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Rob Raber, co-owner of Kommie Pig. Senate Bill 261 would create a reciprocal licensing system for food truck operators. Owners could obtain a single license from their home jurisdiction and use that to operate in any other area of the state. (File)

Md. Senate food truck reciprocal licensing bill causes food fight

ANNAPOLIS — Food truck operators across the state could pay less in licensing fees under a bill being considered in the General Assembly.

But concerns expressed by brick-and-mortar restaurateurs over potentially high costs for them and fewer health inspections for mobile food operations have the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee calling for a work group to resolve the issue.

“I think there is some common ground here,” said Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles and chairman of the committee.

Middleton said he will form a work group comprised of food truck operators, owners of traditional restaurants, legislators and local health inspectors in an effort to draft a compromise bill that could result in lower licensing fees for food truck operators.

Senate Bill 261 would create a reciprocal licensing system for food truck operators. Owners could obtain a single license from their home jurisdiction and use that to operate in any other area of the state. Currently, food truck owners must obtain separate licenses and inspections in each jurisdiction in which they operate, often at a cost of up to $1,000 per jurisdiction. The process for obtaining a license often means operators are not able to work for a day while submitting to local health department inspections.

David Chapman, owner of The Green Bowl food truck, told the committee that the change could improve his business and lead to more jobs.

“If I simply had the opportunity to operate in Howard or Harford County it would give me the opportunity to make my part-time employees full time employees and expand,” Chapman said.

Chapman’s business is one of what legislative analysts estimate are nearly 1,450 food trucks operating within the state.

But owners of traditional restaurant expressed concern that the change would create an uneven playing field in which food trucks would be inspected fewer times and would not have to meet the standards of each jurisdiction in which they operate.

Local health departments are also opposing the bill in its current form because it would reduce revenue used to cover the cost of annual inspections. Some restaurant owners told the committee that they are inspected annually but that the three-times-a-year standard often is not met by local health inspectors. Some testified that they see an inspector twice a year.

Maryland has a baseline standard health code for restaurants but many jurisdictions have adopted standards that are in some ways more stringent than the state requirements.

“There’s nothing preventing a mobile food truck from obtaining a license in a less stringent county and then operating in all counties,” said Eric King, chairman of the Restaurant Association of Maryland and owner of Sea King in Ellicott City.

“There is a cost to these inspections,” he added. “If the county has to increase the number of inspections some of those costs might go up for us and we’re not getting any benefit from that.”

Middleton, who has experience in crafting legislation for other disruptive business models, believes there is a common ground. He was instrumental last year in helping guide compromise legislation through the General Assembly in the waning days of the session that allowed online transportation networks such as Uber and Lyft to operate in the state under new regulations.

“This is a good bill that needs some work,” Middleton said.