Top GOP lawmakers signal support for coronavirus legal protections for businesses

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The top legislative priority for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce next year—protecting businesses, not-for-profits and schools from COVID-19 related lawsuits—already has strong support from top lawmakers.

During the chamber’s annual legislative preview event—which was held virtually this year as a safety precaution—the organization announced its top five priorities for the session that starts in January. Legal liability protection, which would shield employers from lawsuits involving customers or employees who have been exposed to or caught COVID-19 at their place of business, is at the top of the list.

“We can’t have employers, schools, health care facilities being sued and bombarded with lawsuits because someone was in their facility a week, two weeks ago, and has now contracted COVID and is claiming that they caught it at that facility when we have no idea what other places and interactions those individuals have said since that time,” Indiana Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kevin Brinegar said.

During a panel discussion at the virtual event, the top lawmakers in the Indiana General Assembly said they supported the idea of legal liability protections. And legislation addressing the issue could be fast tracked.

“It’s going to be a high priority for both sides of the building,” Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said. “The quicker we can get that done, the better off we’ll be.”

House Speaker Todd Huston said lawmakers have heard “loud and clear” not just from businesses wanting such protection, but also not-for-profits, K-12 schools and higher education institutions.

He said the legislation will be careful not to put employees or customers in unsafe environments.

“We need to be thoughtful,” Huston said. “We need to get this done.”

Democratic leaders—House Minority Leader Rep. Phil GiaQuinta and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Greg Taylor—also expressed general support for the concept.

But GiaQuinta said he has not seen language yet and believes it should be “written tightly” so it only covers COVID-19-related issues.

The issue is also being discussed at the federal level, but Brinegar said the state needs legislation, too, because lawsuits could be filed at both the state and federal level.

The other priorities for the chamber include raising the state’s cigarette tax, establishing a work share program, providing incentives to attract remote workers to Indiana and continuing to expand broadband internet access.

Brinegar said Indiana “missed the boat” on work share, because if it had been allowed prior to the pandemic, CARES Act funding could have paid for those partial unemployment benefits.

“We wouldn’t have had as big of a draw on our unemployment trust fund,” Brinegar said.

Under a work share system, instead of laying off five employees, for example, an employer could reduce the hours of the entire staff. All the employees would then be eligible to seek unemployment benefits to fill the gap caused by the reduced hours.

More than two dozen other states have a work share program in place. And Indiana lawmakers have considered creating one in previous years, but legislation has never passed.

Bray said he thinks it should be discussed this year, but he did not signal support or opposition for it.

“I’d like to have an opportunity to really get our hands around that issue and debate it so we can decide whether it’s the right thing for indiana to do,” Bray said.

The chamber has also pushed to increase the cigarette tax for years without success. Brinegar said the suggested $2 per pack increase could generate $500 million in new tax revenue for the state, which could be helpful given the anticipated budget shortfalls over the next couple years.

Lawmakers seemed open to discussing a cigarette tax increase, but it’s uncertain whether the idea has enough support.

A live poll during the event showed 42% of attendees who responded supporting a cigarette tax increase of at least $2 per pack. Another 25% supported an increase of at least $3 per pack and 20% supported an increase of $1.50 to $2 per pack.

The chamber said the event had about 350 attendees.

The legislative session starts in January.

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