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COVID relief should be provided to all working Marylanders regardless of citizenship status | COMMENTARY

Maryland delegates congregate in the lobby of the State House on the first day of the Maryland General Assembly. A $1.2 billion COVID-19 pandemic relief bill was briefly jeopardized because of disagreements between Democratic lawmakers and Maryland's Republican governor over who should qualify for an earned income tax credit. Now, they'll do battle over that issue under terms of a separate bill. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun).
Maryland delegates congregate in the lobby of the State House on the first day of the Maryland General Assembly. A $1.2 billion COVID-19 pandemic relief bill was briefly jeopardized because of disagreements between Democratic lawmakers and Maryland's Republican governor over who should qualify for an earned income tax credit. Now, they'll do battle over that issue under terms of a separate bill. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun). (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Recently, Gov. Larry Hogan and Democrats in Annapolis found themselves at an impasse over the $1.2 billion COVID-19 RELIEF (Recovery for the Economy, Livelihoods, Industries, Entrepreneurs, and Families) Act designed to help keep individuals and businesses afloat during the pandemic through a variety of refunds, tax credits and tax deferrals. On Friday, their contentious battle went away — for the weekend. Instead of insisting that a planned expansion in benefits under the federal earned income tax credit (EITC) include taxpayers who file their returns without benefit of a Social Security number, House and Senate leaders have decided to take that matter up under separate legislation.

Roughly 86,000 Maryland residents use an IRS-issued individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN), rather than a Social Security number, because they are not U.S. citizens. Governor Hogan decided including them in the Relief Act, which received final approval Friday, crossed a line. Lawmakers disagreed, but will fight this fight on its own terms. Mr. Hogan is likely to veto the separate legislation. Democrats have the votes to quickly override.

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We would respectfully urge the governor to reconsider his opposition. The the targeted individuals — all taxpayers — should never have been excluded from a benefit that their tax dollars helped finance. The expansion of the EITC is good public policy. Just ask Republicans. They’ve endorsed it for years. The federal program allows low-income workers to qualify for tax credit. In other words, it rewards work, disproportionately helps communities of color, and helps lift children out of poverty and toward a better life. States have long had the option of piggybacking on the program, and Maryland does, offering a 28% match of federal EITC to state residents, which the House has proposed to increase to a best-in-the-nation 45% for the next several years.

Governor Hogan’s opposition was not shocking. For all his talk of bipartisan pragmatism he has frequently dug in his heels on matters he perceives as core Republican values, such as taxes (even when they pay for better K-12 schools). His presidential ambitions may have further encouraged a hard line approach. Failure to adhere to the GOP’s unsympathetic stand on immigrants might prove disqualifying in most, if not all, party primaries in 2024. Will Maryland voters suddenly rise up against him for shortchanging a mere tens of thousands? Not likely. Instead, he’ll point to the Democrats as the party soft on the undocumented. Never mind that to qualify for an ITIN requires federal approval and covers many who entered this country perfectly legally. He knows there are divisions within the Democratic caucus on these matters, too.

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Mr. Hogan has all sorts of tools in his arsenal from gubernatorial control of the appropriation process (under current law, the General Assembly can’t add spending, only subtract it). And he has the bully pulpit. Even as Democrats move forward with their modest $30 million bill to provide these much-need benefits, he likely will dismiss them as pandering to “illegal aliens,” and you can bet that the usual suspects in right-wing talk radio will be only too happy to take up his cause.

Meanwhile, the governor can boast about the far more costly, tax-free unemployment benefits to individuals and a sales tax credit to businesses contained in the RELIEF Act without mentioning any of those hardworking families he just decided to leave behind. How many voters follow the complexities of state tax policy — or State House debates generally — to contradict his version of events? If Donald Trump proved anything, it’s how many Americans have limited empathy for legal immigrants, let alone the undocumented.

Sorry, but none of that justifies abandoning these folks. They are employed. They are paying their taxes. They are likely raising families on their modest wages, attending church and supporting local businesses. To help everyone else but not them is not just wrong, it’s immoral. Let the politics fall where it may. Even Comptroller Peter Franchot, the same Democrat who sang Mr. Hogan’s praises for years as an ally on the Board of Public Works, has called for payments to Marylanders who file without a Social Security number. He’s ready to write the checks for the state. Don’t hold him back.

Finally, it should be noted that the proposed expansion of the earned income tax credit is, at its heart, an anti-poverty program. It’s not the ideal program. It requires filing paperwork, and benefits to the childless are quite stingy. But no one can deny it has been effective in raising living standards and, perhaps most consequentially, helping the next generation escape poverty, putting more people on solid financial ground and giving them an opportunity at a better life. Why hurt the communities where immigrants live and work this very moment by leaving them out of the picture? It makes no sense — unless the only calculation you care about is a political one. If so, shame on you.

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The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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