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Maryland Senate OKs bill in response to virus

March 16, 2020 GMT

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Moving quickly toward an early adjournment, Maryland lawmakers voted Monday for an emergency measure to help residents during the coronavirus.

The Senate passed the bill unanimously, and it now goes to the House, where similar legislation is advancing.

“We have been here to support the administration, support the people of Maryland in this unprecedented effort, and so we’ve had to go back and fourth on this bill a number of times and make sure that we got it right,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat.

The bill would enable the governor to take additional actions to help state residents affected by the virus. It includes provisions to pay for virus testing and to prevent price-gouging for critical items like food, water, medical supplies and cleaning products.

It also would prohibit employers from firing employees who need to be quarantined or isolated. The measure is in addition to other actions already taken by Gov. Larry Hogan, who has declared a state of emergency in Maryland.

The measure also enables the state’s labor department to identify who can get unemployment benefits. It would extend benefits to people who are ill longer than sick leave allows or for people who are caring for a family member. It also would enable someone to receive benefits if their employer shut down.

Earlier in the day, Hogan announced he was ordering the closure of bars, restaurants, gyms and movie theaters, effective at 5 p.m. Carry-out, drive-thru and deliveries will still be allowed.

Lawmakers also are expediting work on the state’s roughly $48 billion budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

In addition, they are making a priority of education.

A comprehensive education measure that will cost billions of dollars over the next decade with the goal of making K-12 schools in Maryland among the world’s best has been a top priority of Democrats, who control the General Assembly. The House already has passed the bill, but concerns about how the coronavirus will affect the state’s economy prompted a significant change in the Senate.

Under the change, if revenue estimates in December are more than 7.5% below revenue estimates made in March of that year, per pupil increases in major education aid required under the bill would be limited to the rate of inflation.

The two chambers would need to negotiate over the change before the bill could pass.

Lawmakers also have approved legislation to end a long-running federal lawsuit involving the state’s four historically black colleges. The lawsuit would be settled for $580 million over 10 years.

The 13-year-old federal lawsuit alleges the state underfunded the institutions while developing programs at traditionally white schools that directly compete with and drain prospective students away from HBCUs.

In 2013, a federal judge recommended mediation after finding the state had maintained “a dual and segregated education system” that violated the Constitution.