The first of two statewide ballot questions this year could create a significant shift in power in Annapolis by allowing the General Assembly to move money around within the governor’s proposed budget. The legislature debated the proposed amendment to the state constitution for more than two decades before sending it to voters this year.
Every January, the governor must submit a proposed budget to the General Assembly. Then the legislature’s budget committees get to work, holding hearings with each state agency.
Under current law, though, the legislature’s power to change the budget is limited. Only the governor can propose increasing the money allocated to specific programs or agencies. The legislature can only cut spending.
If the legislature wants to move money from one part of the budget to another — for example, take $10 million from the state Department of Transportation and spend it on education — lawmakers cut the money from the budget and authorize the governor to spend it only on the legislature’s intended use. Lawmakers refer to this as “fencing off” the funds.
However, the governor does not have to release the money. He can choose not to spend it.
House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh recalled an example from earlier in Gov. Larry Hogan’s tenure.
“The budget for school construction at one point was short and not what we expected,” McIntosh said. “We found ways to fund those priorities, which were the priorities of the House and the Senate, both Republicans and Democrats, by the way.”
Hogan chose not to release the funds.
The constitutional amendment would allow the legislature to take money from one part of the budget and add it to another, so long as the total amount of money in the budget doesn’t exceed the governor’s proposed total.
The amendment would also give the governor a line-item veto for the operating budget, which he currently lacks.
Maryland is unique, said Ben Orr, executive director of the Maryland Center on Economic Policy, in that the other 49 state legislatures in the country have more budgeting power.
“In every other state, it's much more of a negotiation between the legislature and the executive,” Orr said. “I think legislators or advocates in every state prefer to have those conversations before the governor introduces their budget and get them in the original budget, but in other states if the governor doesn't include your priority as a legislator or as a, you know, a committee or whatever, then they have ways to do that that are denied to Maryland legislators.”
This dynamic stems from the early 20th century, when the state government didn’t have its current sophisticated budgeting process. In 1914, Maryland spent about $1.5 million more than it had.
Two years later, voters approved an amendment to the state constitution preventing the General Assembly from adding money to any executive branch programs.
More than a century later, the legislators backing this year’s proposed change say there are now protections in place to prevent a fiscal crisis like those in the past.
However, House Minority Leader Nic Kipke said the proposal is still bad policy.
“The legislature currently is forced to negotiate with the governor on these types of changes to the budget,” he said. “If this question passes, there is no requirement that they have to come to any kind of agreement anymore, and the legislature can just move money around.”
He said giving the governor a line-item veto does not balance the scales because Democrats have a long-held supermajority in the legislature, making it easy enough to override vetoes.
If voters approve the amendment, it will take effect in 2023, after Hogan and at least some current members of the General Assembly are no longer in office.