In a surprise announcement today that caught some of his administration members off guard, Gov. William Donald Schaefer said he is directing Cabinet officials to move more than $330 million in construction projects ahead of schedule in an effort to breathesome life into Maryland's stagnant economy.
"We're going to do our part to stimulate the economy and move forward as fast as we can," Schaefer said today in Annapolis.
NTC Schaefer said lucrative contracts for such capital projects as highway construction and housing will be speeded up partly to help ailing construction companies, which have been hard hit by the recession.
"Part of it will be psychological," Schaefer said of the economic plan. "A lot of them are right on the brink of no work."
The governor said the projects require no new taxes and have been earmarked for spending in the state's existing capital budget.
But, he added, awarding contracts on some transportation projects will depend upon when the federal government distributes highway funding to the states. Congress recently passed a transportation measure that could mean hundreds of millions of dollars for Maryland transit programs.
The governor said transportation projects are a key part of the plan, which he dubbed "Maryland Goes to Work." The state spends hundreds of millions annually on transportation projects and that funding is the lifeblood of many construction companies.
Facing warnings that a decrease in highway spending would cause layoffs, state lawmakers reluctantly approved increases in Motor Vehicle Administration fees earlier this year. They will provide $35 million in state contributions for more than 120 federally funded projects worth $450 million. Those projects had been stalled for lack of state matching money.
Schaefer's announcement caught top transportation officials unaware. DOT Secretary O. James Lighthizer is out of the state and Deputy Secretary Stephen Zentz said through a secretary that he had not heard about the governor's plan.
Schaefer offered few details about the plan to release money into the state economy, and his press staff said they were unable to add to what the governor said in a news conference outside his State House office.
In a good-natured ribbing, the governor chided reporters for "breaking my back" with questions about details.
Yet even with few details available, the Schaefer plan was embraced by one key legislator.
"It's a good idea," said Del. Charles J. Ryan, D-Price George's, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.
"If we can pump some extra money out there, you get a few extra jobs," he said.
Schaefer said he seized upon the idea yesterday while discussing solutions to Maryland's ailing economy with Paul Schurick, his new chief of staff.
A sixth round of budget cuts totaling about $150 million is likely to begin in November, bringing to more than $1 billion the sum lawmakers have had to lop from the state's $11.6 billion general fund.
Referring to his "Do-It-Now" days as mayor of Baltimore,
Schaefer said the state can act as a force in countering some of the effects of the recession.
" . . . I do know now if we're going to make any progress we're going to have to do it ourselves," he said. "I did it in another job I had."
Maryland's money woes were eased slightly yesterday when federal officials told Schaefer his plan to squeeze about $30 million extra in federally funded Medicaid payments was legal and the money should be forthcoming.
Earlier this year, the plan was openly acknowledged by state officials to be "sleight of hand," and the Bush administration declared that it would withhold the money. But the administration reversed itself yesterday after a meetings with officials from several states.