Elected state legislators and a state fiscal expert discussed a wide range of issues during the Greater Baltimore Committee’s annual Maryland General Assembly Legislative Forum on January 25, 2021, including steps needed to address the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, the outlook for the state budget and policies to address racial and economic inequities and police reform.
Panelists included Senate President William C. “Bill” Ferguson; Senator Michael J. Hough, Senate Minority Whip; Delegate Eric G. Luedtke, Majority Leader, House of Delegates; Delegate Stephanie Smith, Chair, Baltimore City House Delegation; and David C. Romans, Fiscal and Policy Coordinator, Department of Legislative Service Office of Policy Analysis. The event was moderated by Jeff Salkin, Host of Maryland Public Television’s “State Circle.”
Here are some highlights of the panelists’ presentations and comments:
- Romans noted that Maryland’s general fund revenue forecast has improved since the COVID-19 pandemic hit with the state forecasting this past December that revenues in FY22 will be 0.9% higher, compared to a May forecast in which they were projected to be more than 13% lower.
- He said as COVID-19 vaccines get more widely distributed, the state expects the economy “will recover, and will recover very quickly.”
- $30 billion in state and federal stimulus funding has helped prop up the economy during the pandemic with 62% going to assisting businesses, largely through the Paycheck Protection Program.
- The federal stimulus package passed by Congress in December includes $3.2 billion for Maryland and local governments and $4 billion for Maryland businesses.
- The state has seen an increase in demand for entitlement programs. For example: More than 60,000 Marylanders received Temporary Cash Assistance benefits in November, compared to less than 40,000 in January 2020.
- The Governor’s FY22 budget calls for $49.35 billion in spending, down 2.2% from FY21.
- The proposed budget calls for retaining $1.2 billion in reserves; $668 million in targeted tax relief across FY21 and FY22; $214 million to assist public schools hit by enrollment declines; and $152 million for supplemental instruction and tutoring.
- Should the General Assembly this year override the Governor’s veto of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future legislation, it would not affect the state budget until FY26.
- Should the federal government pass additional stimulus legislation before the General Assembly convenes, money targeted for Maryland will need to be factored into the state budget and that may change spending allocations.
See David Romans’ State Budget Outlook presentation here.
Senate President Ferguson:
- The state is in a “very, very precarious moment” with the COVID-19 pandemic, Senator Ferguson said.
- The good news is that, thanks to science and technology, vaccines are being deployed nationwide sooner than imagined. The bad news is that the pandemic has been devastating to Maryland residents and businesses.
- The most important challenge now is that the pandemic’s effects have been inequitable and unequal, he said. He noted that the top 30% of big companies and corporations did well in 2020, but the bottom 30% of businesses — largely small businesses — have been devastated.
- There have also been disparities in how the pandemic has affected individuals’ health with a disproportionate number of residents in Black and Brown communities hurt by the pandemic. This and other inequities existed before the pandemic, but have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
- “There are very few times when there is one issue that dominates everything else. …When and where can people get vaccinated? That is the single most important thing in state government right now,” the Senate President said.
- Maryland is 49th among the 50 states in terms of vaccine doses received and vaccine doses administered to residents. “That’s a major problem,” he said.
- The only way to get through the pandemic and recover economically is by vaccinating the public. To address the issue, the Senate has put together a Vaccination Oversight Workgroup to get updates from the State Department of Health on the vaccination rollout.
- Expects new Biden Administration in Washington will provide states resources they need to get through pandemic.
- Largely supports the Governor’s proposed budget and RELIEF Act bill, but expects changes to both, including more targeted assistance for the most vulnerable Marylanders.
- Police reform will be an essential component of the General Assembly session this year to restore trust, accountability and transparency in law enforcement.
- The No. 1 problem with vaccinations in Maryland is that the state hasn’t received enough vaccines, Senator Hough said.
- Another issue is that local health departments were not equipped to distribute vaccines on a broad scale and that efficiency will improve once private sector companies like Walmart and Giant Food are involved with administering vaccines.
- Does not want to see Maryland pass any new taxes, such as a proposed digital advertising tax.
- Criminal Justice will be an important issue in the session, but does not want to see legislators overreach on police reform as it may act as a disincentive for retraining and recruiting officers.
- Wants to see legislators focus on legislation to target violent criminals and violent crime.
- Maryland is in “a moment of crisis” and now more than ever needs a bipartisan approach to addressing pandemic-related issues, Delegate Luedtke said.
- The House of Delegates is focused primarily on the COVID-19 pandemic.
- In the short term, the focus will be on supporting vaccinations, testing and other measures to protect the public while, in the long term, the focus will be on addressing the inequities that have been brought to light, such as the access to broadband Internet and health and wealth disparities. “We still live in a racially unequal society and we need to fix that.”
- A legislative package to address racial inequities was recently introduced by Speaker of the House Adrienne A. Jones, which will focus on many issues including wealth and economic inequality.
- The pandemic has opened up opportunities to engage with the General Assembly through the live streaming of hearings and other activities.
- The Governor’s RELIEF Act legislation has many strong points, but legislators will be looking to improve it by increased targeting of businesses, especially small businesses, which can qualify for assistance.
- For the reopening of schools, a more collaborative approach is needed to figure out how to reopen schools safely with COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.
- To address the issue of school students who have not been able to participate in online learning, the state should adequately fund individual tutoring and other interventions so such students can catch up.
- Economic justice must be just as important as racial equity reform in the session this year.
- Pleased to see House Speaker Jones’ racial equity legislation introduced and recommendations put forth by a Senate workgroup on the issue.
- Strong and thriving Black-owned businesses make the economy stronger, but many of these businesses face institutional obstacles which “act as a drag on our overall competitiveness,” Delegate Smith said.
- Wants to see Maryland look at who it is doing business-wise to ensure diversity and equal access.
- State has not adequately funded Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which needs to be addressed so they can adequately train future innovators and leaders and can “ignite further business development” in their communities, Delegate Smith said.
- Believes General Assembly will address issues tied to racial equity to ensure a more inclusive economic landscape.
- During the session, the Baltimore City delegation will focus on economic relief, police reform, transportation funding and workforce training, among other issues.