Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) expressed cautious optimism for the Senate’s legislative priorities in the upcoming General Assembly session, even in a challenging state budget year, during an interview in his State House office Monday.
“There are a lot of places to make small adjustments that make a big difference. I feel very confident that we’ll be able to balance” the budget, he said.
Ferguson insisted that Maryland is “in a good place” to continue to fund state programs that are already in place, but potential budget cuts, funding formula adjustments and fees may be considered if the General Assembly wants to push forward on new initiatives.
“I think the big message coming out of the Senate this year is going to be one of predictability and financial sustainability in every case,” Ferguson said. “So, if there is not a way to pay for new programs, it is going to be very difficult for us to move forward with them this year.”
He noted that over the past couple years, the COVID-19 pandemic and millions in federal assistance funds created a unique financial outlook for the state.
“The last few years with the global pandemic, with the recovery effort, with the federal dollars that were put in – that was a very, kind of generational moment, it was not a normal revenue time,” he said.
He characterized the budget discussions that will take place in 2024 as “normalizing revenues.”
The state faces a $761 million shortfall in projected revenue for the 2025 fiscal year.
But, the Senate is not currently interested in raising taxes to fund new projects, according to Ferguson.
“We just have to make sure that our revenues match our expenses. We have to just make some decisions to prioritize what’s most important in an area where there is less flexible funding, and that were really investing in the right things, not investing in everything.”
“That’s going to be an important part of this year: prioritizing what investments move forward,” he said.
‘Safer and stronger’ communities
Ferguson said his top priority is “creating safer and stronger communities” and the Senate is looking to bolster communities through legislation on affordable housing, infrastructure, and criminal justice efforts.
“We have to focus on making sure that Maryland’s economy is strong and growing. That means you have to have a strong infrastructure, people have to feel safe,” he said.
State officials who are tasked with modernizing how Maryland funds transportation projects recently released an interim report of recommendations to improve transportation projects.
Ferguson said the interim report will help inform transportation and infrastructure budget decisions, especially as the state transportation agency faces a $3.3 billion shortfall.
“What I hope to see us work on this year on transportation and prioritizing existing dollars,” he said. “And should there be additional dollars moving forward?… Do we want to expand our transportation system? If so, we’ve got to pay for it. I think we have to tell Marylanders how that money would be spent before we can ask them to fund it.”
Ferguson said that there is also some Senate interest to make adjustments to previous criminal justice reforms, including criminal cases that involve minors.
“We’ve got to provide a better and more accountable system, so that there is transparency and a clear effort to help young people divert behavior,” he said.
One point of legislative interest involves reforming juvenile intake facilities, to ensure that young people who are processed at those locations have access to programs that can help divert behavior and put them on a better path.
“Because at the end of the day, these are kids. And they’re going to be a part of our society in any way, shape or form. And so we have to make sure that they are getting the right services that will help them change the trajectory that they’re on. That’s the goal of the system, and we’re not quite hitting that objective as we should,” he said.
The Senate is also interested in affordable housing legislation, said Ferguson, who anticipated a “pretty big” affordable housing legislative package from Gov. Wes Moore (D) soon.
“Housing affordability and supply of affordable housing is going to be a big topic,” he said. “These are things that don’t happen overnight, but they are really, really critical and important. That’s through funding, that’s through policy changes.”
Other issues to watch
Efforts to implement special elections for to fill legislative vacancies have been unsuccessful in the Maryland State House for many years. Ferguson expects the issue to return once more in the 2024 session.
Currently, when there is a legislative vacancy in the House of Delegates or in the Senate, local political central committees are tasked with filling those positions. The central political committees submit a nominee to the governor, who appoints the unelected official to finish out the rest of the term.
But a majority of voters would prefer special elections to fill vacancies, according to a recent poll.
“I think it’s best for the people to decide who their elected officials are,” Ferguson said. “It’s something that the Senate has passed unanimously on several occasions. It’s an election year, so any constitutional amendment is more likely this year than in others.”
A newer area of legislative interest is how to manage the emerging technological force that is artificial intelligence, and how to protect Marylanders as it develops. Ferguson said the Senate is taking a “balanced and forward thinking approach” to AI.
“We want to have a system where AI is seen as a resource, as a tool that we are learning from. But also, that it is transparent and can’t be used to take advantage of people,” he said.
For example, he said, people calling into or using an app to reach customer service departments should know “whether or not they are talking to a real person or to an AI generated chat function.”
“By providing greater transparency…we will create a better sense of its resourcefulness and how much we can benefit from it,” he said.
Ferguson also said that a contentious “medical aid-in-dying” bill will likely get a Senate vote this year. The legislation would allow terminally ill patients to determine when and how they die with the help of a physician.
In 2019, the aid-in-dying legislation came to an end on the Senate floor when one senator chose not to vote at all, leading to a 23-23 tie vote and the bill’s demise.
The issue is emotionally challenging. Ferguson noted that it was one of the “hardest conversations on the floor” that he can remember as a lawmaker.
Supporters of aid-in-dying laws believe that people with painful, terminal illnesses — and who are of sound mind — should be able to obtain a prescription from their doctor enabling them to end their lives.
Some opponents believe such measures can create pressure on people with serious illnesses to end their lives, to avoid being a burden on loved ones. Others object on religious or other grounds.
“It is a really tough and emotional issue for so many people. And for good reason. It’s one of those issues – it’s not a Democratic issue, it’s not a Republican issue. It is an issue of conscience and personal choice,” he said.