Under our current system, one person, the governor, has enormous control over the state budget. The governor submits an annual budget in January. The legislature can make cuts but cannot increase any budget items or shift funds to invest more in priorities their constituents identify.
Maryland stands alone among states in how much power it gives the governor in its budget process. Only three states limit the ability of the legislature to increase spending. And Maryland is the only state in which only the governor can directly add items or amounts to the budget.
This system is out of balance, giving one branch of government outsized control of the budget — to the exclusion of the legislature and the people they represent.
Members of the General Assembly, elected from districts that each represent slightly more than 2 percent of the state’s population, are clearly more easily accessible and more accountable to their constituents than is the governor. This lack of balance in budgetary power reduces the practical influence and engagement of citizens on decisions regarding the use of public funds and the priorities of their state government.
A state’s budget is more than numbers in a spreadsheet. The budget is a living demonstration of our values as a state, determining via funding how much we care about the vital components of civic life — from education and health to transportation and environmental protections. We are a stronger state if we give Marylanders and their elected representatives a greater role in establishing those spending priorities.
To be sure, the legislature has developed tools to influence spending under the current system — but they generally require passing new funding mandates that usually don’t go into effect for at least a year. And mandating a complicated mix of funding streams has its own challenges.
We have seen the flaws of this process on display in Annapolis several times in recent years. For example, in 2015, the General Assembly developed a bipartisan plan to restore more than $200 million in funding for education, health care and other priorities. Because of the imbalance of budget power, the governor was able to refuse to spend $68 million the legislature had fenced off specifically for education. As a result, in the following school year, 80 percent of Maryland students attended schools that had fewer resources to invest in their education. Even though an overwhelming number of General Assembly members — and a majority of Marylanders — disagreed with the governor’s decision, our outdated budget system prevented anyone from overruling his action.
The ballot question would adjust that power dynamic by allowing the legislature to move money around in the budget. It would not allow the legislature to increase the overall amount of the budget, ensuring the state maintains its long-standing fiscal prudence. The proposed amendment goes one step further by giving the governor line-item veto authority. Question 1 is a responsible step that will speak more clearly to our values.
So what will happen if the ballot question passes? In coming years, the General Assembly could, for example, carefully consider spending proposed by the governor for such things as behavioral health treatment or state payments to front-line workers carrying for vulnerable populations. If the governor’s budget is shortchanging these vital programs, the legislature could identify savings in other corners of the budget and reallocate those funds. Increased collaboration between the governor and the legislature is the right way for the state to address the major fiscal challenges we face.
This kind of change to the constitution has been under consideration for decades. Now is the time to modernize our budget process and join other states in creating a more equitable system. Vote for democracy and support Question 1 on the ballot.