A bill to aid small businesses hurt by construction along the light-rail Purple Line stopped just short of passage Wednesday as the Maryland General Assembly adjourned almost three weeks early due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The legislation, sponsored by Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Silver Spring), cleared the House of Delegates this past weekend, 107-22. It then was approved 45-0 by the Maryland Senate Wednesday after that chamber made some changes in the bill.
“Because it was amended in the Senate, it still had to make it back over to the House for us to concur,” Wilkins said in a phone interview. “Unfortunately, on that final step, we just ran out of time.”
The General Assembly did pass and send to Gov. Larry Hogan an annual budget bill that includes a provision with $2 million in grants for small businesses that have seen sharp drops in customer and revenue amid construction of the 16-mile Purple Line.
The light-rail system, which will run from Bethesda east to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County, is scheduled to be in full operation by early 2023.
Amid the mushrooming impact of the coronavirus on businesses of all types around Maryland, Wilkins acknowledged that it remains in question whether Hogan will opt to direct the $2 million to small businesses along the Purple Line route.
According to Wilkins, about 50 to 60 small businesses in Montgomery County are affected, concentrated primarily in the Silver Spring and Takoma Park areas.
“We certainly have the hurdle of the governor releasing the funds. Clearly, there is a crisis happening, and … we’re kind of in a new world order we didn’t expect when we introduced the bill,” Wilkins said.
She added: “I still do want to advocate — and hope the governor will release the funds — so that we can finish the work of supporting the businesses impacted by the Purple Line.”
Had it passed, Wilkins’ legislation would have governed the process for allocating the funding to an eligible small business, defined as independently owned and operated with 20 or fewer employees.
In the absence of legislation, it would be up to the Maryland Department of Commerce to come up with the rules for how the $2 million in grants is distributed and who is eligible if Hogan releases the funding.
“I do plan to work with the Commerce Department, and hope that they will adhere to some of what we outlined” in the bill, Wilkins said. She noted that the legislation had been written in consultation with the Montgomery County government and city of Takoma Park, as well as affected businesses and business associations.
“The reason that I was so specific in the bill was that these are microbusinesses,” Wilkins said. “I wanted to make sure that we had a process that was rigorous, but still one where they’re able to apply and not have to hire accountants and go through too many hoops to be able to get it.”
As originally written and passed by the House, Wilkins’ bill contained a total of $3 million for aid to small businesses along the Purple Line route — $2 million in state grants and up to $1 million in tax credits for affected firms. The Senate-passed version of the legislation removed the tax credit provision and left the grant program, “which was OK with me,” Wilkins said.
But, in the crush of legislation handled on the final day of the session, the Senate version of the bill did not arrive back in the House for the latter chamber’s concurrence prior to the 5 p.m. Wednesday adjournment.
“That feeling when there is 30 mins left of the session and you’re waiting for your number 1 priority bill to come back to the House!” Wilkins declared plaintively via Twitter at 4:29 p.m., with her tweet followed by three very anxious-looking emojis.
It was a happier ending for another construction-related bill — this one sponsored by Del. Marc Korman (D-Bethesda). It was spurred by complaints about frequent sidewalk closures amid the multitude of construction projects in downtown Bethesda.
Korman’s legislation, now on its way to Hogan’s desk for the governor’s signature, seeks to establish regulations for construction work conducted within a mile or a Metrorail or commuter rail station or bus rapid transit stop.
Those granted construction permits by the State Highway Administration would be instructed to “maintain a safe alternative pedestrian path at the work site,” under the language of the bill.
Besides being required to adopt regulations designed to ensure such practices, the State Highway Administration would have to compile and publish an inventory of best practices for maintaining pedestrian access in areas where construction is being performed.
Korman’s legislation passed unanimously in the Senate earlier this week after passing the House by 114-24 earlier. It was “prompted by my daily walks around District 16,” Korman said in a recent interview. His district includes portions of Chevy Chase and Potomac, in addition to much of Bethesda.
“You don’t have to go far in District 16 to face a sidewalk that’s closed for months or years in some cases,” Korman said. “In an era where we’re trying to encourage walkability, that needs to be as limited as possible.”