Maryland Gov. Wes Moore focuses on ‘partnership,’ unveils accountability plan in State of the State speech

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, one year into an administration that pledged to accomplish ambitious goals like ending child poverty and eliminating the racial wealth gap, said in his second State of the State speech Wednesday he would soon unveil a detailed, realistic plan to hit key targets for the remaining three years of his term.

Designed to hold himself and his team accountable, the upcoming plan, he said, “is about more than just aspirational targets.”

“It will lay out specific, actionable, realistic and measurable goals,” the Democratic governor told a joint session of the Maryland General Assembly, the 188 members of which he repeatedly referred to as essential in, as he often says, making this “Maryland’s decade.”

The broad priorities Moore outlined Wednesday — and that will be featured in the “state plan” coming Thursday — may not be new to supporters or opponents who’ve followed him during his first year in elected office.

Stepping up public safety efforts, improving affordability for workers, improving the economic climate for businesses and increasing public service opportunities for those who want them will continue to be the hallmarks of his vision, said Moore, who has introduced 16 pieces of legislation around those themes this year.

But after years of state budget surpluses because of pandemic-era federal funding, Maryland is facing a growing budget deficit and billions of dollars in additional costs for education, transportation and climate plans that have the potential to derail large-scale progress in the coming years.

Neither the governor nor Democratic legislative leaders have offered a plan for new revenues, and Moore has said he has a high bar for considering new taxes.

His speech Wednesday leaned heavily on working toward those and other problems together with lawmakers — including with some lighter moments that elicited laughs in the packed House of Delegates chamber in the historic State House.

“I know I talk a lot about partnership,” said Moore, who has used that word relentlessly his first year in office. “If the state received a nickel for every time I said the word ‘partnership,’ we would have all of our budget issues solved.”

That theme extended to the Marylanders the governor invited as guests and highlighted throughout the speech. He asked lawmakers to recommend constituents, a departure from the norm of past State of the State speeches.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, of Baltimore County, recommended Chase Brexton Health lead medical assistant Michelle Taylor, who Moore highlighted for her work to treat patients “who’ve been turned away by other providers.” Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat, recommended Cleoda Walker, a village elder of Cherry Hill whose “mission in life is to steer kids, youth and adults away from violence and toward opportunity,” Moore said.

On his priorities, Moore reiterated public safety will be at the top of the list. He received extended, bipartisan standing ovations when talking broadly about targeting hate crimes, making Marylanders feel safe and getting illegal guns off the street.

“The sound of a police siren does have a different pitch depending on the neighborhood that you grow up in,” Moore said before mentioning the story of when he “felt handcuffs” on his wrist in an incident when he was 11 years old and was nearly arrested for graffiti.

“People shouldn’t have to choose between feeling safe in their skin and feeling safe in their communities,” he said. “Yet these are the kinds of false choices that dominate the public safety debate.”

Moore referred to one specific piece of public safety legislation he’s introducing this year — a bill to create a gun violence prevention center modeled after a federal effort from Democratic President Joe Biden. He’s also introducing a bill aimed at law enforcement recruitment and victim compensation reform, and he’s pledged support for lawmakers’ efforts to implement accountability measures in the state’s juvenile justice system.

Other stated goals to eliminate the racial wealth gap, improve the state’s business climate, increase public service and support military families also received extended ovations from both Democrats and Republicans, who have little sway in the minority but with whom Moore has tried to cultivate close relationships.

In his passionate, 43-minute speech, the governor mostly heard resounding support from Democrats, who control supermajorities of both chambers and who showed a willingness to amend his bills beyond his liking last year.

Their applause came in force, for instance, when Moore discussed three bills he introduced with the goal of expanding affordable housing and protecting renters.

“We will build new pathways to homeownership and wealth creation,” said Moore, whose budget also more than doubles a fund, to $50 million, for demolishing or rehabilitating vacant structures in Baltimore.

Though Moore did not specifically comment on the state’s impending fiscal challenges — which include a projected $3 billion structural deficit by 2029 — he reiterated his belief that new investments can be made without raising taxes. For example, his $63.1 billion budget proposal currently under review in the legislature resolved an immediate $1.1 billion cash shortfall by pulling from the rainy day fund, borrowing more, reducing some programs and shifting money around to increase certain line items, like $500 million in new money for public education and $270 million more for a child care scholarship program.

“The money’s important,” Moore told lawmakers. “But strategy, accountability and partnership are imperative to get this done right. We’ve got to spend smarter across all of our state programs in a way that respects the taxpayer, in a way that actually follows data, in a way that responds to the needs of our communities.”

He called one of his new proposals “landmark legislation” that’s guided by that philosophy. Introduced as the ENOUGH Act, it would provide $15 million for up to $500,000 individual grants for revitalizing neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of poverty. That program and the rest of his 16-bill package have potentially smaller financial footprints than his 10 bills last year, according to initial fiscal analyses from the legislature.

Republicans have applauded Moore’s hesitancy to raise new revenue through tax increases but have also been quick to say he and other Democrats have to address the spending and revenue problems soon.

“We must be disciplined in prioritizing the programs that are cost-effectively achieving their intended results while eliminating or scaling back the ones that are no longer necessary,” Senate Minority Leader Steve Hershey, a Republican representing the upper Eastern Shore, said in a response to Moore’s speech Wednesday.

Moore’s speech also served as an opportunity to look back on what he said were accomplishments in lowering unemployment, funneling extra money to families in need and, in one of his proudest accomplishments of his inaugural year, securing a deal that keeps the Orioles in Baltimore for up to 30 years.

The new forward-looking “state plan,” meanwhile, is scheduled to be unveiled Thursday in a town hall conversation with Moore and state workers. The plan is the first of its kind in nearly a decade, Moore said.