ANNAPOLIS — Business owners in Maryland could see their unemployment insurance premiums reduced, broadband access in the state will be bolstered, and road and school projects funded as part of a $3.9 billion infusion of federal pandemic relief.
Gov. Larry Hogan, flanked by Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones, announced the historic budget agreement from the rotunda steps of the State House near the two legislative chambers. The money will flow to projects ranging from improving schools and transportation to recreation projects in every county and hundreds of millions for improving broadband internet access around the state.
“With today’s announcement, Maryland has once again shown the nation that people from different parties can still come together,” said Hogan. “That we can put the people’s priorities first and that we can deliver real bipartisan, common sense solutions to the serious problems that face us.”
Hogan praised the supplemental budget — likely the largest in state history — as an “historic bipartisan agreement.”
Of the federal money, about $1.1 billion will go toward shoring up the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund — an account that was hard hit over the last year as businesses shuttered their stores or changed their operations and laid off tens of thousands of employees.
In Maryland, premiums for employers are set based both on the need to replenish the trust fund and to track layoffs by individual businesses.
Earlier this year, the governor froze experience ratings on businesses even as the trust fund sank to its lowest funding level in years
Federal aid sent to the trust fund will help reduce premiums by improving the solvency of the fund and reducing pressure to replenish, said Sen. Guy Guzzone, D-Howard and chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.
The trust fund, flush with federal dollars, will stave off higher payments for two years.
“Shoring up the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund has been a priority for members dating back to the beginning of the pandemic,” said Mike O’Halloran, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business. “Small businesses are facing unemployment tax hikes of 400-500%. Others missed out on state agency programs aimed at helping struggling businesses recover. However, today’s announcement gives us hope that Maryland small business owners can get back to work safer and stronger than ever.”
Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, praised the additional $500 million that will go to “shovel-ready projects.”
“Outdoor recreational opportunities have been a lifeline for so many during this pandemic. So I am pleased that we are funding park and playground projects in every single county in this state.”
Millions have also been earmarked for workforce training and apprenticeship programs to “help recover from the COVID slide,” she said.
State employees eligible for hazard pay will also receive a boost as $100 million will go to reinstating those pandemic hazard payments for time worked between September 2020 through December 2021.
Another $800 million will be aimed at economic assistance for Marylanders. Most of that will go to previously announced programs in the governor’s pandemic relief act passed by the General Assembly and signed into law earlier this session.
School systems will see $600 million for projects to improve buildings, including climate control and air filtration, pandemic-related costs and for addressing learning loss caused by remote instruction.
State highway and transportation projects will receive $500 million.
Another $300 million will be directed to Marylanders adversely affected by the pandemic including: $140 million for the temporary cash assistance program; $54 million for those struggling to pay utility bills; and $26 million for a one-year 2% increase for nursing home payments.
Hogan also announced that $300 million will go to much-needed improvements to the access of broadband internet.
Ferguson, the Senate leader from Baltimore, said the broadband improvements exemplify the use of the federal aid and will help underserved areas of the state that struggled in a world that went digital instantly.
“If you have not had to think about whether or not you can connect but that you only had to focus on the struggles of finding the right link or using the right software or making sure that your device had enough power, you’re one of the lucky ones,” said Ferguson. “But your livelihood, opportunities for learning and safely being able to socialize should never have been about luck or ZIP code.”
The largest chunk of the broadband funds, $128 million, will go directly to improving infrastructure.
Ferguson said the state “cannot and will not allow disconnectivity to exist in Maryland.”