Gov. Wes Moore (D) signed into law a first-in-the-nation bill creating a statewide service year program that he hopes will become a national model.
The act was one of 145 — including some duplicative identical House or Senate bills —signed into law during Moore’s third bill signing on Monday. The governor led off the event by signing the service year bill, his top priority.
“By calling on Marylanders to serve and serve together we will bridge the gap between ambition and employment by ensuring that we develop the skills that our society needs,” said Moore, who served in the U.S. Army and led an anti-poverty nonprofit. “By calling Marylanders to serve together, we will address the challenges in our communities and address them collectively, head on. And by calling Marylanders to serve, we will strengthen civic bonds, restore a spirit of community and call on our fellow citizens to get to know each other, create new friendships and new partnerships and not simply retreating to our corners of political ideology or partisan talking points.”
A related bill signed Monday is Senate Bill 551, which creates the Department of Service and Civic Innovation. The cabinet-level agency will oversee high school graduates seeking to work in public service posts before entering college.
The program, as envisioned by Moore, would take on an initial 200 participants in its first year. By 2027, the program could include up to 2,000 high school graduates, all of whom would be paid a stipend during their service.
In April, the Senate confirmed Paul Monteiro, Moore’s pick to lead the new agency and program.
The governor also signed into law House Bill 982. The legislation, a priority for House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County) establishes incentives to attract new employees to certain state government agencies.
The bill creates a pilot program between the Department of Human Services and eligible school systems to direct students into careers within the agency. Students will be paid a stipend of $500 to fill Human Services positions in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Prince George’s County. The bill also establishes a scholarship program to help students interested in Human Services positions obtain necessary degrees or certifications.
The bill also expands loan repayment and scholarship programs for Maryland police officers. And it will pay up to $600 in supplemental retirement contributions each year to employees who pay into the program, or who pay at least $600 in student loans annually.
In an earlier interview, Jones said the targeted benefits are needed “because the standard benefits that were given in past years just wont cut it for now … since we’re trying to recruit a new generation that aren’t able to really save for retirement because they have these other debts with school debt and they’re struggling to pay that off.”
Jones said such efforts to “rebuild state government” were her top priority this session.
“As we began this session, 13% of our executive branch positions were unfilled,” said Jones. “Put simply, the prior administration left the cupboard bare.”
Jones, Moore and Senate President Bill Ferguson made filling state government vacancies a priority. There are as many as 6,000 unfilled state positions, according to a recent estimate by legislative analysts.
Moore, on the first day of the 90-day session, said he believed the number of vacant positions totaled about 10,000. He vowed to fill half of them by next January.
The bill signing also marked the first time in modern history that the governor has needed to sign an operating budget. The requirement follows a 2020 voter-approved change to the state constitution which granted the legislature broader budgetary powers. That same change also gave future governors line item veto authority.
Other bills signed into law Monday include:
Senate Bill 974 which increases oversight of state-owned nursing homes following reports of neglect and abuse at Charlotte Hall Veterans Home. Moore announced earlier this year that he had canceled a contract with a South Carolina company that operated the facility for the last two decades. A new operator is expected to be named in the coming weeks.
Senate Bill 863 which makes it easier for the Maryland State Board of Elections to remove the state elections director. The bill undoes a 2005 law frequently referred to as the “Linda Lamone for Life Act.” Under the new law, the elections director — currently Lamone, though she is due to retire this summer — now serves at the pleasure of the elections board rather than also requiring Senate confirmation of a replacement before unseating the current office holder.
House Bill 535 / Senate Bill 379 authorizes local boards of elections to begin early counting of mail-in ballots and requires those counts to not be made public until polls close. Former Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed similar legislation a year ago. That action touched off a court challenge filed by Dan Cox, the Republican nominee for governor, who unsuccessfully tried to block a request to a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge for emergency authorization to count tens of thousands of mail-in ballots. The new law also authorizes the state elections director to issue waivers for early counting to local boards who either receive relatively few mail-in ballots or can show such an early count is impracticable because of limited resources.
House Bill 843 / Senate Bill 880 creates a regional task force for the water and waste water system in the Baltimore metropolitan area. The panel will review possible changes to the system currently operated and managed by Baltimore City with an eye toward creating a regional model similar to WSSC Water, which covers most of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. A report is due by Jan. 30 2024.
Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.