Maryland Democratic legislative leaders emerged largely upbeat Friday from an initial meeting with Gov. Larry Hogan to discuss his $46.6 billion budget proposal, a contrast from some past years when battle lines were drawn over spending priorities.
The spending plan does not include any dramatic changes or major initiatives that could be controversial. It boosts overall spending by 4 percent and increases funding for schools, health departments and public safety.
“I think it’s a great beginning to a second term,” said Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
But McIntosh warned that the longer the partial federal government shutdown continues, costing Maryland an estimated $1.3 million to $1.5 million in revenue daily, the more difficult it will be to craft a balanced budget.
“We are going to have to be careful,” she said. “Every day the federal government is closed, the revenue projections we enjoyed coming into this session decrease.”
Getting through the budget process without a major clash with the Democratic-majority legislature would be a big win for Hogan (R) as he tries to boost his national profile with a message of bipartisanship.
The popular, term-limited governor has made no secret of his antipathy for President Trump and Washington’s polarized politics. He is being courted by some Republican critics of Trump as a potentially appealing alternative.
Legislative leaders and advocates were poring over the massive budget documents on Friday. But Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said they were largely pleased with the fiscal plan, which also provides a 3 percent raise for state employees. The legislature will debate, modify and approve the budget in coming weeks.
“He’s a Republican governor, and he increased spending by four percent,” Miller said of Hogan’s plan. “He’s taking care of our state employees; he’s taking care of our retirees and funding education. Things look good.”
The state teachers union, which clashed with Hogan during his first four years in office, was less impressed by the $6.9 billion allocated for education, noting that the $347 million increase over last year’s appropriation was mandated by the Democratic-majority General Assembly.
“It’s a status-quo, autopilot budget that continues to utilize outdated funding formulas that leave our schools underfunded annually,” said Steven Hershkowitz, a spokesman for the Maryland State Educators Association.
Advocates and legislative leaders had hoped to pursue bolder changes in education spending this year, based on recommendations from a panel known as the Kirwan Commission that was tasked with advising the legislature on how to transform the state’s public school system into a world-class system.
But the commission postponed coming up with proposals for new funding formulas, and it instead asked the government to set aside $200 million for initial policy changes and to use $125 million in tax revenue from Maryland casinos to make additional increases in teacher pay and to further expand prekindergarten.
Hogan’s plan includes the $200 million Kirwan requested but would use $65 million of the $125 million in casino revenue to pay for school construction. Nearly $36 million would go toward the Kirwan Commission recommendations. The proposal is a change for the governor, who left Democrats and union leaders frustrated last month when he called for using far more of the casino money for school construction.
Hershkowitz said Friday that all revenue from casinos should go to teacher salaries and programming improvements, noting that voters approved a “lockbox” initiative in November that directed such dollars to education.
“We believe when voters passed Question 1 they were thinking about teacher’s salaries, hiring more teachers and more pre-K, not school construction and it doesn’t mean school construction is unimportant,” he said. “But we really should be able to do both. This budget creates a false choice for salaries for more teachers and the buildings that they work in.”
The Mental Health Association of Maryland praised Hogan’s proposed budget in a statement, noting that services for mental health and substance-use disorders were fully funded, but it said more resources are needed.
“This is not the finish line,” said Dan Martin, the association’s senior director of public policy. “With opioid overdose deaths continuing to rise and demand for behavioral health services skyrocketing, we must continue to find common sense solutions to expand access to treatment and community-based services for all Marylanders in need.”
Miller, who called the governor’s overall plan “very fair and very balanced,” said he was displeased that his plan for a police-training facility and 500 additional police officers in Baltimore was not included.
“There is a major crime problem in Baltimore City,” he said. “They have a 15-minute response time and that is embarrassing. . . . People need to be protected.”