On Jan. 18, Gov. Wes Moore (D) was sworn as the 63rd chief executive of the state. He is the first Black man to hold the position in Maryland and the only current Black governor in the country. An author and a military veteran, Moore came to the job after leading a large anti-poverty nonprofit but with no elected government experience.
Moore, in an interview with Maryland Matters, covered a wide range of topics including his first six months in office, repealing the state’s automatic gas tax increase tied to inflation, possible changes to the position of state schools superintendent and lessons learned about the appointment process.
This is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.
Maryland Matters: What’s the biggest thing that you’ve learned in the last six months? The thing that you thought could be done rather easily that ended up, after you got behind the desk, you realized that it wasn’t so easy? What have some of the unexpected lessons been for you over the last six months?
Moore: I’d say that some of the unexpected things was the depletions that we have seen in state government are real.
You know the numbers when we came in: there were about 10,000 vacancies within state government. About 6,100 in the executive branch alone.
We knew what the numbers were, but until you’re in the seat, you don’t realize just how impactful that is. Because it just means that there’s basic functions that are just not being performed.
We’ve got some extraordinary public servants and state employees and we’ve just been asking them to do a whole lot because we continue to ask them to do more with less.
And so I think that that’s where coming in, I didn’t realize how much time that I’d be spending — personal time — on focusing on things like helping to rebuild state government; helping to incentivize people to stay; helping to re-shift; and working with our cabinet secretaries, in terms of the rebuild of their departments and the rebuild of their agencies.
That became a core priority for how I was going to spend my time and how I still continue to spend my time and it wasn’t something that I came in thinking that that’s how you’re going to spend a lot of time, on just the basic we’ve got to get this machine functioning again.
MM: Was it something you thought would be an easier fix?
Moore: I don’t know if I fully appreciated the depth of the problem.
And I think that the other piece was we had to try to get at the root of it, of what was going on — why we had so many holes — and how do we think about government in a different way that’s actually meeting people where they are and meeting their needs.
The thing that I had been really pleasantly surprised by is that in the first six months, I think that there’s a couple things that the people of the state have come to appreciate. One is there’s a real measure of fiscal responsibility that we take with the work that we do. I get into the details of this stuff.
The other thing is that we can get big things done again as a state.
I think people are seeing that if you look at the litany of things we’ve been able to accomplish in our first six months: from making Maryland the first state in the country now to have a pathway for for dental and health care for members of the National Guard, which now other states modeling and trying to copy that. The fact that Maryland is now the first in this country that has a service year option for its high school graduates and there are already other states that are trying to mimic and copy that. The fact that Maryland was able to accelerate a $15 minimum wage and most people said that wasn’t going to be possible in my first legislative session. We got that done. The fact that we put the Red Line back up online and are working with the federal government in new and unique ways.
We just got $267 million from the federal government to focus on our “broadband for all” [initiative] because we said a priority for us was making sure that we can get the entire state wired during my term.
So I think we’re showing that we’re able to get big things done again as a state, because we’re actually able to work together in a new type of way, which I think has been exciting.
MM: In January we talked about state vacancies. At that time, you promised to hire 5,000 employees in the first year. You’re six months in, roughly. Where are you in terms of meeting that goal?
Moore: We’re making really good progress. I think that we’ve made really good progress because we’ve been intentional, and we’ve been targeted.
So for example, things like the Educator Shortage Reduction Act that we passed in 2023, that was specifically focused on making sure that we’re addressing this massive teacher shortage that we’ve had.
The fact that we put forward $21 million into giving state employees pay raises and a long deserved pay raise in a way that they’ve been waiting for and deserved for a while, but have not gotten.
We’re taking care of our state workers, because it’s my core belief that if you take care of the people who are currently in the seats, that’s the best way to focus on recruitment is retention. Because it’s not like these recruits don’t see the way you’re treating people. And so, we’re making good progress.
MM: What’s good progress?
