Gov. Wes Moore (D) restated his commitment to lowering the number of vacant state jobs even as progress on his goal to hire 5,000 state workers in his first year remains unclear.
Moore joined Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D), praised government employees and spoke of their own connections to union jobs at a west Baltimore hiring event Saturday that included leaders of the state’s largest union. But nearly nine months into Moore’s first year in office, it is unclear if the governor is on track to fulfill a promise he made in January.
“I’m incredibly encouraged, we’ve also been able to build the systems to make it happen, because part of the challenge we were seeing was that you had to build the intents,” Moore told reporters following a rally and meeting with AFSCME President Lee Saunders. “And then you had to build necessities. …I’ve been very clear in terms of the directive of saying that we’ve got to be aggressive on it. We need to put together very clear criteria.”
Moore, in his comments before a gathering of unionized state and local government employees, revisited the lofty rhetoric that has been a staple of his campaign and official visits around the state. Specifics on how he intends to beef up the number of employees or hit a target set by Moore at the start of his administration have been harder to come by.
Maryland state government has more than 6,000 vacant positions in executive branch departments. Moore has frequently used a figure of 10,000 vacant positions that encompasses all of state government.
In January, Moore vowed to hire 5,000 new employees before the start of the 2024 legislative session.
The governor, however, has avoided providing specifics over the last nine months on where the state stands in meeting that goal.
When asked directly, the governor again sidestepped attempts to extract an exact number.
“We’re not there yet but we’re making great progress,” said Moore. “I’m incredibly encouraged about what we’ve been able to do thus far.”
The Saturday event was the last in a nationwide bus tour by national leaders of AFSCME to highlight the importance of state, local and municipal workers. That tour included “hiring hall” events in 10 cities including Baltimore.
Inside the AFSCME hall on Bush Street, about 100 current and prospective employees spoke to city government recruiters as well as the Maryland State Police, Maryland Transit Administration, and other agencies.
Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Maryland Council 3, said the slow process of hiring state workers would be streamlined and modernized.
“In the state, they’ve had all sorts of different hurdles — that’s a good word. But you know, their processes are pretty lengthy,” said Moran.
“I think we need to work with the state to minimize as many of those hurdles as possible,” said Moran. “…There are certain jobs you have to vet people and that’s important. But there are other jobs where you can get people in quicker. I think the state has got to look at that and how they streamline that process.”
One way to streamline hiring is to have a more standardized application for state employment, he said.
Moran acknowledged reaching Moore’s goal will not be easy.
“It was a big goal,” said Moran. “It’s good to have big goals. Also understand like, hey, we might not get there, right? At least try to get to it.”
Democrats and union leaders lay much of the blame for the considerable number of vacant positions on Moore’s predecessor, Gov. Larry Hogan (R).
Hogan squared off with union leaders during his two terms in office.
Moran said Moore is more receptive and recognizes concerns about the understaffing of agencies including those that provide 24/7 services including correctional officers and nurses in state hospitals.
“They have made some progress,” said Moran. “I don’t know the overall results of that yet. And again, that’s a hefty goal. That’s a lofty goal, and I commend them for putting that goal forward. But again, that’s going to be a tough one.”
When asked if the Moore administration’s goal was too ambitious, Moran said: “It depends on what you’re putting forward. If you’re going to talk about restructuring a number of things and changing qualifications, I think it could be done. But you know, we’re here in September already. So I think that it’s a pretty lofty goal.”
During a speech to county leaders last month, Moore warned of tough fiscal decisions in the next budget year.
The governor in his first nine months has preached a gospel of positivity in which all things are possible and tough decisions are couched as false choices.
The vacant positions are already accounted for in the current budget. Left unfilled, however, vacancies represent savings that could be used to ease the pain of a shortfall. Filling positions could require nips and tucks in other areas of the budget. Moore so far has been reluctant to discuss the potential for budget cuts or identify areas he might target.
Hogan’s approach to smaller government was exacerbated by the pandemic. Even local governments are feeling understaffed.
The number of vacancies in Baltimore City government was as high as 13% in May when Scott proposed his budget for fiscal 2024.
“We have thousands of them,” Scott said. “We’re always hiring for solid waste, for police, for fire, CDL drivers. It’s an issue around the city, around the state, around the region. I’ve seen the impact of this, even on bus drivers, right? We know that even outside of that nurses, the shortage is abundant in the private and public sector. But we’re focused on the public sector and public service, because we want people to bring on those quality services to our residents and visitors here in Baltimore.”
Moore cast doubt on state schools superintendent’s job performance
Moore also had strong words when asked by reporters about his support for a new contract for Maryland State Schools Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury.
Choudhury, who is nearing the end of his first contract with the Maryland Department of Education, remains in limbo. Moore, while not mentioning the superintendent by name, appeared to cast doubt on Choudhury’s job performance.
“I know that I believe in accountability, and I believe in transparency,” Moore said. “I want to make sure that our kids are getting everything that they need and everything that they deserve in order to be successful for the long term. And right now, the results we’re seeing are not satisfactory.”
Moore has not publicly said whether he would support a new four-year deal for Choudhury.
“Part of the challenge is that…the governor doesn’t decide that,” he said. “I want transparency, I want accountability, and I want a superintendent that believes in it and can deliver it. The results we’re seeing right now are not satisfactory results. And I demand better. And we need to make sure that we’re getting better results for our kids.”