The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wes Moore pledges to ‘end child poverty’ in first State of State

The new Democratic governor called on residents to volunteer for service and vowed to fill vacant state jobs

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore gives his first State of the State address at the Maryland State House on Wednesday. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Gov. Wes Moore (D) doubled down on what he called his “audacious goal” to “end child poverty in Maryland,” using his first State of the State address Wednesday to ask for a bipartisan pledge to join him.

“No group deserves our help more than the children of Maryland. In a state with the highest median income in the country, one in eight of our children lives in poverty,” Moore said.

“How can we expect to fill their minds with ideas if they can’t fill their stomachs with food? How can they rise above their station if they are in a constant state of deprivation?”

Moore also used his speech to the Maryland General Assembly — composed of a supermajority of fellow Democrats who punctuated his 46-minute speech with nearly 60 bursts of applause and standing ovations — to broadly call for residents to consider how they can offer their service to help each other and to enlist state lawmakers in recruiting them.

“At a time when civic bonds are frayed, where many feel more disconnected from their neighbors than ever before, service is the antidote to the epidemic of loneliness and otherness,” Moore said. “Service is how we re-engage our people in the project of forming a more perfect state.”

Moore said he plans to first tackle child poverty with more than $171 million in tax relief to poor and working families through extending an expanded earned income tax credit and giving another tax credit to people with children. He also pushed his plan to accelerate a planned minimum wage hike so that it hit $15 per hour by the end of year, as well as to tie it to inflation so it automatically keeps increasing in the future.

He has included money to pay for these in his budget proposal, but Moore needs the lawmakers to enact bills to execute it.

For Black voters, great expectations of America’s lone Black governor

“Listen, we can get this done, and we can change the trajectory of our state for generations to come,” said Moore, who took office two weeks ago after a victory of more than 30 percentage points in November. “We can set up our children to win the next decade if we get rid of policies that force hundreds of thousands of them to lose.”

With his wife, Dawn, mother, Joy, and two sisters in the balcony, and a newly appointed cabinet in the crammed House chamber, Moore walked in the room to thunderous applause, bear hugs and outstretched cameras from lawmakers trying to sneak in a selfie.

In his address, he emphasized other problems he’d like to solve — teacher shortages, thousands of vacant state jobs, a rise in violent crime — but did not spell out detailed policy steps to fix them. Instead, he encouraged lawmakers and residents to take collective action.

“If we are going to make this state work again, we need people willing to serve,” Moore said. “We need talented individuals who put the whole before the self.”

The governor made an overture to the GOP superminority, presenting partisanship as one of several “false choices” he planned to confront, listing among those “the idea that if one group of people wins, another must lose. Or that when a political party loses an election, that they are somehow excluded from the process of governing for the next four years.”

Some Republicans are already concerned that some groups — such as private school students and people who want tougher penalties for violent offenders — will be left behind, House Minority Leader Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany) said in his party’s response to Moore’s speech, recorded Tuesday.

“We have no disagreement with such a vision,” Buckel said, according to his prepared remarks. “We want every Marylander to succeed, but it will take more than words to realize this goal. … We hope Gov. Moore breaks away from some in his party who seem to care more about the violent criminal than their victims.”

In his address, Moore again highlighted disparities in incarceration rates of Black people in Maryland, hitting a theme that the state’s first Black governor raised during his campaign and in his inauguration speech. Maryland has led the nation in incarcerating young Black men, according to a 2019 report from the Justice Policy Institute that found the state imprisoned the highest percentage of Black people in the country, more than twice the national average.

Moore said law enforcement stepped into the gap to keep communities safe during years of rising crime, “but we have also seen unacceptable rates of incarceration for young Black men and boys in neighborhoods that fear both the criminals and the forces sworn to protect them.

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, buried in Rockville, Maryland — he wasn’t born here, but he knew where he wanted to spend eternity we must hold these two contradicting ideas together at the same time, and be determined to make them otherwise.”

Senate Minority Whip Justin Ready (R-Carroll) applauded Moore for aspiring to reduce child poverty and encouraging public service. But he said he was disappointed that there was little attention given to crime and driving down the cost of living.

“We’ll certainly try to work together with the governor on the things we can support,” Ready said. “ … Promoting service and lifting people out of poverty are great goals but we know government can’t do all that and that’s where the rub will come in.”

At least one of Moore’s proposals drew applause from both sides of the aisle, with state Sen. Johnny Ray Salling (R-Baltimore County), a veteran, standing to show his support for a more generous and far-reaching tax credit for retired veterans that Moore proposed.

Buckel said after the speech that he has already signed onto a couple of pieces of legislation that Moore is proposing. Among them: the veteran tax credit, enhanced health care for members of the National Guard and an expansion of broadband internet.

But he worried about other parts of the governor’s agenda.

“I didn’t hear a tremendous amount of details on how we are going to achieve these goals without raising taxes and pursuing the same crime policies we have,” Buckel said. “Any childhood poverty that is a tremendous thing. Knowing Wes Moore a little bit, I know he means it, he feels it in his heart, we all do. We’re 100 percent behind that effort but we have to find a way to do it. And it’s not just raising the minimum wage. That’s not going to change the world.”

Moore called for the filling of some of the state’s vacant jobs, which he said totaled more than 6,100 and are preventing the state from providing critical services. He noted his budget has $30 million to hire more corrections and parole officers, as well as staff to help incarcerated people transition back into society; and he also previewed legislation he plans to push this year, including bills to attract more teachers and to create a service year program that pays recent high school graduates to work in public service jobs.

Moore also said he wanted to build on an initiative, started by former governor Larry Hogan (R), that accepts real-world experience instead of a college education as qualification for many state jobs, noting that he himself had graduated from a junior college before attending Johns Hopkins University.

Moore concluded his remarks by asking lawmakers to help him institute a culture that inspires residents to help each other.

“We can be a state that rewards, celebrates, and elevates a culture of service,” he said. “We must be.”