Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) is still reviewing funding that lawmakers fenced off for legislative priorities, his office said Friday afternoon in response to calls to #FreetheFunds from Maryland House Democrats.
Legislators, as they do most years, fenced-off $182.2 million in state general funds for the 2020 budget year for three dozen legislative priorities, including increased spending on school construction, a fund to help police agencies test more rape evidence kits, grants to the state’s attorney’s offices in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County and a cash infusion for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
House Appropriations Chair Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) said with the start of the fiscal year looming on July 1, lawmakers usually have some idea what funds the governor plans to release.
“We are getting late. It’s nervous time,” McIntosh said.
Under Maryland’s budgeting process, the General Assembly generally cannot increase the budget, but can decrease expenditures and restrict funding only to some purposes. For the list of legislative priorities, lawmakers cut other parts of the budget or found “efficiencies” to cover the cost.
The compromise budget ironed out by a bipartisan committee of negotiators passed the General Assembly with just 13 dissenting votes.
“It’s important that the funds are released because these are the priorities the legislature set in its bipartisan, balanced budget. We would like to have some say in the budget and this is how we get to do that,” Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery), a member of the House Appropriations Committee’s Capital Budget Subcommittee. “The rest of the budget is set by the governor. This is the small way that we get to say that we would like to prioritize some of these projects.”
He noted that the legislative initiatives represent a small portion of the state’s overall $46-billion budget.
Michael Ricci, the governor’s spokesman, however, notes that the amount for legislative initiatives amounts to roughly 26 percent of a projected $961 million structural deficit in 2021. He said the legislative process of fencing off funding pits one initiative against another and the General Assembly “goes at it alone.”
“While members of the legislature cannot add to the budget, they can certainly work with the administration and make requests for immediate supplemental funding,” Ricci said in a Friday afternoon memo. “…The legislature does not collaborate with, inform, notify, or send carrier pigeon, to alert us to their intent to fence off these dollars. We see the full list when you do, and the governor then has to review all of the decisions.”
But representatives of the administration were present last session at all decision-making meetings of the budget committees and during the conference committee negotiations that led to the final version of the budget bill, including discussions on almost all of the fenced-off items. McIntosh said lawmakers also tried to work with Hogan’s office on a supplemental budget to include the $7 million lawmakers fenced off for technology improvements at the Baltimore Police Department – an upgrade required by a federal consent decree.
“In the past, we have this pattern with Governor Hogan that I cannot explain. Some years we fence off and it’s ok, other years we fence off and it’s not ok,” McIntosh said. “…I’m not in a race. He introduced a good budget; that’s not a question.”
But Ricci said many of the fenced-off items can be politically motivated, such as $1.6 million in funding for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which has received more grants from the state in recent years than any other arts organization. At a news conference on Thursday, Hogan indicated he didn’t plan to release additional funds for the orchestra, which recently announced the cancellation of its summer concert series. Out-of-work musicians staged a concert outside the State House on Thursday in a bid to get the funding released.
Lawmakers said one of the biggest chunks of fenced-off funding they’d like assurance will be released is $127 million for school construction. The House of Delegates passed a multi-year $2.2 billion bill this year – building off of legislation introduced by Hogan – but that was held up in the Senate amid future funding concerns. The $127 million represents a “down payment” for future ambitions, Korman said.
“We go around and say we set record school funding or record school construction funding. Those things don’t happen by accident and this is the way to make sure it actually happens and isn’t just rhetoric,” he said of the #FreetheFunds push.
Ricci said Hogan will make budget announcements in the coming weeks.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct a formatting error and Del. Marc Korman’s position on the capital budget subcommittee.