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Maryland senators advance tax credit for non-citizens left out of the RELIEF Act

Over objections from Republicans, Democrats in Annapolis are moving forward with expanding a tax credit for low-income working Marylanders so that non-citizens can benefit.

The bill would allow taxpayers who lack a Social Security number to be eligible for the earned income tax credit for low-wage workers, which lawmakers have made more generous for three years to help blunt the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Workers who use a taxpayer identification number to pay taxes in Maryland, a group that includes both documented and undocumented immigrants, would be eligible to receive the credit.

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The Maryland Senate voted largely along party lines Friday, 32-15, to pass the bill, which now moves to the House of Delegates for consideration.

Democrats said the legislation is a matter of helping all low-income working Marylanders, regardless of their immigration status. Republicans said the state can ill-afford to spend millions of dollars on people who disobey the law.

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“It’s not following lawful rule and it doesn’t respect the citizens who work hard for their money,” said Sen. Bryan Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican who is the Senate minority leader.

He lamented the bill as an example of an increased number of “far-left ideas” that are moving forward in the state Senate.

Sen. Nancy King, the Democratic majority leader, suggested that some senators were choosing to ignore those who are struggling.

“I listen to the word ‘compassion,’ but it sounds like we want to be compassionate for only some people, not all of them,” said King, who represents Montgomery County. She added: “We are all God’s children, not just some of us.”

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Sen. Delores Kelley encouraged senators to put themselves in immigrants’ shoes for a moment.

“The people we are castigating as not deserving of the little that we’re talking about are essential workers,” said Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat. “There are very few of them sitting around doing nothing. They work harder than we do, longer hours. They do the work that many Americans are glad they have been able to graduate from.”

Republican senators said adding in the non-citizen taxpayers would cost the state about $60 million per year for each of the next three years.

“We’re talking about taking taxpayer money from a taxpayer base that is one of the most burdened in the country ... and handing it right back to people who are not here legally,” said Sen. Justin Ready, a Carroll County Republican.

The earned income tax credit offers tax breaks at both the federal and state level to workers with low incomes. The eligibility and amount of the benefit vary, based on a worker’s income level and family size. The credit often results in a tax refund when the taxpayer files a return.

Supporters of the tax credit say it helps pull people out of poverty while incentivizing work.

Under federal law, the credit is only available to taxpayers who pay taxes using a Social Security number, and not those who use an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. ITINs are used by non-citizens, including some with legal immigration status and some without.

The bill passed by the Senate would allow ITIN taxpayers to claim the earned income tax credit against their state taxes. It’s not clear how many of the newly eligible taxpayers would be undocumented immigrants.

Last year, about 86,000 Marylanders paid income taxes using ITINs, according to the state comptroller’s office. Of that group, about 60,000 had low enough incomes to qualify for the earned income tax credit if they had been allowed to take it.

The issue of whether to provide more benefits to ITIN taxpayers cropped up last week, when lawmakers were making changes to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s RELIEF Act, a pandemic financial aid bill — now a law — that combines direct stimulus payments, tax breaks and aid for businesses.

A central feature of the RELIEF Act is direct payments to taxpayers who get the earned income tax credit of $300 for individuals and $500 for joint filers. Those payments have already started going out to about 422,000 eligible Marylanders, with more than 98% of payments being sent by direct deposit or paper check as of Friday afternoon, according to Comptroller Peter Franchot.

Lawmakers added to the governor’s RELIEF Act proposal, making Maryland’s portion of the earned income tax credit more generous for three years to help workers during the pandemic.

They briefly included a provision to cover the ITIN taxpayers. But that came after the governor and legislative leaders had reached a private deal on details of the bill, and Hogan said any changes at that point would threaten the bill’s viability. He did not specifically cite the provision for ITIN taxpayers, but that was the only provision of the agreed-upon bill that had been changed.

The ITIN taxpayers were pulled out, and Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones pledged to pass another bill addressing those taxpayers. The resulting bill that’s now moving forward is not attracting the level of bipartisan support that the RELIEF Act had.

After two days of debate, the Senate vote fell largely along party lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed. One Democrat voted against, Sen. Kathy Klausmeier of Baltimore County, and one Republican voted for the bill, Sen. Adelaide Eckardt of the Eastern Shore. Neither spoke during Friday’s vote.

Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said in an interview that by passing the bill in the Senate, “we stood up for fairness and justice.”

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