Conversations with HJM: Delegate Ben Barnes

Being the chair of the Appropriations Committee, you get a broad view of the many issues and opportunities in our State. It means that you have a large role to play in making sure that you are providing, necessary services: funding a strong health care system, protecting our pension system and ensuring state personnel are adequately compensated; building an education system that is second to none, investing in a robust transit and transportation system. It means you get to do many great things for your State and community.”


Right before the 2022 legislative session was adjourned Sine Die, Delegate Ben Barnes (D21–Prince George’s County and Anne Arundel County) was appointed by Speaker Adrienne A. Jones as the new Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, replacing the long-time chair Delegate Maggie McIntosh (D43–Baltimore City) who is retiring after 30 years in the House. Elected in 2006, Barnes has been a vital part of the Maryland General Assembly (MGA), playing various roles throughout his elected career that prepared him for his appointment as chair, including as chair of the Capital Budget and the Education and Economic Development Subcommittees, overseeing tens of billions of State funding.

Before Barnes joined Appropriations in 2015, he served on both the House Judiciary Committee and the Economic Matters Committee. Barnes was also was appointed by former Speaker Michael E. Busch as Chief Deputy Majority Whip and chair of the Spending Affordability Committee. Before his election to the House, Ben was a familiar face in the Maryland State House, where he served as a legislative aid and top political advisor to the late Senate President Mike Miller, Jr. “It’s given me the benefit of understanding both chambers and given me a fairly well-rounded perspective on all the roles that we have between the Senate, House, staff, and the members in the General Assembly.”

Graduating from the University of North Carolina Greensboro with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Political Science, and later earning his Juris Doctor from the University of Baltimore School of Law, where he took night classes during his time working for President Miller, Barnes has been surrounded by the world of politics and public service as long as he can remember. Growing up in a family full of activists who were always actively participating in their community and volunteering on campaigns, Barnes recalls how, as a kid, he would always surrounded by conversations about current events. With his extensive experience and knowledge, it is no surprise then that he has become such a strong and influential figure in Maryland politics.

Barnes took the time to answer my questions regarding the 2022 legislative session and how he is preparing to take on his new leadership role as Chair of Appropriations.

Where are you from? What brought you into the public sphere? 

I’m from Prince George’s County, and I wanted to go into the public sphere because I had a family who, while they were not a family of politicians, they were a family of activists. When I was a kid, we would go to pro-choice marches in DC, and we’d have conversations around the dinner table about current events…my mother volunteered on campaigns from the time I could remember. My grandmother volunteered on campaigns her entire life, working for Democratic politicians, so it was sort of in my blood. Although running for elected office was not something my family had done, being active, volunteering, and protesting was a huge part of our life. 

Can you take me through the roles that you have played throughout your years in the Maryland General Assembly? 

I was originally on the Judiciary committee…Joe Vallario, the former Chair, called me six days in a row, telling me that I needed to be on the Judiciary committee, and I finally relented. It was great! I really liked being on it, but I certainly felt like I needed to do something different after my first term, especially as a practicing attorney and dealing with those issues in so much of my daily life, I felt that it’d be good to sort of spread my wings a little and learn different subject matter when I was in Annapolis. I moved to the Economic Matters Committee which I enjoyed during those years. I was also elected Vice-Chair of the Prince George’s Delegation and originally appointed as a Junior Whip, and then elevated mid-way through that term to the Chief Deputy Majority Whip. But again, I sort of felt the need to explore other opportunities. The opportunity came to be appointed to the Appropriations Committee, especially when Chair McIntosh moved committees, who is someone I have long admired. The speaker at the time, Mike Bushe, presented me with the option of going over there, serving as Chair of Pensions, and the Vice-Chair of the Education subcommittee, while also keeping my Chief Deputy Majority Whip role, which I took him up on. So, I have been on Appropriations for the last eight years where I’ve served as Chair of Pensions, Chair of the Education and Economic Development Subcommittee, Chair of the Capital Budget Subcommittee…so I’ve had a few roles in that committee. Now as the Chair of the Committee. 

