The House of Delegates voted 103 to 23 today to increase from $153 to $160 the maximum weekly unemployment benefit paid to Marylanders.
The $7 increase was part of a larger package put together by legislative leaders and Gov. Harry Hughes to help the unemployed, reduce a scheduled tax increase on employers who pay for the benefits and replenish the state's hard-pressed unemployment trust fund.
Heavy demand for unemployment benefits caused by the troubled economy, has threatened the fund with bankruptcy by the end of the year.
The legislation also makes permanent a program enacted for one year during an emergency session last summer that provides 13 extra weeks of unemployment pay after recipients have exhausted their regular 26 weeks of benefits and any additional federal aid.
The bill adopted today is one of many measures in this year's General Assembly focusing on unemployment and jobs. The most controversial--and one considered unlikely to pass--would establish an unemployed bill of rights that would delay mortgage foreclosures, rental evictions and utility shutoffs, and provide legal and medical services for those out of work.
House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin, who helped develop the package approved today, said the legislation passed swiftly because it contains "some things for business and some things for labor."
However, neither side is likely to be completely pleased with the measure, which now goes to the Senate.
Labor had wanted higher benefits, pointing to statistics that show Maryland lagging behind many other states and the District, and will try to get an extra $5 a week when it comes up in the Senate. D.C. pays its unemployed up to $209 a week.
Business pushed to reduce its tax burden further. The House agreed to reduce a special surtax that will go into effect sometime this year when the trust fund gets too low. But it also changed the method for determining the amount of tax an employer must pay, a change that businesses said will cost them more money.
Even after the expected Senate approval, both sides are certain to have another shot on the issue next year. The bill approved by the House has a one-year "sunset" on most provisions to give the legislature time to reevaluate the changes before making them permanent.
In other labor-related matters today, the House voted 77 to 56 to make optional a requirement that school boards decertify a teachers' union for up to two years in the event of a strike. State law permits teachers to bargain collectively but they cannot strike.
Opponents, which included many local school boards, claimed it would encourage teacher strikes because it takes away the gravest sanction a union can face.
"I can't support this bill because it is nothing less than a right-to-strike bill and it is against the public interest," said Del. Dale Anderson (D-Baltimore County). "We have to save the schoolteachers from themselves."
The sponsor, Del. Michael Collins (D-Baltimore County), a teacher, said the bill was intended to give school boards more flexibility when dealing with teacher walkouts or strikes. The measure is expected to face stiff opposition in the Senate.