Legislation that would grant to the chronically unemployed delays in foreclosures, payment of back taxes and overdue utility bills survived several key votes in the state Senate today and appears headed for final approval by a slim margin, possibly later this week.
The controversial measure--the Unemployed Bill of Rights--was pushed by a Baltimore coalition of out-of-work Marylanders. The proposal is one of the most far-reaching efforts for unemployment relief in the country, proponents say; about 10 other states have some form of relief legislation in effect.
The legislation must still receive approval by the Senate and then by the House and Gov. Harry Hughes before becoming law. The one-vote margin today followed two hours of intense debate among the 47 senators on the state's responsibility to the jobless.
"This is the only thing we have really done for the unemployed this year," said Sen. Julian Lapides (D-Baltimore), the bill's sponsor. "This is a sweeping concept that helps the Democratic society in which we live.
"This is merely a postponement of payments, not a forgiveness."
Sen. Dennis Rasmussen (D-Baltimore County), also a supporter of the measure, told a group of rural senators after one of the votes, "I've got 24 percent unemployment in my district which includes thousands of steel and dock workers . What do you have in yours?"
Sen. President Melvin A. Steinberg, in an unusual speech from the podium, criticized the bill, saying it was "filled with political rhetoric that causes an injustice to people."
There are other bills that offer more real help, he said, pointing to measures that would increase unemployment benefits by $12 dollars a week, offer job retraining programs and set up a new employment and training department.
The bill, which will come up for further amendment tomorrow, would provide broad protections for anyone who has exhausted federal and state unemployment benefits and is then certified as an "unemployed citizen" by the state Employment and Security Administration.
Once certified and given identification cards the unemployed citizen would be guaranteed extensions on foreclosure proceedings for 6 months from the date of default and would have the right to a half-year delay in mortgage payments.
Renters who are unemployed citizens would be allowed to postpone half their rent for six months.
The unemployed person would also be eligible for free legal services from the Maryland Legal Services Corporation in cases of breach of contract caused by unemployment, to protect the individual's credit rating and to bring suit in the case of a job dispute that led to unemployment.
In addition, the unemployed citizens would be guaranteed a six-month extension on overdue water and sewer service. Also, gas and electric service to their homes could not be cut off in the winter because of outstanding bills.
A House bill with even more sweeping components, such as providing food stamps and free lunches to the unemployed, was killed in committee last month. But members of that House committee said today that Lapides' more watered-down version might win approval if it passes the Senate and is sent to the House.
Today's vote was unexpected by many banking and business representatives, who strongly opposed the measure. "It's a terrible bill," said one business lobbyist. "We could all go out and borrow $1 million and then not pay it back."