February 3, 2021
By: Holden Wilen
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The Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval on Wednesday to a $1.5 billion stimulus package, setting it up for a final vote on Friday.
Lawmakers have been moving quickly to pass the much-needed relief package, which would provide direct payments to low-income residents and those who have been stuck waiting months for unemployment insurance benefits. Small businesses would also get millions of dollars worth of tax breaks.
Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, began pushing his original $1 billion plan before the General Assembly convened for its annual legislative session on Jan. 13. The Democratic leadership in the Senate last week unveiled amendments to Hogan’s package totaling an additional $520 million aimed at targeting the most needy individuals and businesses in the state.
The Senate approved the amended relief package Wednesday. Senate President Bill Ferguson said the chamber will take up the bill on Friday, where it is expected to pass easily. The legislation will then move over to House of Delegates. If the House makes additional changes to the bill, then the Senate will have to concur with the amendments, or the chambers will convene a conference committee to hash out the differences.
Senate Bill 496, known as the RELIEF Act, would provide direct payments of up to $750 to families who claimed the state’s earned income tax credit in tax year 2019 or are set to receive the credit in 2020. The legislation also provides about 39,000 individuals who have been stuck in the Maryland Department of Labor’s system waiting for unemployment insurance benefits with $1,000.
Small businesses will also get various forms of economic aid. Hogan’s original proposal included a provision to allow some 55,000 restaurants and small businesses to keep up to $12,000 in sales tax for four months. The amendments include an additional $125 million in business assistance including grants for entertainment venues, restaurants and other hospitality businesses.
The Maryland Small Business Development Financing Authority will receive $10 million to provide grants of $25,000 to 400 disadvantaged businesses. Another $3 million will be spent to provide grants of $10,000 for 300 businesses in distressed communities.
Sen. Cheryl Kagan, a Democrat from Montgomery County, expressed concern about how the state will ensure all people eligible for the $1,000 grants related to unemployment insurance actually get the money. Lawmakers across the state have been flooded with complaints from constituents who have been waiting for months for unemployment insurance benefits as the state Department of Labor works through a backlog and issues with its system.
The Comptroller’s Office will disburse the payments based on a list of eligible recipients from the Department of Labor. Kagan said she worries about “sufficient transparency and a willingness” by the Department of Labor to share data, since lawmakers will be the ones trying to ensure their constituents get the grants.
“I don’t know that I have confidence we’re going to make sure that all of our people are addressed,” Kagan said.
Sen. Guy Guzzone, the Democratic chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee which handled the bill, said he has spoken to Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson, who assured him the agency will do its best to generate an accurate list for the Comptroller’s Office. He said a new list will be produced each month for the next four months, until the fiscal year ends on June 30 and money for the stimulus programs goes dry.
“We’re just going to have to, for these four months for this money, recognize they are producing the list and those lists are based on cases that are involved with adjudication between the employer and the employees,” Guzzone said.
In response to another question from Kagan, Guzzone said individuals who have been waiting since last spring for UI benefits will not receive a larger grant than those who have been waiting just a few weeks.
“We tried to create as simple a process as possible to get money out the door to people as quickly possible,” Guzzone said.