Moore: I don’t want to give you a number that’s incorrect. I’ll say this: From all of our recent estimates, we’re going to be on track to be able to hit what we understand to be some pretty bold and ambitious goals. We’ve been working around the clock to make sure we can do just that.
MM: Is “bold and ambitious goals” beyond the 5,000 you talked about in January or is that the 5,000?
Moore: I think, for a lot of people, they understood that having a goal of working to half the number of vacancies was a bold goal to try and get it done in your first year in office. We feel strongly that if you’re looking at our ability to be able to change the tenor, change the focus and change the appetite of people to be public servants and work for our state agencies, for our government agencies, I think that’s what’s truly begun to happen.
MM: The gas tax has been in the news a little bit. Back in May we asked the administration at the time for comment on how automatic inflation-linked increases [established in 2013] might affect working families. There’s been some discussion about wanting the legislature to make a change. What kind of timeline do you have for something like that? Would you call a special session?
Moore: I won’t call a special session for it.
In the last session, I signed legislation that is putting together a commission that’s looking at this exact issue because we have to come up with a way of being able to sustainably fund the transportation goals. We have transportation projects that are both in the pipeline, and then also the ones that we know that still need to get done.
And I understand why the legislature did what it did in 2013. They wanted to come up with a reliable way of being able to fund these transportation projects. The thing that I know, though, is the economic conditions of 2013 are not the economic conditions of right now. When that number was put together, the 8% cap, that was also when inflation was around 2%.
So you’re now looking at a situation where our working families have been hit so hard by this rise in inflation.
When we get back in January, I plan on working with the legislature, but to say that the current system that we have in place is not sustainable, and it’s harming too many working class families and that we cannot have a Transportation Trust Fund that is that is going to exclusively be funded on tax increases and fees that have a disproportionate impact on working class families. It’s not fair.
MM: Can working class families wait six months?
Moore: The challenge that we have is that this is legislation. The legislature is going to have to be able to make adjustments to a bill that was passed a decade ago in order to make these changes. I can’t make the changes. I know I am working closely with the legislature to make sure that come next session we’ll be able to get things done. We know that next session we’ll be able to deal with it. We’ll also have the recommendation from the commission done by then. But the legislature has to take the lead, has to actually adjust legislation in order to make any forms of adjustments.
MM: Earlier this year, you talked about wanting to move the state away from gas vehicles by 2035, requiring new vehicle sales to be electric vehicles. There was polling in the last month that suggests that the majority of Marylanders are opposed to that and when they have to factor in the costs of the vehicles, that opposition grows. What do you say to those Marylanders to try to convince them that your proposal is the right proposal?
Moore: The thing that I would say to people is that we’re not talking about banning usage or taking people’s vehicles away.
I think how people understand what we’re working on getting done is going to be important. I think the thing that really underlines the reality of what we’re trying to do here is making sure that it’s going to be new vehicles that are purchased, that those would be electric.
The truth is, do you know who really helped to lead the charge on making that number of reality? The automakers have all said that is a goal they have when looking at their new fleets and what they’re looking to accomplish. They’re looking to make their fleets electric vehicles by that time.
Really what we’re doing is we’re just joining a consortium of dozens of other states, who have now said, we just need to make sure that we have the mechanisms and we need to make sure that we have the foundation for where the industry is already going on this issue.
And the thing that I’d say to people who say, Well, it’s not affordable, or there’s issues with the grid. My answer is, I agree. In 2023, it’s not.
That’s why we’re talking about literally a decade-plus from now. So over the next decade, we’re going to be working together, working with the private sector, working with our communities, to be able to make sure that by 2035 — over a decade from now — that people will be able to purchase electric vehicles at every price point. We’re going to make sure that we have a grid that can sustain the type of load that would happen when you’re adding more electric vehicles to the grid.
