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February 04, 2021

Key Md. Democrats Hit GOP Relief Efforts in D.C. and Annapolis

Credit: Maryland Matters, Bruce DePuyt

U.S. Rep. David J. Trone (D-Md.) accused Republicans in Washington, D.C., and Annapolis of failing to step up to help those being hurt most severely by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Speaking to reporters on Monday, the newly-appointed member of the House Appropriations Committee said the $619 billion relief package offered by a group of U.S. Senate Republicans wasn’t large enough to meet the needs of struggling families and schools — nor does it contain funding to bolster the finances of state and local governments.

“One of our top priorities has got to be keeping teachers, policemen, firefighters on the job,” Trone said. “That means getting funding out to states and local governments.”

The lawmaker’s comments came before President Biden met with 10 Republican senators who had floated the plan as an alternative to the $1.9 trillion Biden package backed by congressional Democrats. 

“Republicans are going to have to come up quite a bit from their $600 billion,” Trone said. “Otherwise, it’s a non-starter and we have to go a different direction. But first we have to exhaust every possible method to try and reach a compromise.”

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) has been a leading GOP backer of federal aid for states and localities, going back to his tenure as chairman of the National Governors Association.

But Trone also took aim at Hogan, expressing frustration with the state’s COVID vaccination rate and the governor’s reluctance to dig more deeply into the state’s primary surplus account to help needy residents and business.

Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker (D), who spoke to reporters with Trone during a virtual news conference Monday, echoed the congressman’s criticisms of Hogan’s COVID-19 relief plan.

The Maryland Senate is expected to take up Hogan’s billion-dollar relief package Wednesday – after adding $520 million in spending during a committee meeting last week. A Senate floor session that had been scheduled for Tuesday was postponed for a day due to the inclement weather.

Hucker and Trone said the state Senate’s amendment was an improvement on Hogan’s proposal. But Hucker said it was still “insufficient” to address all the state’s pandemic-related disparities.

Hucker, who launched the “Maryland United for COVID Relief Now” coalition in December with Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) to push for more state relief funding, is a proponent of using more of the state’s rainy day fund to increase the amount of money going into Marylanders’ pockets. Franchot has also been a vocal proponent of dipping further into the rainy day fund.

Hucker told Maryland Matters that the Senate’s additions to Hogan’s relief proposal are welcome, but he hopes the House of Delegates will further expand that funding. Hucker hopes delegates will build on the Senate’s proposal, like expanding the proposed $1,000 checks for nearly 40,000 Marylanders awaiting adjudication in unemployment cases.

“They should expand it from $1,000, checks to $1,500 checks, or whatever they feel is appropriate and they should get them out the door as quickly as possible,” Hucker said.

The Senate amendment would draw roughly $320 million from the rainy day fund. Hogan’s plan would be paid for through a mix of tax cuts and use of state reserve funds including the rainy day fund. But with more than $900 million in that account, Hucker said the state can afford even more relief.

The state has been funneling money into the fund for years in anticipation of an emergency, Hucker said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example of a “rainy day.”

“To not use the rainy day fund for the exact circumstances for which it was created is malpractice,” Hucker said.

Trone also said Maryland must dip more deeply into the state’s rainy day fund, to help residents struggling with rent, food and other necessities. 

“What are we saving the money for? We’re nuts,” Trone said. “We need to spend this money and help the people that are suffering now. Because we can see the end is in sight. Later on we can build up the rainy day fund again. Let’s get it out right now and spend the money right now to help people. It’s a blizzard.”

Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said the state’s use of its rainy day fund was in keeping with the legislature’s spending affordability guidelines, and that “breaching” those levels would require buy-in from the General Assembly.

The size of the state’s relief package could ultimately be determined by the amount of COVID relief the federal government sends to states and local governments.

Following the Republican senators’ two-hour meeting with Biden and Vice President Kamala D. Harris at the White House Monday evening, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the leader of the GOP group, said in brief remarks to reporters that they had a “frank and very useful discussion.”

“It was a very good exchange of views,” Collins said. “I wouldn’t say we came together on a package tonight, no one expected that … but what we did agree to do was follow up and talk further.”

The proposal from the 10 Senate Republicans would provide a similar infusion of funding to what Biden has proposed to pay for more COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.

The GOP plan also would include more direct payments to Americans and extended unemployment benefits, but those checks would be smaller and direct payments would be phased out based on lower income levels.

The Republican proposal also would earmark more help for businesses, and limited help for school reopenings. It does not include $350 billion in aid to state and local governments, or Biden’s call for a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage.

Before that huddle, Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said the meeting would be about swapping ideas, not accepting or rejecting the GOP proposal. She also reiterated that Biden is seeking an aid package that’s significantly larger than what those lawmakers have outlined.

“It’s important to remember that the size of the package was designed with the size of the crisis—dual crises, as we’ve said,” Psaki said.

Maryland’s vaccination rate ‘unacceptable’

Maryland’s vaccine use-rate has improved in the last two weeks, but it remains relatively low. 

The state has vaccinated 8,738 people for every 100,000 residents, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia have done a better job of administering the vaccine. 

According to a Bloomberg tracking site, Maryland’s use-rate, 60.5%, lags far below the nation’s leaders, North Dakota (90.6%) and West Virginia (86.0%).

Hogan has highlighted the steps Maryland has taken to boost vaccinations in recent days and, leading to an uptick in the state’s metrics. Chain supermarkets and pharmacies are being added to the state’s vaccination network and a half-dozen large-capacity sites are expected to open soon.

But Trone seemed particularly irked that West Virginia, which borders his district, has better numbers. The Mountain State’s population is more scattered than Maryland’s, and it is much poorer.

“It’s outrageous. It’s BS. It’s unacceptable,” the congressman said. “Gov. Hogan has got to do better in this area. … We’ve known for six, seven months this vaccine was going to get developed. How did we not have a game plan when we’ve known it’s coming.”

Ricci said West Virginia has fewer health care workers, who are the focus of the first phase of the vaccination rollout, than Maryland, as well as a more robust network of neighborhood pharmacies that “people know and trust.” 

He said the comparison between the two states “loses some steam when you actually compare” their individual characteristics.