House Republican leaders on Thursday identified five pieces of legislation that they are embracing as a package to help small businesses struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our party is often criticized for caring too much about business and not enough about people,” said House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) during a virtual news conference. “But businesses are built by people, they are run by people, they create jobs for people. What impacts businesses impacts people and many Maryland businesses are struggling.”
The package of bills includes proposed tax breaks for businesses and individuals, legislation to shield small businesses and other entities from lawsuits related to COVID-19, and legislation to provide oversight of local health officers.
The oversight bill, sponsored by Del. April R. Rose (R-Carroll), would require each county board of health and the Baltimore City Health Department to establish guidelines regarding when, how, and under what circumstances businesses can be inspected, cited, or ordered to close.
“The COVID-19 public health emergency has put unprecedented power in the hands of county health officers,” Rose said. “In some areas these health officers are doing a good job, while in others they’re acting with impunity, often making arbitrary decisions that appear to be based more on politics than on science. This is a tremendous amount of power in the hands of unelected and mostly unaccountable bureaucrats.”
Throughout the pandemic, business groups and conservative organizations have sought to sue state and county officials to limit restrictions on business activity, with mixed success.
Asked whether the oversight regime that her bill would set up adds an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, Rose replied, “The business community needs a voice and it needs a process in place. I’d hate to see them always have to go to court.”
Rose has also introduced a bill that would provide immunity from civil lawsuits for small businesses, churches and certain nonprofits for failing to comply with state and county health orders issued during the pandemic — unless there is evidence of malice or gross negligence. The bill would also shift the burden of proof to the plaintiff to prove that the noncompliance was willful or grossly negligent by clear and convincing evidence — a higher standard of evidence than exists in Maryland for most similar cases.
A similar bipartisan measure was introduced earlier in the session that would limit an individual’s ability to sue a business, nonprofit, or other entity for damages related to COVID-19.
The House GOP package also includes a bill from Del. Kevin C. Hornberger (R-Cecil) that would allow certain businesses to receive a refund on the business personal property tax they paid in 2020, if they have been ordered to close or significantly reduce their operations under the Executive Orders Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) issued in the early days of the pandemic, last March.
Del. Wayne A. Hartman (R-Lower Shore) has introduced a bill that would make any COVID-19-related distribution from retirement income in the 2020 or 2021 tax year untaxable for Maryland income tax purposes. It would include distributions to individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 or had a spouse or dependent test positive. It would also apply to distributions to people who, due to the pandemic, experienced adverse financial consequences because they were quarantined, furloughed, laid off, had working hours reduced, were unable to work because of lack of childcare, or had their to close or reduce the hours of business they owned or operated.
“When you see someone drowning, you don’t throw them a cinder block,” Hartman said.
The lawmaker, who represents the tourist mecca of Ocean City and noted that the hospitality industry has been especially hard hit by the pandemic, has also introduced a bill that would provide tax credits to individuals and families to cover expenses for travel to Maryland destinations or to attend live entertainment and sporting events in the state. The expenses include food and beverages, lodging and transportation. The travel would have to occur in either 2021 or 2022 and must be at least 50 miles from an individual’s residence to qualify for a tax break.
Asked whether the measure might come in conflict with state and local orders limiting the size of public and private gatherings, Republican leaders said no.
“There’s no doubt that people can begin to travel safely,” Hartman said. Added Kipke: “People can go on vacation without being in an enormous group.”
Kipke expressed optimism that some of the Republicans’ proposals will gain traction during the legislative session, noting that some GOP priorities wind up becoming law despite Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate. He added that Republicans are getting behind some Democratic proposals to aid small business, asserting “it’s our moral responsibility” to pass these relief measures.