Maryland Gov. Wes Moore testifies on ENOUGH Act, receiving praise and facing questions about state budget shortfall

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BALTIMORE — An hour into hearing mostly glowing comments about his plan to invest in Maryland’s most impoverished neighborhoods, Gov. Wes Moore was posed a question Wednesday that brought to the forefront a topic he and other Democrats have largely avoided in this year’s session of the Maryland General Assembly.

How does he justify the new spending — even at only $15 million per year — when the state is facing billions of dollars in shortfalls in the coming years and is not actively considering ways to raise new money?

“It keeps me up at night thinking next year we come, having passed this bill and been very pleased with ourselves, like the Blueprint [for Maryland’s Future], only to have to cut it, only to have to cut the program, cut the Blueprint,” Del. Ben Barnes, a Democrat who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, told the governor, referring to Maryland’s expensive long-term education reform plan that the state doesn’t have a way to fully fund.

“It would be a shame, a damn shame, if we had to cut any of these programs,” Barnes said.

The Democratic governor was testifying before Barnes’ committee on the ENOUGH Act, his top policy priority of the year. The bill would provide up to $500,000 grants to communities with at least 20% of children living in poverty — a step Moore has said will continue the state’s path toward his goal of eliminating child poverty.

“Let’s be clear,” Moore responded to Barnes, holding up a map depicting concentrations of child poverty across Maryland. “This is an economic drain on the entire state — that we have so many communities that are so deeply neglected.”

Even in times of economic uncertainty, the Democratic governor said, “we cannot continue looking at children who are continuing to be condemned in pockets of poverty and say, ‘Well, they’re just going to have to wait.’”

The program has wide support and is expected to pass easily before the session ends in April.

It has a relatively small fiscal impact in the $63.1 billion state budget Moore proposed earlier this year. That plan resolves an immediate $1.1 billion cash shortfall by reducing some programs, pulling from the state’s reserves and borrowing more, though it leaves the state on the hook for a structural deficit expected to hit $3 billion in four years.

“We’re not just going to spend smarter our way out of $3 billion,” Barnes told the governor, who responded that he is “active and eager” to continue conversations.

The exchange came at the end of a hearing that featured mostly praise for Moore’s bill — one of 16 pieces of legislation he’s proposing this year.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers celebrated its goals to advance “place-based” strategies to target poverty. Under the ENOUGH Grant Program, community organizations could apply for and use the money for targeted investments that improve areas like child care, housing, business and health.

“I haven’t been this excited about a piece of legislation in a long time,” said Del. Carl Anderton, a Wicomico County Republican who’s developed a friendship with Moore.

Del. Ric Metzgar, a Baltimore County Republican, said, “We need to once and for all attack [child poverty] and put the action to what we’re doing.”

Questions about the program mainly focused on technical details, though some asked about overlapping existing efforts like the Blueprint or a fund that collects some of the recreational cannabis tax revenue aimed at some of the same high-poverty communities. Moore said the program will complement those efforts.

Del. Stephanie Smith, a Baltimore Democrat, said she had some concerns about areas with especially high concentrations of poverty or that may not have local leaders or organizations ready to work within the program.

“Some of these organizations that would be eligible to help may not have leadership or staff that reflect the demographics of the community,” Smith said, questioning whether that would incentivize outside groups “parachuting into communities” they don’t reflect.

Carmel Martin, the governor’s special secretary for the Office for Children, said the administration will work directly with people in the neighborhoods to build that kind of infrastructure if it doesn’t exist.

Moore, who ran one of the country’s largest poverty-fighting nonprofit organizations before running for governor, has taken several steps to lift up low-income workers and their children since taking office.

A bill he sponsored last year expanded the state’s child tax credit and earned income tax credit for low-income families in what he’s described as Maryland’s most aggressive “assault” on child poverty ever.

The ENOUGH — or Engaging Neighborhoods, Organizations, Unions, Governments, and Households — Act, he said, is designed to further those efforts.

“There are going to be certain communities that it might take a little bit more time and take a little bit more nurturing for them to be prepared,” Moore said when asked about the long-term approach after the hearing. “But the thing that we want for all of the eligible communities to know is that we’re here and ready to support and ready to help build out a better future for those communities.”