogan, who called it a “boondoggle.”
Moore has not identified how that project would be paid for.
Moore also criticized the current way the state pays for projects through the Transportation Trust Fund, including revenue from the state’s gas tax.
“The transportation trust fund has become so outdated that fixing it requires a comprehensive look at how we fund transportation in the first place,” he said.
But Moore did not mention his call this summer to end automatic annual increases of the gas tax tied to the rate of inflation. Moore said the increases are disproportionately unfair to low- and middle-income workers.
Moore offers peek at legislative agenda
Moore also used the speech to touch on a few of the dozen bills that will form the legislative agenda in his second year. He offered no specifics on any of the bills he will propose.
In that package will be legislation to promote data centers in Maryland.
The governor also plans to introduce a bill “addressing the current workforce shortage in law enforcement so we can do a better job of keeping our communities safe.”
He said he plans to “unveil a package of housing bills” next week including legislation focused on affordable housing.
By Bryan P. Sears