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Maryland Gov Approves High School Public Service Program

The program was among the more than 100 bills that Wes Moore signed into law, including approval for the $63.1 billion Maryland budget, fixes to the 529 college savings program and agencies for racetracks and water systems.

Gov. Wes Moore
(Jonathan Carter/TNS)
(TNS) — Turning one of his hallmark campaign promises into reality, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore signed into law the creation of a program that will allow recent high school graduates to participate in a year of paid public service before entering the workforce or continuing their education.

The program was among more than 100 bills the Democratic governor put his signature on Monday afternoon — including a $63.1 billion state budget, fixes to the troubled 529 college savings program, election process reforms and the creation of new government entities to manage racetracks and study Baltimore’s water system.

Inspiring young people to pursue public service has been a top goal for Moore, a U.S. Army veteran who led one of the largest anti-poverty nonprofits in the country before running for governor.

The state-run service program, he’s said, will be a way to both connect young adults with jobs and mend cultural divides.

“By calling on Marylanders to serve, we will strengthen civic bonds, restore a spirit of community and call on our fellow citizens to get to know each other again, create new friendships and new partnerships, and not simply retreating to our corners of political ideology or partisan talking points,” Moore said Monday at the State House. “We aren’t telling our young people how to serve. We’re just asking them to serve.”

Participants will be eligible for the service program if they are a Maryland resident within three years of earning a high school diploma or a similar level of education. They will earn a $15 hourly wage and a $6,000 stipend if they complete at least nine months of service for a nonprofit organization, local government or for-profit business.

While the program is slated to start with 200 participants later this year and grow to 2,000 in the fourth year, Moore campaigned on the idea that it would be available to every high school graduate who wants to participate. He’s maintained that remains his goal.

The administration, through a new Department of Service and Civic Innovation, is planning on recruiting the first class of participants in the coming months in order to place them in organizations by the fall.

The department also will be charged with breathing life into a similar service program previously known as Maryland Corps.

Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the original Maryland Corps legislation in the Senate, said Monday that the programs will be “a legacy investment.”

During the celebratory bill-signing event — one of several scheduled to finalize the hundreds of bills passed during the recently concluded 90-day session in Annapolis — Ferguson also highlighted elements of the state budget.

The $63.1 billion state spending plan includes $8.7 billion in public school funding, $900 million more for the long-term education reform known as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, $1.2 billion in capital projects, $200 million reserved for future transportation projects and $200 million in tax relief. It also keeps $2.5 billion in the rainy day fund while planning for a general fund surplus of $357 million at the end of the year.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, celebrated the budget’s incorporation of salary increases and other benefits for state workers as officials seek to fill thousands of vacancies across various agencies.

“Rebuilding state government was my top priority this session,” said Jones, who sponsored a bill Moore signed Monday that provides incentives for current and potential state employees.

The law, as outlined in House Bill 982, requires the state to contribute at least $600 to all employees’ retirement plans. It also expands tuition and higher education loan assistance for police officers as well as employees working in probation and parole.

Among the dozens of other bills that crossed the finish line Monday, one concerning election reform was signed. The bill will reschedule the 2024 primary so it doesn’t overlap with Passover, will allow local election workers more time to process mail-in ballots and will require judges of elections — positions local election offices have struggled to recruit for in recent years — be paid at least $250 per day.

The bill to change the mail-in ballot timeline and allow voters to fix, or “cure,” their ballot if they submit it with an error is similar to a bill Republican Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed last year, leading to delays in certifying the 2022 primary.

Hogan had said he supported the processing changes — letting election workers “canvass,” but not count, the influx of mail-in ballots weeks in advance of Election Day — but was concerned about election security. Maryland House Republicans had a similar message Monday with the changes now becoming law under Moore.

“While ballot access is important and we should be making sure every eligible Marylander has the opportunity to vote, the security of our voting process is just as important,” Del. Mike Griffith, a Harford County Republican, said in a statement.

Other bills signed Monday included Senate Bill 959, which will move the embattled Maryland 529 tuition savings program under the authority of state Treasurer Dereck Davis, and Senate Bill 720, which will create the Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority to, in part, oversee the stalled redevelopment of Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and Laurel Park.

Also signed into existence was the Baltimore Regional Water Governance Task Force, which will be charged with discussing and producing recommendations for the city’s water and sewer system by the end of January 2024. The bill was introduced this year in the wake of an E. coli contamination in West Baltimore and a wastewater treatment plant being at risk for “catastrophic failures.”

©2023 Baltimore Sun. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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