Democratic leaders in the Maryland Senate are proposing to tack on hundreds of millions of dollars more in pandemic financial aid to Gov. Larry Hogan’s $1 billion pandemic relief plan.
The Senate’s “Recovery Now” plan runs a wide gamut of priorities: sending millions to food banks and fire departments; wiping out utility and rental debt for a few thousand families; awarding grants for businesses, artists and nonprofits; paying $1,000 to tens of thousands of people stuck in limbo in the unemployment system; restoring buses and trains to pre-pandemic service levels; and funding “wellmobiles” to administer doses of the coronavirus vaccine.
“We know that this crisis has not been felt equally, and equitable recovery is essential,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson said. “We know there must be more done immediately.”
Ferguson said the Senate Democrats’ plan would help 192,000 Maryland residents and 19,300 businesses.
“We know our recovery and relief efforts must be swift, they must be comprehensive and they must be equitable,” Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said during a video news conference on Wednesday.
All told, the proposal would cost the state an additional $520 million, spread out over two budget years. The funding would come from a variety of budget maneuvers, including taking $320 million from the rainy day fund and not making planned additional payments to the pension system for state employees.
Senate Democrats plan to tack on their proposals to Hogan’s RELIEF Act, a $1 billion plan that includes direct payments to low- and moderate-income Marylanders, eliminating income tax payments on unemployment benefits, a sales tax credit for small businesses and other business tax breaks.
Mike Ricci, a spokesman for the Republican governor, said many of the Senate’s proposals mirror programs that Hogan already has put in place during the pandemic, such as grants to businesses, restaurants and nonprofits.
“We appreciate that they agree on the urgent need for additional relief for Marylanders and look forward to working with them,” Ricci said.
The governor’s RELIEF Act — which he said is his top priority during this General Assembly session — is pending in the Senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee. The committee plans a work session Thursday to discuss the governor’s bill and the new proposal.
The Senate’s “Recovery Now” proposal takes aim at the state’s balky unemployment system that has left many out-of-work Marylanders stuck without an answer on their benefits. The Department of Labor has been overwhelmed with calls and emails, and claimants have struggled to get answers to questions.
Some seeking unemployment were stuck in limbo when the state discovered a massive fraud attempt this summer and froze thousands of applicants. The state has largely worked through the backlog, but an estimated 40,000 people are stuck in an adjudication process. They would get a one-time $1,000 payment.
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“We know this is not nearly enough,” said Sen. Katherine Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat whose staff has been helping unemployed workers. At least, though, the money could be a bit of a “lifeline” while the workers await their decision.
The proposal also includes money for the Department of Labor to hire 47 more unemployment caseworkers.
Montgomery County Council Chairman Tom Hucker, who organized a “Maryland United COVID Relief Now” coalition that’s been calling for more aid, said the Senate’s proposal is “a vast improvement on the governor’s package.”
But he also said the state could do even more. He suggests taking more money out of the rainy day fund to make additional payments to Marylanders. This is exactly the type of situation that warrants using the rainy day fund, and on top of that, the state is sitting on about $585 million leftover from the last budget year, he said.
“There is such a large rainy day fund balance and surplus from [fiscal year 2020] gathering dust in a bank account in Annapolis, when it could be on Main Street keeping small businesses open and keeping families fed and housed,” said Hucker, a Democrat who previously served in the House of Delegates.
The Senate proposal also would need buy-in from members of the House of Delegates.
“This is where government is coming together,” Ferguson said. “The governor, the House, the Senate are on a consistent message that there are many vulnerable Marylanders who need support.”