February 3, 2021
By: Madeleine O’Neill
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Maryland senators gave initial approval Wednesday for a $1.3 billion COVID-19 economic relief bill and for a major financial settlement with the state’s historically Black colleges and universities.
The COVID-19 bill, which Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has named the RELIEF Act, would provide stimulus payments for some working Marylanders, eliminate state and local income taxes on unemployment benefits and offer tax breaks to businesses.
Senate Democrats added more than $500 million in spending to the plan last week and fast-tracked the bill through the committee process. Together, the proposals will cost a combined $1.3 billion.
The Democrats added one-time grants of $1,000 for the roughly 40,000 Marylanders whose unemployment claims are stuck in adjudication as well as millions of dollars for housing and food assistance, business relief funding and health care programs.
The unemployment grants would address a point of contention for Democrats: the state’s Department of Labor has struggled to handle claims from hundreds of thousands of newly jobless workers during the pandemic.
Members have complained for months that their offices have been inundated with requests from constituents whose claims are unresolved.
Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Montgomery County) said she is concerned that the Department of Labor will not be transparent in providing lists of claims that are stuck in adjudication.
“I don’t know that I have confidence that all of our people are going to be addressed,” she said on the floor.
Senators may have more questions about the bill when it comes to the floor for a final vote, which could happen as soon as Friday. The bill will then go to the House, where it is likely to face further scrutiny.
The Senate also moved forward with a $577 million settlement that would end a lawsuit brought by alumni of the state’s HBCUs.
The Maryland General Assembly passed a bill to settle the lawsuit last year, but Hogan vetoed it in May amid concerns about how the coronavirus would impact state finances.
Democrats are working to pass a new version of the bill this year and plan to override Hogan’s veto if he does not support the settlement.
The bill would end a protracted lawsuit that argues the state has long underfunded its HBCUs — the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Bowie State University, Coppin State University and Morgan State University — in favor of primarily white state institutions.
A federal judge in 2013 agreed with a key claim in the lawsuit, ruling that Maryland had maintained a segregated educational system by allowing other public universities to duplicate programs and enroll students who might have attended HBCUs instead.
The Senate bill would also guarantee that the HBCUs won’t see their annual funding drop below $9 million.
House Speaker Adrienne Jones has been a major proponent of the settlement, which is also expected to pass the House later in the session.