Maryland Gov. Wes Moore gave a sobering warning about the state’s finances Thursday night to a room full of local government leaders already reeling from massive proposed cuts to highway and transit projects.
“Trust demands transparency and trust demands truth, even when it’s hard,” Moore told hundreds of county officials gathered at a conference. “And this evening I want to try to offer both – both to you and to the people of this state.”
For more than 20 minutes, the Democratic governor preached a message of fiscal discipline and warned that difficult decisions lie ahead to keep the state’s budget balanced.
He asked county leaders for their partnership in the budget-balancing effort — a tall task, given they will see less money trickle down from the state government.
“The reality is: I don’t have all the answers ... and I’m honest about that,” Moore said. “But I do know this: If we face these budget challenges together, we’re going to emerge stronger. And we are going to prove to the people of the state that we can deliver.”
For the last few years, Maryland has been flush with cash from a combination of federal aid and a rebounding economy. But the economic forecasts are beginning to turn, showing a projected shortfall for the next budget that would only grow in future years.
A report from nonpartisan legislative analysts in June warned that, while the state’s $63 billion budget is in balance now, it will soon have a projected deficit of hundreds of millions of dollars. By 2028, the shortfall will grow to $1.8 billion if no actions are taken.
The state government is required to have a balanced budget each year, and the governor and lawmakers often make shifts and tweaks to keep it in balance.
Moore cast some blame for the budget situation on his predecessor, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, though he did not mention Hogan by name.
“I think about our predecessors who turned away from making hard choices on what we should and shouldn’t prioritize,” Moore said.
He said it’s time for the government to move away from “papering over the problems” and “kicking the can down the road.”
Moore previously hinted at hard times and budget cuts over the summer, and this week some of them became clearer. The state’s transportation budget, facing its own long-term gap, will be cut significantly.
The proposed cuts range from nixing highway improvement projects that haven’t started to reducing commuter bus service to cutting back on roadside litter pickup. Local governments would get a smaller share of the gas tax for their own road projects than they have in years past.
Local officials who gathered in Cambridge this week for the Maryland Association of Counties winter conference quietly groused about the cuts.
Moore defended the proposed cuts, saying, “I believe the course that we’ve taken is the right one.”
State Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld, in an interview after the governor’s speech, said he believes county officials have “an appreciation of what we’re up against.”
“It’s a tough one, there’s no doubt about it. ... We have to make some tough choices, but that’s what we’re going to do,” Wiedefeld said.
And, as if to add insult to injury, the Light Rail system in the Baltimore region was suddenly shut down indefinitely on Thursday afternoon due to mechanical problems.
Moore again hinted the Hogan administration was to blame, mentioning the Light Rail closure right after he said, “We’ve seen how our predecessors presided over transit lines that were late and over budget and unfinished.”
Moore suggested the state needs to dramatically rethink how it raises money for transportation — work that’s already being considered by a General Assembly-created commission. He did not lay out a prescription, though changes to the gas tax and other fees have been discussed.
“The Transportation Trust Fund has become so outdated that fixing it requires a comprehensive look at how we fund transportation in the first place,” Moore said.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., in a speech before the governor spoke, said counties will face economic challenges. But he predicted they will find a path forward through the looming economic storm.
“There isn’t a better group of leaders and partners with whom I would rather be in the eye of the storm. No matter the challenges we face, counties continue to deliver,” said Olszewski, a Democrat who was installed as the Maryland Association of Counties president.
Even with the general budget woes and the looming transportation cuts, the governor attempted to project a note of optimism. He said, even under current conditions, Maryland can “say yes” to important policy changes.
Moore said he would introduce a dozen bills to state lawmakers when they convene in Annapolis in January, among them measures that would promote the technology economy, make housing more affordable and protect communities.
Moore did not offer specifics but said his bills, if passed, will “position our state to win the decade.”