On January 10, 2024, the Maryland General Assembly will convene for a 90-day session. As always, there will be a lot of issues before them, but two are almost certain to be the focus of intense attention. Those Issues are transportation funding and education funding.
Regarding transportation funding, the Moore administration recently announced plans to cut $3.3 billion in state funding for transportation. The current plan cuts approximately $1 billion from MDOT’s operating budget and approximately $2 billion from MDOT’s capital budget. Under the current plan state monies to counties for local road repair funding will be cut by $400 million. At a Maryland Association of Counties conference last week, Governor Moore said the state is now “forced to reckon with structural [budget] challenges that have plagued our state for years.” Moore also said, “I don’t have all the answers right now.”
Answers are in the works. Maryland’s Transportation Revenue and Infrastructure Needs Commission (TRAIN Commission) is reviewing, evaluating and preparing recommendations on the following: current funding sources and the structure of the Maryland Transportation Trust Fund, transportation funding in other states, short- and long-term transportation funding needs, options for public-private partnerships, changes in transportation technology and trends, practices for prioritizing transportation project funding, options for regional transportation authorities, options for sustainable long term transportation funding, and practices to improve project delivery. The TRAIN Commission is required to submit an interim report to the Governor and Maryland General Assembly by January 1, 2024, and a final report by January 1, 2025.
Regarding education funding, the focus will be on next steps on Maryland’s multiyear Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, also known as Kirwan.
The General Assembly approved Kirwan three years ago. It mandates $30 billion additional tax dollars into public education statewide over the first 10 years. $4 billion additional dollars every year, after that. The additional dollars are to be used in part to increase teacher salaries, expand pre-kindergarten, and bolster career and technology training. Since passage no long-term full funding sources have been agreed upon. As a result, Kirwan mandates have been and continue to be a hot issue across the state. In rural Carroll County, the president of the Board of Education has said her school district is still struggling to deal with Kirwan’s costs. After learning Baltimore City will need $79 million more than anticipated to fund Kirwan mandates, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said Kirwan was “a gut punch”.
Such comments have not gone unnoticed by legislative leaders in Annapolis.
Before the 2023 legislative session ended, Senate President Bill Ferguson was asked in a media interview if lawmakers are open to changing the Kirwan Plan’s funding formula. Ferguson said, “We’re always back every year. I think we’re always open to making sure if the facts and data are there, we will address it,”
It will be most interesting to see if and how changes in transportation funding and education funding will become a reality in the 2024 General Assembly with a Democratic Governor and Democratic super majorities in the General Assembly.
No doubt the governor and legislative leaders are well aware of a recent report to the General Assembly’s joint Spending Affordability Committee. That report was done and presented by budget analysts from the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services. Those analysts said the fiscal 2025 budget will start with a $418 million deficit. They also said the state’s five -year budget forecast includes hundreds of millions in structural deficits that balloon to $2 billion by fiscal 2029. These are budget deficit levels not seen since the great recession.
Dr. Daraius Irani, chief economist for the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University said recently “I would argue that one thing we really have to think about: Do we cut [spending], do we raise taxes, or do we grow the population? I’d like to grow the population.”
I join with Dr. Irani on liking the “grow the population” option. I do so only if growing the population includes sustained efforts by government decision- makers at all levels to enact legislation and regulations that help grow the population of employers, employees, and retirees to move to or stay in Maryland. Otherwise, Maryland will follow the path of California and New York, two formerly vibrant states who are in a downward spiral based on huge budget deficits and residents leaving in record numbers.
David Reel is a public affairs/public relations consultant who serves as a trusted advisor on strategy, advocacy, and media matters who lives in Easton.