Chamber gets behind changes to unemployment benefits

O'Malley's proposed revisions, if adopted, would qualify state for millions in federal dollars

March 02, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz |

Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposed changes to unemployment benefits have at last won the support of key business groups.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce's legislative policy committee voted Monday to back the Democratic governor's plan after changes were made to address concerns about long-term costs to employers.

Until Monday, the Maryland Chamber and other business groups had opposed the legislation. With additional support now secured, the Senate Finance Committee will likely vote on the proposal today. The House of Delegates will then take up the amended bill.

The amended plan broadens the number of people eligible for unemployment by shifting the time period that can be considered when calculating the benefits. If lawmakers pass that plan, the state will be eligible for about $127 million in federal money.

That cash will be deposited into the state's unemployment insurance trust fund, which has been depleted by the high number of people collecting from it and businesses that are no longer contributing to it. The governor originally wanted to use that money to provide tax relief to employers, but the Maryland Chamber led a push to keep the money in the trust to build it back up.

To offset the long-term costs associated with accessing the federal money - about $20 million a year - other benefits will be nipped. Among them: Eliminating sick claims, restricting the lowest-end claimants, increasing the penalties for misconduct and decreasing the amount of money an unemployed person can make while collecting benefits.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Democrat who led the weeks-long negotiations, said he was "very pleased" with the outcome. "After all of the compromise that took place, I felt very optimistic," said the finance committee chairman.

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