The Maryland General Assembly, with near unanimity and surprising speed, approved emergency legislation today to restore unemployment benefits for 11,000 unemployed workers dropped from federal rolls.
Returning to the statehouse for the first "extraordinary session" in seven years, the 188-member legislature suspended its normal rules, held impromptu committee meetings, and within four hours, passed without a hitch the emergency measure proposed by Gov. Harry Hughes.
The legislation, which Hughes immediately signed into law at a festive ceremony filled with legislators running for reelection, allows the state to continue funding unemployment checks cut off by the federal government as of Aug. 1. Hughes, a Democrat seeking reelection this fall, proposed the measure and the special session at the prodding of the state's powerful labor unions.
Today's action authorizes the state's employment security administration to pay a maximum of $157 a week for 13 weeks to workers who lost the federal benefits. The payments, expected to cost about $5 million a month, will come from a $275 million trust fund that is financed by employer contributions.
The revised federal rules, pushed through Congress as a cost-saving measure, require states to exclude persons who have been unemployed for 26 weeks or longer when calculating eligibility for federal unemployment funds. The state and federal governments had been sharing the cost of the extended benefits. Although the unemployment rate as a whole is 9 percent in Maryland, the state was disqualified from receiving the federal share last month when its newly unemployed workers dipped below the federally specified level of 4 percent.
State officials had not expected Maryland to be disqualified until Sept. 26, when the federally set level moves up to 5 percent. The General Assembly passed legislation last winter to allow the state to take over the federal program in September, but officials failed to take into account the problems that would occur before then. Today's session appropriated funds to fill the seven-week gap.
Business leaders, Republicans and legislative leaders quickly supported the proposal, which helped account for the ease with which it whisked through the House and Senate today.
The session was interrupted once, when a man who said he represented the United Community of Unemployed People, stood up in the House balcony and called out during a boisterous discussion, "Order, order, let's get some order in here. There are people suffering." The man, later identified as Daki Napta, was hustled away by security guards and later released.
When the session adjourned at 2 p.m., Hughes sent a message to both the House and Senate saying: "Your action today stands in sharp contrast to the insensitivity of the federal government. What you have done here today provides a measure of security, a safety net, if you will, for those in need of a temporary helping hand."
Hughes, who had been banking on an orderly one-day session to end lingering questions about his leadership abilities, said he hoped Maryland's action would spur Congress to rescind federal policies enacted last year that led to the benefits crisis.
For the last week, Hughes and legislative leaders worked intently to prepare the legislators for a smooth session. They put out word that the one-day event would be confined to the unemployment benefits issue and devoid of political grandstanding that could erupt in a year such as this one when every legislator is up for reelection.
Today, when the session got under way, these efforts had apparently succeeded: Amendments to the Hughes proposal were quickly defeated; no other bills reached the floor for a vote; committee tally sheets had been preprinted with a positive vote, and a rebellious Senate committee's earlier vote to override a Hughes veto was quietly reversed, under pressure from the governor's office.
"I guess they feel they'd like everything to come out clean," said Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery), whose committee reconsidered the veto. "I think the worry was that if things got out of hand it could hurt him Hughes ."
Despite the all-but-certain outcome (only one senator and 13 delegates voted against the bill), there were murmurs of discontent among a handful of legislators.
"To me this is like a death-with-dignity bill," said Del. R. Clayton Mitchell (D-Kent County). "We're plugging in the respirator for 13 weeks and then we're going to unplug it. We need to address the whole issue of unemployment. I thought that's what we were here to do."