How do you plan to approach this new leadership position? 

I’ve been blessed to have some of the greatest mentors, I think, in Maryland politics in a generation. I originally worked for President Mike Miller, serving under Speaker Mike Busch, serving as the Vice-Chair to Speaker Jones’s two subcommittees that she Chaired before becoming Speaker of the House, and working with Chairman McIntosh. Each of them taught me different lessons that I can bring to bear in making sure that (1) the entire committee has a voice, (2) we can clearly identify our priorities and move toward them and (3) we all work collaboratively. Those mentors sort of shaped where I am now as a politician, and hopefully what I’ll do as the chair of the committee. 

You mentioned your work under late Senate President Mike Miller, do you believe that your work in the Senate has influenced or impacted you as a legislator? 

I think it’s given me the benefit of understanding both chambers. I think having been a staffer, and a member gives you an additional perspective in understanding how the back end of the legislature works, how hard the staff works, and how to navigate political landmines. Also, while the House and the Senate are both part of one branch of government, they operate very differently so it has helped me to understand both chambers. Overall, my prior experience has helped give me a fairly well-rounded perspective on all the roles that we have between the Senate, House, staff, and the members in the General Assembly. 

After the session ends, how do you evaluate and determine which areas will be a priority for you and your committee in the future?

In my first year as Chair, that will be a little bit of a work in progress. I can tell you in years past, Chair McIntosh has met with the subcommittee chairs during the summer to talk about fall briefings, how the departments were doing, what issues were coming to the forefront of relevance in various agencies, and how we can hold them accountable for the work that they’re doing and general preparation to ensure that the session is productive and fruitful. In years past, we’ve had briefings on Kirwan, the health exchange, MEDCO issues with student housing, the work of our university system and how to support HBCUs. As different issues arise, it is critically important to work in a collaborative way with your subcommittee chairs but also the other policy committee chairs who will need support in funding their priorities. Of course, this year we are going to have a new Governor so a lot of this is going to depend on the outcome of the November election.

What was one subject or bill that you were most proud of the legislature for passing this year? 

Oh man, we did so much great work this session. We really used the budget surplus to make an investment in our future. We put historic amounts of money away in the Rainy Day Fund. We put $800 million into the Blueprint fund to make sure that that fund is solvent and has money to back up the great K-12 policy we passed in to law two years ago. We also backfilled money for our providers in health care, and mental health care providers, shortened the autism waitlist.

As a House and a General Assembly, we also did a lot of important work for the people of Maryland. The Economic Matters committee figured out the policy for the first statewide family leave program – something that has been a long time coming that I’m really proud of that this legislature moved on. Then, protecting a woman’s right to choose, and the work that the Health and Government Operations committee did on that issue to make sure that we have the providers that we need, and that women’s health care is protected in this State, especially with that we’re seeing nationally. The Judiciary Committee banned ghost guns. You know, I think this legislature is a real model for our nation.

Are there any new initiatives that you are working on now that would be interesting for those following the conversation series and for those in your district?

I think there are a number of things that we want to look at in the Appropriations Committee. First, 2023 will be the first year of implementation of an amendment that the voters approved to the State Constitution that allows the legislature to move money around and add to the State’s budget. This will be a major change in the work that we do and how we do it.

We need to have more accountability in transportation. We’ve seen how long the Purple Line has taken to develop, significant cost overruns and still no guaranteed date to reach completion. I don’t think we can have that moving forward. We need to look at more transit options for our State. And although we put $800 million away for the Blueprint and educational excellence, we need to keep monitoring implementation to ensure that every child in every zipcode is getting the resources that they need to succeed. Along with our colleagues in Ways & Means, we will be tracking the accountability around the new education funding very closely. We will also be working with our colleagues in Economic Matters as we implement the full Family and Medical Leave act. Plus, the State will continue to need investment in COVID-19 recovery. So, I think there is a lot to do.


By: Valerie Skvirsky, Government Relations Associate