ANNAPOLIS — In his first State of the State address Wednesday, Gov. Wes Moore laid out a vision of a Maryland in which the state and its government are supported by a corps of volunteers and public servants.
Moore, sworn-in just two weeks ago, offered a lofty and idealistic vision of a state where child poverty is eradicated, and many citizens answer a call to service.
“I only realized recently that service, the word service actually comes from the Latin word servitium, which means slavery,” said Moore. “So it’s fitting as, as the first African American in the state of Maryland to deliver this speech and as the first African American to deliver this speech standing in a building that was built by the hands of enslaved people, that we are now putting service towards the good of all.”
Watch: Gov. Wes Moore delivers his first State of the State speech
Moore wove a call to service into a 45-minute speech that touched on the familiar themes of his campaign and inaugural address.
The governor’s speech avoided standard references to the strength of the state. There were also no new policy initiatives in his first address to the General Assembly.
Instead, Moore touched broadly on initiatives covered in 10 bills that make up his first legislative agenda.
Included in Moore’s agenda are bills to accelerate implementation of the state’s $15 minimum wage; make permanent an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and child tax credit; and expand a program adopted by his predecessor that makes it easier for workers to substitute experience for formal education.
The governor has made expansion of public service, including a service year option for high school students, one of the cornerstones of his campaign and administration. On his first full day in office, Moore announced the creation of a new Department of Service and Civic Innovation he said will focus on increasing service among youth.
“This was not a stunt,” Moore said. “This was not because it sounded nice. This was because it is a fundamental part of who I am and it is in the DNA of this state.”
Moore has yet to name a secretary for his new department. The legislature has the ability to reject his reorganization of the executive branch, including the new department.
Read: Maryland GOP responds to Gov. Moore’s State of the State speech
Republicans, who make up roughly one-third of the legislature, say there is common ground but also cause for concern.
“Governor Moore said that he wants to rise above the partisan fighting that occurs much too often in today’s political climate,” said Del. Jason Buckel, R-Allegany and House Republican leader. “We want that as well and truly hope to work in a bipartisan fashion to achieve our common goals. We know that it is not enough for Republicans to simply be the party of no; we have to offer solutions to the many challenges that face our state solutions are in fact possible.”
Buckel and Republicans, in their response, focused on more traditional issues including public safety.
“Governor Moore has stated that Marylanders do not have to choose between a safe state and a just state,” Buckel. “We agree every Marylander deserves to feel safe in their homes, their cars and their communities, no matter what.”
Buckel praised Moore for increased funding to parole and probation enforcement but criticized increasing the budget of the Office of the Attorney General and the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.
Buckel also criticized Moore for reductions to a program that assists low- and middle-income students who want to attend private schools.
“Maryland’s public schools are funded with billions of dollars,” said Buckel. “They are not competing for funding with the children in the boost program. This is a false choice and an unnecessary cut. And those families and students should not be left behind.”
Moore frequently speaks about “false choices” in his speeches involving equity.
In his speech, the governor called for continued focus on education and incentives for increasing the number of teachers.
Moore praised law enforcement for “stepping into the gap to keep our community safe.” At the same time, he paraphrased from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essays “The Crack Up” when he also criticized aggressive policing that has resulted in the over-incarceration of minorities as well as assaults and in-custody deaths perpetrated by some police officers.
“We must hold these two contradicting items together at the same time and be determined to make them otherwise,” Moore said.
As did his predecessor, Republican Larry Hogan, Moore repeatedly touched on calls for bipartisanism.
“What I called for over the last 20 minutes or so weren’t Democratic beliefs,” said Moore. “They weren’t really partisan at all. These were the things we all hope for, for all Marylanders.”
Two of Moore’s initiatives sound very much like those Republicans have supported in the past.
Moore called for an expansion of a program initiated by Hogan to allow workers to substitute experience for formal education when applying for some state jobs.
That expansion would dovetail into Moore’s efforts to increase the number of state employees. Currently, he estimates there are roughly 10,000 open positions across state government, including in higher education. On the opening day of the 2023 session, Moore vowed to hire 5,000 new employees in his first year.
The governor, a veteran of the U.S. Army, also called for expanding exemptions of retirement income for retired military, an issue Hogan successfully advocated for in the last term of his administration.
And as part of his focus on service, Moore called for Maryland to become the first state to eradicate childhood poverty. The goal is one he carried over from his days as the head of a large anti-poverty nonprofit.
“In a state with the highest median income in the country. One in eight of our children live in poverty,” said Moore. “How can we expect to fill their minds with ideas if they can’t fill their stomachs with food?
Moore then acknowledged the audacious goal while casting aside skeptics.
“I know there are people who say this can’t be done, but the reason they’re saying that is because it’s all we’ve ever known,” said Moore. ‘But today we can make a decision that we will refuse to accept that. And today we can make the decision that Maryland is going to lead the way.”
Moore is calling for the legislature to make permanent an expansion to the Earned Income Tax Credit that was passed in each of the last two years as pandemic relief for low wage workers. The governor also wants to expand the state’s child tax credit.
Republican leaders said there may be common interest in addressing childhood poverty.
“We’re certainly waiting to hear the details on ending childhood poverty,” said Hershey. “I don’t think anybody is in favor of allowing that to continue to occur.”
Moore also wants to accelerate the state’s move to a $15 per hour minimum wage and tie future increases to inflation.
“Certainly, this is the governor’s priority and so we want to make sure that we work with the governor on his priority issues,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson, speaking the day before Moore’s speech.
Advocacy groups pushing for a higher minimum wage applauded Moore’s call to action.
“We agree strongly with Governor Moore that the state should index our minimum wage to inflation, so wages can automatically keep pace with the cost of living moving forward,” according to a statement from the minimum wage advocacy group Fight for $15. “More than a third of states already have this in place, and it’s time for Maryland to follow suit and give both workers and employers wage predictability.”
Republicans and business groups are concerned.
“The governor laid out a very ambitious agenda in his first State of the State paying particularly close attention to state government and state service,” said Mike O’Halloran, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “Maryland’s small business community will be very interested, and frankly nervous, to see what their part in it will be.”
Hershey said going back on a hard-fought agreement to phase in the minimum wage through 2025 would breed distrust among small business owners. He added that lawmakers should not hide behind automatic increases.
“It’s the same issue we talked about with the gas tax,” Hershey said of tying automatic increases to inflation. “If legislators want to increase the minimum wage then they should be accountable each time they want to have an increase.”