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What can you do with billions of dollars?

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Maryland State House/flickr

Maryland lawmakers return to Annapolis Wednesday facing a number of difficult issues, from shoring up the police reform bills they passed last year to a move to legalize recreational marijuana. There’s another one: a huge surplus.

And they have plenty of ideas about what to do with it.

They also have conflicting ideas of how big the surplus is. Senate President Bill Ferguson says it's $4.6 billion, but almost two thirds of that is a one-time influx of federal money. State Comptroller Peter Franchot says it's $6 billion. And that doesn’t count any unspent federal stimulus.

Either way, it’s a lot of money.

Ferguson says lawmakers should be very thoughtful in aiming at one-time expenditures because “a lot of it is one time surplus that we don't want to utilize for ongoing costs or ongoing reductions in revenue, because it'll set us up for a big cliff down the line.”

He suggests, for example, some infrastructure projects and beefing up cyber security to avoid hacks like the one that recently crippled the Maryland Department of Health just at the beginning of the omicron surge.

“Across state government there are there are vulnerabilities that are going to take investments and they are one-time investments of systems and equipment and so I think that would be a big expenditure area as well,” Ferguson said.

House Speaker Adrienne Jones says she sees the extra cash as an opportunity to upgrade neglected state facilities, parks, bridges, schools and IT systems.

She predicted they would focus “on making critical upgrades rather than creating new long term spending priorities.”

“So we just want to be able to address things that we can fix and get it you know, and not be dragged on for five or 10 years.”

Franchot, who can’t vote on any of this, laid out his own ideas in a recent op-ed in the Baltimore Sun.

Put $2 billion into the state’s Rainy-Day fund, he wrote, issue support payments to low-income Marylanders, help small and minority owned businesses hurt by the pandemic and provide relief to childcare operators.

Of course, there are lawmakers who have other ideas.

Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, a Montgomery County Democrat, describes herself as a big housing advocate. She’s introducing a bill to pour tens of millions of dollars into an affordable housing program.

“We're seeing costs rise so much in a lot of different ways, in our state and across the country due to impacts of COVID,” she said. “And so, I'd really like to see us use those funds for affordable housing to continue to support rental assistance, as well.”

Sen. Addie Eckhardt, an Eastern Shore Republican, wondered if there would be a clash between those who would grow state government and others who want to provide direct relief. She said lawmakers need to be “slow and steady.”

“My rule of thumb has been, give some out directly on one time initiatives,” she said. “If we could provide ongoing tax relief to our retirees, that would be awesome.”

Asked about the surplus in a news conference Monday, Gov. Larry Hogan said he could talk about that, but it would ruin the surprise of announcements he’s planning next week.

Note: This post has been updated to correct an error in reference to Comptroller Peter Franchot's Baltimore Sun op-ed.