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Port aid bill moves to full Senate


Port aid bill moves to full Senate

Apr 02, 2024 | 5:52 pm ET
By Bryan P. Sears
Port aid bill moves to full Senate
The wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. Photo by Pat Siebert/Executive Office of the Governor.

A temporary aid package for workers and businesses affected by the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge heads to the full Senate after a unanimous committee vote Tuesday.

Senate Bill 1188, sponsored by Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), allows Gov. Wes Moore (D) to tap the state’s rainy day fund to offset lost wages and entice related businesses to remain at the Port of Baltimore.

Port aid bill moves to full Senate
Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City). Photo by Bryan P. Sears.

“What we’re doing here today with Senate Bill 1188, is trying to provide some modicum of protection and relief for the individuals and the small businesses and the port industries that rely on the everyday full operation of the Port of Baltimore,” Ferguson said.

The bill as proposed provides for temporary wage replacement for port works and contractors affected by any disruption. It would also provide direct financial assistance to businesses to keep workers on the payroll, similar to what was done during the COVID-19 pandemic. A third provision allows the state Department of Commerce to incentivize businesses to remain in Baltimore rather than relocate to other port cities.

Ferguson said the incentives are an effort “to make sure that when the channel is reopened, and the businesses that rely on the port, as they shift their operations to Norfolk or South Carolina and Charleston or to Newark, to New Jersey or New York, that when the channel is reopened, they don’t get too comfortable being other places. We know we want them back in Baltimore.”

The Tuesday vote happened minutes after Ferguson presented the bill to the Senate Finance Committee.

The committee added a series of amendments proposed by the Moore administration.

The first creates a scholarship for the children of highway work crews who die on the job.

Another removes the requirement that workers at the port look for work in order to collect unemployment benefits. Ferguson said the intent is to bring all affected workers back to the port once regular port operations resume.

The third amendment would give the Maryland Transportation Authority additional ability to issue bonds “so the state can move more swiftly at the right time to rebuild the Key Bridge,” Ferguson said.

President Biden has promised that the federal government would pay for the full replacement of the bridge. That funding is dependent on passage of legislation in Congress.

Ferguson said the state needs to prepare in case there are delays, saying “we don’t know how quickly the federal government will act. When this happened in 2007 in Minnesota and the bridge collapse happened, there Congress acted within three days to provide $250 million towards the reconstruction of the bridge in Minnesota. We’re at seven days.”

Congress is currently in the middle of a two-week recess.

Under the bill, the state would be able to claw back any aid that is paid out as the result of fraud or misrepresentation.

A technical amendment allows the administration to offer aid in the event of a disruption at the port rather than requiring it to be closed.

“The good news is the entire port is not closed. The operations are severely reduced because the channel is closed,” said Ferguson. “That’s an important distinction because there are workers who are still able to do the important work of value-added manufacturing to the automobile industry and a number of other port related functions. The key folks that are most impacted are those who rely on the everyday comings and goings of cargo ships into and out of the Port of Baltimore. And so, until that channel is cleared, we will have severely disrupted operations and that’s what the focus is it’s not the closure it is the reduced severely reduced operations

Currently, ship traffic in and out of the port is suspended as work continues to clear the shipping channel.

Ferguson’s bill could be before the full Senate as early as Wednesday.

The identical HB 1526, was introduced in the House by Del. Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore City). That bill awaits a joint hearing with the House Appropriations and Economic Matters Committees.

Ferguson’s bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Johnny Ray Salling (R-Baltimore County), was one of two introduced last week following the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

A week ago, the Dali, a massive cargo ship, struck the bridge in the early morning hours of March 26. The 47-year-old span over the Patapsco River collapsed seconds later.

Two people are confirmed dead. Four others are presumed dead. Two others survived. All six were involved in roadwork on the bridge.

The collapse changed traffic patterns throughout the Baltimore region and hobbled operations at the Port of Baltimore for the foreseeable future.

Prior to the hearing, Sen Bryan Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel) announced he was withdrawing legislation he proposed immediately following the destruction of the bridge.

That bill proposed a one-year state of emergency period in the event of catastrophic infrastructure failures. The measure also eliminated broader authority granted to the governor that is part of the existing 30-day renewable state of emergency order.

With legislative leaders unlikely to the administration before the close of the General Assembly session next Monday, Simonaire said he would do more work on the legislation in the interim.

“I had a very productive meeting with the governor’s staff where they understood my desire to provide a path forward to expedite the reconstruction of the bridge while also protecting Maryland’s citizens from government overreach if there is a long-term state of emergency,” Simonaire said in a statement. “Following our conversation, I have agreed to not push forward legislation this session to give us ample time to understand more of the unknows of this situation and bring more stakeholders into the conversation.”