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Maryland Senate leaders fast-track legislation on economic aid to employees, businesses impacted by Key Bridge collapse

Hannah Gaskill, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in News & Features

With time running out and the General Assembly session ending next week, Senate leadership drove a bill to the chamber’s floor Tuesday that would provide economic relief to the workers and business hurt by the Port of Baltimore’s closure.

“Now we move into the harder phase of managing through the crisis, not just in the crisis, itself,” Senate President Bill Ferguson, a South Baltimore Democrat and sponsor of the bill, said ahead of Tuesday’s hearing.

The Maryland Protecting Opportunities and Regional Trade Act would require the Maryland Department of Labor and Department of Commerce to establish temporary relief funds to provide financial assistance to workers and business owners directly impacted by slowed operations at the port.

The bill was unanimously voted out of the Senate Finance Committee less than an hour after its hearing. Because the legislation was filed as an emergency bill, it would go into effect as soon as Gov. Wes Moore signed it.

Under Senate Bill 1188, also called the PORT Act, the Department of Labor would stand up a relief fund for people who regularly perform paid work at the port, can’t return to work because of the interruption in operations and don’t qualify for unemployment during the port’s temporary, partial closure, which happened after a container ship struck and toppled the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

The legislation would require the Department of Commerce to create a similar relief fund for small businesses and trade associations that rely on the port and, because of the pause in operations, can’t give their workers the same hours, pay rate and benefits. Businesses that receive aid to keep operating from the Department of Commerce would be required, to the fullest extent possible, to give employees their regular shifts, pay them normal rates and provide them with their benefits while the port is closed.

Funding would also be available to incentivize businesses that have to divert their operations to other ports during the partial closure.

The relief accounts would be able to be replenished by federal funding.

President Joe Biden, a Democrat, announced in the immediate aftermath of the bridge’s collapse his intention to have it rebuilt using federal funding, and his administration approved Moore’s initial request for $60 million last week. Ferguson said Tuesday that other funding for the project has been tacked onto a bill in Congress to provide foreign aid to Ukraine, which could slow the flow of federal dollars into the state.

To assuage the uncertainty, the Maryland Senate Finance Committee amended his legislation to increase the bonding power of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which Ferguson said will allow the state to “move more swiftly at the right time to rebuild” the bridge if federal funding is delayed.

“It’s always nerve wracking these days when you have to rely on Congress to solve an issue,” Ferguson said ahead of the bill’s hearing Tuesday afternoon.

 

Though it’s closed to vessels, the Port of Baltimore is not fully closed. According to Ferguson, some workers are still performing certain port-related jobs. Those who rely on the flow of ships in and out of the port will be most affected by the bridge’s obstruction to the channel.

Ferguson and his cosponsor, Baltimore County Republican Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, met with members of the International Longshoreman Association on Monday as its members were briefed by the governor and federal officials about a timeline for the port to fully reopen. Ferguson said he saw “fear in the eyes” of workers when they discovered that a timeline for a return to normalcy is not clear.

Both Ferguson and Salling represent areas directly impacted by the bridge’s collapse.

“It’s such a horrific incident, but it’s good that it happened during session so we can respond quickly and do what we need to do to help the workers and businesses,” said Senate Finance Committee Chair Pam Beidle, a Democrat representing Anne Arundel County.

The legislation would also provide Moore, a Democrat, the latitude to amend the budget to move money from the state’s Rainy Day fund to aid individual workers, the Department of Commerce for small businesses and trade associations, and the Economic Development Opportunities Program Account for diverted businesses.

The Rainy Day Fund is a pot of excess cash that the state saves to use in emergency situations. It currently holds more than $2 billion.

Several amendments were tacked onto the bill before it left the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday afternoon, including a measure to create a scholarship for the children of transportation workers who have died on the job. The legislation will now head to the Senate floor for approval before it’s ushered through the House chamber.

The House version of the bill sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chair Luke Clippinger, a Democrat who represents the same South Baltimore neighborhoods as Ferguson, will be heard Thursday.

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©2024 The Baltimore Sun. Visit at baltimoresun.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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