Maryland’s Relief Proposal Amended to Provide Broader Stimulus Checks

Gricelda Velasquez (right), a 33-year-old mother of three from Owings Mills, protests outside of the Maryland State House earlier this year. Photo courtesy of CASA.

After backlash from Democratic lawmakers and advocates, Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee amended the state’s billion-dollar relief effort Thursday to include stimulus payments to thousands of taxpayers who were left out of the original proposal.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s (R) billion-dollar relief package relied on the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to provide direct stimulus payments for low-income Marylanders hit hard by the pandemic.

But since taxpayers need a Social Security number to qualify for the EITC, thousands of immigrants wouldn’t see any of that relief, advocates said. People who file taxes with individual taxpayer identification numbers (ITIN), including undocumented immigrants, wouldn’t have received stimulus payments under Hogan’s proposal.

The change would send checks to ITIN filers who meet the EITC income requirements, House Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) said at a Ways and Means Committee meeting Thursday. And committee members voted along party lines to add that provision before the bill is slated to go to the House floor for a vote Friday morning.

ITIN filers represent a broad group of taxpayers, including undocumented immigrants and “some people who are lawfully present in the U.S., such as certain survivors of domestic violence, Cuban and Haitian entrants, student visa–holders, and certain spouses and children of individuals with employment visas,” according to the National Immigration Law Center.

More than 86,000 ITIN filers paid more than $100 million in state and local taxes last year, according to Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D). Susan O’Brien, a spokesperson for Franchot, estimated that about 42,000 of those filers meet the EITC’s income guidelines.

Luedtke said sending stimulus checks – $500 for families and $300 for individuals – to 2019 ITIN filers means an additional $30 million in costs to the state.

“There are people in this state right now who aren’t getting help,” Luedtke said. “They’re literally starving.”

The announcement came after lawmakers and advocacy groups demanded that ITIN filers be included in the legislation. The proposal was set for a floor vote Thursday morning, but the late amendment pushed that vote to Friday.

On Thursday morning, roughly 20 protesters from CASA, an immigrant rights group, gathered in the cold outside the Maryland State House demanding that lawmakers include ITIN filers in the relief proposal.

Gricelda Velasquez, 33, of Owings Mills was one of those protesters. She and her husband, who are both undocumented immigrants, worked as painters before the pandemic – but that work fell off amid last year’s COVID-19 shutdowns.

“The jobs were fewer and fewer,” Velasquez said. “Until ultimately, I got left without a job.”

She stayed home with her three school-aged children to help them with online learning. Velasquez’s husband continued to work, but she told Maryland Matters in a phone interview that his income was only enough to pay their bills. They’ve often struggled to afford food and other basic necessities.

She was overcome with emotion as she recounted struggling to feed her three children throughout the past year.

“We just can’t eat right now,” Velasquez said. “They don’t understand because they’re very young. I have a daughter who’s 10, and a child who’s seven and one who is four years old. And the truth is that we just don’t have enough food for the whole week.”

But despite those struggles, Velasquez said her family hasn’t seen a cent of relief funding from the federal government. She and her husband, like thousands of other undocumented immigrants, have paid taxes for years with individual taxpayer identification numbers (ITIN) – but they’ve been excluded from federal aid efforts because they don’t have Social Security numbers.

Under the newly amended relief proposal, Velasquez and her family could get a stimulus check from the state.

Cathryn Paul, a research and policy analyst at CASA, said said undocumented immigrants, many of whom are essential workers, have been excluded from federal relief over the past year.

Paul said there is a common myth, rooted in “racism and xenophobia,” that undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes. According to the American Immigration Council, undocumented immigrants contribute billions in taxes across the country every years.

“It says to undocumented immigrants, ‘we don’t care. We are willing to move forward and leave you behind,’” she said.

Lawmakers have touted the EITC as an effective way to get aid to low-income Marylanders, with Luedtke calling it the “single-strongest anti-poverty program” the government has to offer.

The bill would also slash taxes on unemployment benefits for low-income Marylanders over the next few years, but Paul said undocumented immigrants have long been excluded from receiving those benefits.

Some Republican lawmakers criticized Democrats for the late addition to the relief proposal. Del. Jason C. Buckle (R-Allegany) said legislators should have introduced separate legislation to look at helping ITIN filers rather than adding the last-minute amendment to Hogan’s relief proposal.

“I don’t think anyone has vetted this well enough,” Buckle, who voted against the amendment, said.

Democrats lauded the amendment, with Del. Stephanie M. Smith (D-Baltimore City) noting that ITIN filers have been without relief for much of the pandemic despite many of them being essential workers.

“They’re not getting the federal relief that other people are getting,” Smith said. “Sometimes that labor is going unacknowledged.”

Smith and other lawmakers, including Dels. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery) and Robbyn T. Lewis (D-Baltimore City), voiced concerns about the original proposal leading up to Thursday’s floor vote. Franchot also had criticized the legislature publicly for leaving ITIN filers out of the relief effort.

Hogan has repeatedly pressed the legislature to pass his relief proposal quickly. His original relief package included broad tax cuts for individuals and businesses, but House committees have already altered or scaled back some of those provisions.

House committees amended Hogan’s original proposal, which would stop taxes on unemployment benefits for individuals, by instead putting a cap on who is exempt. Some of Hogan’s other proposals, like eliminating taxes for pandemic-related grants and forgiven loans, haven’t been changed.

Luedtke described the House amendment made Wednesday as a “compromise” between the House, Senate and Hogan. That House amendment cut back on the Senate’s proposed $520 million in additional spending. Instead, it includes $296 million in what Luedtke said would largely consist of direct relief for Marylanders, like help paying utility bills.

At a Thursday news conference before the latest amendment was added, Hogan said his administration hadn’t been apprised of the House’s changes and called their first amendment a “monkey wrench that they tried to throw at it.”

Hogan said he hoped the Senate could persuade the House to go along with the upper chamber’s version of the bill, which largely kept his tax proposals intact and added $520 million in additional spending.

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