House Republicans say they will push for a package of pandemic-related bills aimed at increasing tourism, limiting the authority of local health officers and providing legal liability to small businesses and other organizations.
The push on already filed bills by the 42 Republicans in the House comes less than a week after Gov. Larry Hogan signed a $1.2 billion pandemic aid package passed with strong bipartisan help from Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones.
Del. Nic Kipke, R-Anne Arundel and Republican leader in the House, said the focus is to give businesses some “consistency, protection and support.”
“Obviously, they’ve been shut down throughout the last year, and it’s the moral responsibility of all of us to do everything in our power to get those business back open as quickly and safely as possible and to get them the support they need to stay afloat until things return to normal,” said Kipke.
The bills, described as a business-friendly set of initiatives, contain tax incentives or temporary tax reductions. The package also includes proposals aimed at concerns some Republicans have expressed about how the pandemic has been managed and the power exerted through county health departments as local jurisdictions impose rules that limit how businesses can operate or even open.
“I think it’s likely some of these ideas will move forward,” said Kipke, adding that Republicans and Democrats were “working together” on similar issues, including the governor’s pandemic aid proposal.
“I view these bills as being very bipartisan,” said Del. April Rose, R-Carroll.
None of the bills have Democratic co-sponsors.
Included in the package are two bills sponsored by Rose that would provide a check on the authority of health officers by creating an oversight board. The panel, appointed by local government, must include at least one business owner.
The appointed panel would provide an avenue of appeal for businesses upset with county or city health department orders and also be responsible for investigating “misconduct” on the part of health officers, a term that is not defined in the bill.
Rose and other Carroll County lawmakers have expressed concern about orders issued by Gov. Larry Hogan last year that gave local health officers greater power to issue health orders during the pandemic. Sen. Justin Ready, R-Carroll, is sponsoring a similar bill. Both bills have hearings scheduled in March.
“In some areas, these health officers are doing a good job,” said Rose. “In others, they are acting with impunity, making arbitrary decisions that appear to be based on politics rather than science. This is a tremendous amount of power in the hands of unelected and mostly unaccountable bureaucrats.”
Rose is also sponsor of a proposal that would limit the liability on businesses, churches and other organizations related to the virus “if they inadvertently fail to comply with the hodgepodge, often contradictory state and county health orders issued during this pandemic,” said Rose.
The bill would require plaintiffs to meet a clear and convincing standard rather than a simple preponderance of evidence.
Republicans are also looking to provide some help in the form of tax incentives and temporary reductions.
House Bill 1176 would provide a tax credit to individuals who travel for vacation or entertainment purposes greater than 50 miles from a person’s primary residence; the credit would apply to food, lodging or other entertainment purposes.
“There’s no doubt that we can travel safely as we continue to increase the number of vaccines. We all know we can travel safely, even today,” said Del. Wayne Hartman, R-Eastern Shore and sponsor of the bill.
Another bill sponsored by Hartman would allow individuals or business owners affected by the pandemic to withdraw up to $100,000 from retirement accounts without incurring a tax penalty. The bill would be similar to federal exemptions in the federal CARES Act.
“When you see someone drowning, you don’t throw them a cinder block,” said Hartman.