Today, I got a briefing from our Budget Office. It’s the one that kicks off the budgeting season, the one where the whole team updates me on revenues coming in, shares projections based on economic indicators, and tells me about forthcoming increases in the county’s financial obligations.
It’s a roller coaster presentation that I’m getting used to. Revenue growth in a good economy is thrilling. Increased costs are sobering. Tough decisions lie ahead.
We’re in better shape than the state. We both have a fiscal cliff at the end of federal COVID money, but theirs is bigger. We used ours only on one-time investments, some of which we want to continue, but theirs was used to put off hard decisions, like how to fund transportation amidst declining gas tax revenue.
I attended the winter meeting of the Maryland Association of Counties in Cambridge last week. They titled the gathering “Eye of the Storm.” The eye is county government, and the storm is Maryland’s fiscal challenges.
Governor Moore warned during his campaign, when he took office, and at last summer’s MACO meeting that the longstanding structural deficit must be confronted, and that doing so would require hard fiscal decisions. But when Transportation Secretary Wiedefeld went public at the start of the week with the outline of what a balanced budget looks like for MDOT, people finally paid attention.
The Moore team knew that the transportation budget would be bitter medicine for county leaders, but the Governor chose to make himself available, very available, to discuss it. After the Secretary offered a preview to Baltimore region County Executives, we asked for an emergency weekend meeting with the Governor himself, and we got one. We warned about political consequences to the cuts, and he listened. We encouraged him to consider revenue enhancements, he reminded us that a commission exists to do just that. He acknowledged that this isn’t the transportation budget that we need to grow our economy, improve our environment, or expand economic opportunity, but that getting where we want to be will require all hands on deck - the General Assembly, county leaders, and the public. In the meantime, we must face the facts that are before us.
Then Governor Moore showed up at the MACO meeting. He spoke bluntly about how we got where we are, and the kind of work that it will take to get where we want to be. He noted that while he’s new to political office, he’s not new to budgets.
As badly as I want state funds to pay for transit and road improvements in our county, I found his words refreshing, and necessary. I wondered if there was still such a thing as a fiscally responsible Republican, and if so whether they were willing to support the message. I wondered whether Democrats were willing to get on board with some sacrifice, and to give the governor they elected the time and the space needed to build public and political support for complex solutions to decades-old challenges.
My advice to the Governor and his team is this. Keep on showing up. Keep on reaching out. Keep on being transparent. And then when it’s time to do the hard stuff, whether it’s cutting spending or raising revenue, we can do it together.
But I can’t offer that kind of advice if I don’t practice it, and that’s why once again we will hold a Budget Town Hall in each of our seven council districts, to share our budget outlook and hear the priorities of anyone and everyone who chooses to attend. They take place in January and the first week of February, and just as I’ve done 35 times over the last five years, I will be accompanied at the front table by the County Council member who represents the district.
So welcome to budget season, the hardest season in government. Let’s get to work, together.
Until next week…
Anne Arundel County Executive