Several of Gov. Wes Moore’s high-profile Cabinet appointees passed an initial hurdle to confirmation Monday evening, getting the nod from the Senate Executive Nominations Committee.
The appointees — to lead the departments of Agriculture, Health, Labor, Natural Resources and five others — could see final confirmation by the full Senate later this week.
A handful of the appointees fielded questions during a packed committee hearing.
Portia Wu, Moore’s nominee for Labor secretary, told the committee a top priority will be resolving still-pending unemployment claims made during the crush of applications filed early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Unemployment is a vital program for workers and families and it has to function better than it has been,” Wu said. “…I’m still digging into the details, but you should know there is still a massive backlog at the agency of claims and issues for 2020 and 2021 that need to be resolved. We have to attack that.”
She also said she would work with legislators’ offices in resolving cases.
Asked by Senate Minority Leader Stephen Hershey (R-Upper Shore) how the Department of Labor is likely to move forward in establishing a family and medical leave insurance program, Wu said options are still under consideration.
“We are looking very carefully at the models of states that have gone before us,” Wu said. “I recognize also that, because of the questions raised about how we managed [unemployment insurance], that its fair that there be questions about whether the department is up to that task.”
She said forthcoming reports will detail the department’s capacity to get the program up and running.
Joshua Kurtz, Moore’s pick to lead the Department of Natural Resources, faced perhaps the most pointed questioning. The appointment of Kurtz, who was previously Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, was met with some skepticism from Maryland’s professional watermen, who have opposed some efforts to conserve Bay fisheries as overzealous.
“Our commercial watermen have been left behind,” Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Lower Shore) said, invoking Moore’s promise to “leave no one behind” as governor.
While Executive Nominations Chair Pamela Beidle (D-Anne Arundel) said Kurtz received more letters of support than any other nominee, Hershey said he’d received more calls of concern about the appointee than any other.
Hershey said he received a call just before the hearing from a waterman who told him they were concerned about their jobs, livelihoods and way of life. Hershey asked for assurance that Kurtz would consult watermen in his decision-making as secretary.
“I will commit to absolutely working with the commercial watermen,” Kurtz said. “I am not coming here to advance policies from other organizations, I am coming here to work with an incredible team and to really think about the balance.”
Other secretaries who fielded questions from the panel included Kevin Atticks, who is leading the Agriculture department; Helene Grady, who is head of Budget and Management; and Dr. Laura Herrera Scott, who will lead the Department of Health.
Herrera Scott said her initial focus would be on extending Medicaid eligibility for tens of thousands of Marylanders receiving health care thanks to provisions tied to a federal COVID-19 state of emergency declaration that will expire in May.
She also told senators she would support efforts to expand health care in rural areas and partner with county health officers to be most effective.
Atticks told senators he intended to lead the agency by finding a balance between farming regulations to protect the health of the Chesapeake Bay and growing and sustaining the state’s biggest industry.
“Our farmers are the original conservationists, the original environmentalists,” he said.
Each of the governor’s cabinet nominees received unanimous approval from the committee. Other names passed along to the full Senate on Monday were: Aging Secretary Carmel M. Roques, Commerce Secretary Kevin Anderson, Information Technology Secretary Katie Savage, and Secretary of State Susan Lee, a former member of the Executive Nominations panel, who was greeted warmly by her former colleagues and recommended for approval by several of them, including now-U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D).
In the Senate chamber on Monday night, the full Senate voted, 45-0, to confirm 15 District Court judges.
Editor’s Note: Josh Kurtz, the nominee to be secretary of Natural Resources, is no relation to the Maryland Matters reporter of the same name.