Maryland isn’t planning a tax holiday, but is adding money to the state’s budget

Don’t expect a gas tax holiday, but do expect to see lawmakers using their new authority to add money to the state’s budget.

Those were just a few of the items Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson talked about in a briefing with reporters just two days after the start of the 90-day legislative session.



Roads, gas tax and electric vehicles

Ferguson acknowledged, “I think that inflation’s hurting everyone,” but he said, “I don’t think that right now is the moment we’re thinking about a gas tax reprieve,” he told reporters.

Ferguson explained that the Budget and Tax Committee had recently heard from experts at Moody’s Analytics that the price of oil could drop. “The projections from Moody’s are that over time, over this year, we’re going to see oil drop down to $65 a barrel.”

When Maryland adopted a gas tax holiday in March of 2022, oil prices hovered near the $100 per barrel mark. Drivers were seeing prices topping $4 a gallon and approaching the $5 mark in many areas from D.C. to Annapolis. That respite from the state’s gas tax lasted 30 days.

In July, the state’s gas tax went up to nearly .43 cents a gallon. Revenues generated by the gas tax are funneled into the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which is intended to, as the name suggests, pay for projects from roads and bridges to mass transit and even operations at BWI-Marshall Airport.

Ferguson said he also looked forward to seeing who would be named to lead the state’s Department of Transportation. “It’s incredibly, incredibly important,” said Ferguson. “That person will be overseeing state highways, our MTA, Maryland Transit Administration, our ports, our airport,” he said.

Transit

Ferguson said lawmakers would like to see some money put aside for transit related projects, “particularly in the Baltimore region,” where hopes that Baltimore’s Red Line, an east-west light rail project in the city, were dashed when Governor Larry Hogan killed the project in 2015. Plans for the Red Line envisioned a 14-mile light rail route that would have 19 stops from east to west.

When asked about whether reviving the Red Line was possible, Ferguson said, “We need to salvage whatever part of the Red Line plan we can salvage,” said Ferguson. “There are going to have to be some changes just in terms of the alignment,” said Ferguson, but he repeated that improving transit in the region is a priority. “It’s clear that the Baltimore region is behind when it comes to transportation options,” he said.

Fiscal fitness check

Two days after Governor-Elect Wes Moore is sworn in, he’ll be responsible for submitting a budget to lawmakers.

“Here are a couple of things we’re looking for,” said Ferguson. “We want to see at least 10% in the rainy day fund,” said Ferguson, who explained that with the current budget surplus of $2.5 billion, “we are in very good financial shape today, but we want to make sure that we are prepared for a less financially successful moment in the future.”

Ferguson also said lawmakers want to see “a really healthy fund balance.” He didn’t specify a dollar amount.

This is the first year that lawmakers will be able to add items to the budget-in the past, lawmakers were restricted from adding anything to the budget submitted by the governor. “We want to do this in a collaborative way with the executive,” Ferguson said.

Beefing up state’s workforce

Ferguson said there are as many as 6,500 vacancies across state agencies but that does not include the state’s university system. He said the state needs to hire more full time employees and stop relying on contractors.

“We’ve got to find a way to really invest in our public sector employees and rebuild state government,” he said.

Ferguson was asked if he believed it was feasible for the state to fill 5,000 vacancies in the first year, something the Governor-Elect has said was among his goals. “Anything’s possible” said Ferguson.

“It means that secretaries are going to have to make this a number one priority,” Ferguson said of agency leaders. Filling vacancies “is essential for the successful operation of government,” he said.

On Friday, Moore added to his list of nominees to fill department heads, including candidates to lead emergency management, public safety and correctional services and the secretary of information technology. Ferguson said of the nominees Moore put forward earlier, “I’ve been really impressed with the quality and caliber of folks who have been named” and added that each will be fully “vetted” and said a full review will be done on the backgrounds of those put forward.

Education

The number one goal on education, said Ferguson would have to center on overcoming “learning loss” due to the pandemic.

“There are a number of strategies” in the “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future”, the state’s multibillion dollar education reform plan. Ferguson said he believed in addition to those strategies laid out in the plan, that one-on-one tutoring and small group tutoring should be part of the learning recovery process.

How and when students are given instruction is something that’s also being considered. Ferguson mentioned a bill he’s working on that would create a statewide grant competition where schools could test extended day or extended year instruction.

“At the end of the day, what matters most is academic achievement and we know that the pandemic had a hugely negative impact on that and we have to find a way to catch back up,” he said.

Mental health

Ferguson said that the pandemic put the spotlight on the need for more mental health services, especially for young people and seniors. He told reporters there’s a need for health care in three areas.

“The first is areas of crisis,” said Ferguson. A shortage of beds available for teenagers dealing with acute mental illness has resulted in adolescents languishing in emergency rooms for “weeks on end” because “there are not behavioral health beds available across the state.”

Ferguson said there also has be a way to prevent people from ending up in crisis due to mental health issues. “It needs to be easier to get in front of a mental health care professional to make sure that someone is well,” said Ferguson.

He also said there has to be care available to people who are, in his words, “in that intermediate zone.” He explained he was referring to people who may need ongoing mental health services, but who are not in crisis. Ferguson likened it to having diabetes. “It is a condition that takes maintenance that is contained or hopefully gets maintained over time,” he said.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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