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Maryland coronavirus financial aid bill continues speedy track with unanimous Senate approval

A pandemic financial aid package of stimulus payments, grants and tax breaks won approval Friday in the Maryland Senate, fast-tracked to provide quick relief for struggling residents and businesses.

Senators voted 47-0 to approve the $1.5 billion package known as the RELIEF Act. The action now shifts to the House of Delegates, where leaders are working to get the bill passed within about a week.

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The bill is sailing through the legislature with unusual speed, driven by lawmakers from both parties who see an urgent need to provide financial help amid a recession induced by measures meant to control the spread of the coronavirus.

The last time lawmakers worked this quickly was in 2019, when they passed a bill in response to a self-dealing scandal at the University of Maryland Medical System that ultimately landed former Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh of Baltimore in federal prison.

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As an emergency bill, the RELIEF Act would take effect as soon as it’s passed and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan signs it into law. The state comptroller’s staff already is working on how to send out stimulus checks and account for all the tax breaks in the bill.

Hogan proposed the RELIEF Act, and senators expanded it under what they called the “Recovery Now” plan.

“Between the governor’s proposal and our proposal, we have a very good package here that will help people immediately,” said Sen. James Rosapepe, a Democrat representing Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties.

Some of the RELIEF Act’s key provisions include:

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  • Making direct payments to low- and moderate-income Marylanders who receive the earned income tax credit on their taxes. Two rounds of payments would total up to $450 per individual or $750 per family.
  • Eliminating local and state income taxes on unemployment benefits.
  • Making one-time $1,000 payments to individuals stuck in limbo in the unemployment system, and hiring more staff for the Department of Labor.
  • Wiping out utility and rental debt for a few thousand families.
  • Granting a credit against sales taxes collected by small businesses for three months, up to a total of $12,000.

The RELIEF Act also would plow more money into food banks, volunteer fire departments, nonprofit organizations, restaurants and hotels. Some of that money would flow through existing programs set up by the governor.

Businesses that already received state pandemic grants would not have to pay any taxes on that money under the bill. And companies that laid people off due to the pandemic would not face higher unemployment taxes moving forward.

Hogan’s proposal came with a price tag of about $1 billion. The Senate’s changes tacked on another estimated $520 million in spending. Senators said the cost of their plan would be paid for with a combination of part of the state’s rainy day fund and temporary budget maneuvers.

“This is about the next four months. This is immediate relief for individuals who in particular have suffered the most due to COVID,” said Sen. Guy Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Senators emphasized that they worked quickly and in a bipartisan manner to revise and pass the bill.

“This is the way government should work,” said Sen. Bryan Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican who is the Senate minority leader.

Hogan issued a news release with the words “bipartisanship alert” in purple, capital letters to praise the Senate’s vote.

“Let’s once again show the rest of the nation how to put aside partisan politics and work together by delivering this vital relief at an urgent and historic pace,” Hogan said in the statement.

The effort now moves to the House. Officially, only the governor’s original bill is pending in the House. But anticipating Friday’s approval by the Senate, Guzzone briefed a House committee Thursday on the revised version of the bill.

“This is a way to speed up the process,” Del. Anne Kaiser, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, told committee members during their meeting. Kaiser is a Democrat representing Montgomery County.

She said the goal is for the House to review the legislation, and possibly make changes, with final passage of the bill by Feb. 14.

“We need this bill to pass pretty much by Feb. 14 to accommodate state tax filings and things that the comptroller’s office does,” Kaiser said. “And, of course, we are interested in any relief from this bill getting into the hands of Marylanders as quickly as possible.”

Concerns have been raised that the financial aid package leaves out people who entered the U.S. illegally but who work here and pay taxes.

Comptroller Peter Franchot has been pushing for $2,000 stimulus payments for a broader group of low-income taxpayers that includes people who pay taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number instead of a Social Security Number. Franchot said 86,000 people used an ITIN to pay taxes in Maryland last year, and nearly half would qualify for checks under his plan.

“Not one of these hardworking neighbors would receive a penny under the governor’s proposal,” said Franchot, a Democrat who is running for governor in 2022, in a statement.

“Many of these immigrant families also belong to communities that have disproportionately been unemployed, become ill, or died from COVID,” he said. “It’s immoral to leave them out of the state’s response.”

Pablo Blank of the immigrant advocacy group CASA told delegates Thursday that such workers should be added into the bill.

“The COVID virus does not discriminate,” he said. “It affects all Marylanders, regardless of whether they pay taxes with an ITIN or with a Social Security Number.”

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