This is going to be incredibly important for our state, economically. It’s going to be incredibly important for our state in terms of the environment. It’s going to be incredibly important for our state when we’re doing that and matching it with mass transit options, in terms of the psychology of getting rid of the gridlock that exists.
And so all of these things in combination, we think are going to make us a cleaner and a greener and more prosperous state. But there are also things that we put out — bold goals — that in this case is literally over a decade away. But we’ve got to start working now in order to make that goal achievable.
MM: There is discussion now about the Maryland Department of Education and a new contract for State School Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury. Should that position be a cabinet level position and should the governor have some input in naming a state school superintendent?
Moore: The fact that MSDE is an independent agency and does not report to and does not have accountability to the governor’s office does make it complex.
This is not just an issue that I care deeply about, it’s an issue that’s incredibly important to the future of our state. And making sure that our children are getting a 21st century public school education is literally the foundation for everything else that we’re trying to accomplish together as a state.
Our commitment to public schools, I think no one can question that. I also know that the job that the superintendent has and the job of the board for MSDE has is complex.
I also know that the level of coordination, cooperation and accountability that we need to have with our schools has got to be real. And we’ve got to continue strengthening that.
MM: It sounds as if you do believe that the governor should have a role.
Moore: It’s important to me that we have a greater level of cooperation and accountability.
MM: Does a cabinet-level position, serving at the pleasure of the governor meet that? Is there something else?
Moore: I know we exist in the reality of the structure that we walked into. The reality of that structure is that we have a school board that is an independent agency that’s run by an independent board with independent [Blueprint Accountability and Implementation Board]. I think that structure makes things very complex and complicated.
But I know that just dealing with it, especially when you consider the importance of getting schools right, is something that I think we do have to do. We’ve got to be able to think and rethink that.
MM: I did want to ask about appointments because it’s something that has had a little bit more of a spotty record. In the first six months there have been…
Moore: I’ve got to disagree with you…
MM: There have been some stumbles: the appointment to Maryland Stadium Authority, the difficulty in confirmation for the Maryland State Police Superintendent, other appointments that were withdrawn.Your Appointments Secretary Tisha Edwards, during your mass swearing in, talked about about how you gave her room to make mistakes. What have you learned from that process in the last six months that informs you for the next session?
Moore: So, I’ll personally say I’m very proud of this appointments team and the fact that we made more appointments, by two times, than the previous governor. When we look at the Green Bag appointments, the average Green Bag appointments comes in around 250-300 people. Ours was close to 800 people.
So if you look at the amount of appointments that we made, we just have an extraordinary record of being able to work in partnership with the legislature to get people through.
Even if you look at the people who we nominated who did not make it through or were withdrawn, you’re still looking at less than one half of 1% here. I’m very proud of the work, the around the clock work, of our appointments team.
MM: Are there lessons learned?
Moore: Some of the lessons learned were that while there’s not a single person that I submitted that I regret, I think that we had to continue showing that partnership was something that we were seeking and pushing for in every single way. And for some people that just might take a little bit more time.
I think that sometimes, the timing and the staging of some of these picks and announcements, I might have thought about it a little bit differently.
The thing that I know is that we are an administration that moves with urgency, and we’re an administration that in many things we do we move with intentionality. But we move with speed.
I think that there were some lessons learned that moving in partnership, and that’s something that we’re fully committed to, …but also being able to move thoughtfully and think about timing on certain things is always wise.
MM: You’re going to chair the Board of Public Works on Wednesday where the panel will deal with a $13 million settlement for wage theft related to the Department Public Safety and Correctional Services. What are your thoughts about the settlement?
Moore: I think that the fact that we are having to deal with it as an issue from BPW continues to show the fact that we still have a problem with that and particularly when we’re now having to take revenue taxpayer dollars to be able to deal with something that should have been dealt with before.
We’ve been talking about the challenge of wage theft for two years now and as a state, it’s funny, because Maryland is actually better than some. But we still have not gotten this thing figured out yet. And it’s a real problem.