PHOENIX (AP) — The Arizona House voted Thursday to give businesses sweeping protections from lawsuits if their customers or employees get sick from the coronavirus and to eliminate criminal penalties for violating the governor’s public-health orders.
Republicans, who approved the bill in a party-line vote, said it is needed to assure employers they can reopen without being pummeled with lawsuits. Many Democrats said the plan strips rights from employees and the public, making it virtually impossible for people to get redress from businesses that act irresponsibly.
The House also backed a measure allocating $88 million in emergency federal cash to help child care centers reopen and ensure workers can return to work knowing their children are safe. And they sent the Senate a series of bills the upper chamber had already passed, including one that will require health insurers to sell policies to people with pre-existing conditions if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Act.
Democrats railed against that proposal too, saying it simply provided a fig leaf to Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich because he joined other GOP attorneys general in trying to overturn the law often called Obamacare. While the measure technically requires insurers to cover people with health problems, it does nothing to prevent insurers from charging exorbitantly for that coverage, Democrats said.
Republicans pushed back, saying they were protecting the most popular part of President Barack Obama’s law.
The House then adjourned for the year in hopes the Senate, which has already voted to adjourn, will reverse course and pass the business liability bill, the child care funding and other House measures that have been stalled since both chambers recessed in March amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Republican Sen. Sonny Borrelli said Thursday that his chamber voted to end its work to force the House to figure out a way to move ahead.
“We had been waiting for them to do something for like three weeks and they couldn’t come up with a plan. Finally it was like ‘put up or shut up,’” Borrelli said. “So now they’re finally doing something and I’m sure we’re going to be doing something also.”
Exactly what that is remains unclear. Republican Senate President Karen Fann has said she wants to take up the liability proposal and other virus-specific virus legislation.
But whether Fann will do what the House did this week — the lower chamber passed more than 30 Senate bills unrelated to the virus — remains unclear. That could take days of work that senators from both sides don’t relish amidst the pandemic.
“The Democrats don’t want to come back — the Democrats were adamant about not coming back,” Borrelli said. “So it comes down to what can we do with the members we’ve got on the floor.”
Republicans hold majorities in both chambers.
Senate Minority Leader David Bradley said Thursday evening that he expects Fann to call members back next week, possibly as early as Tuesday. He said Fann was considering whether to take up the two virus bills or even as many as 28. She wasn’t immediately available for comment.
“Our preference is to just come in and sine die,” Bradley said, using the term for adjourning the session for the year.
All lawmakers expect to return for a special session called by the governor to take up virus-related legislation relatively soon. So even if the Senate adjourns without passing the liability and child care bills, they can deal with them at that time.
The liability shield would raise the standard for people to successfully sue businesses for coronavirus-related claims from negligence to gross negligence. Plaintiffs would also have to show by “clear and convincing evidence” that a company was grossly negligent, a higher bar of proof than the typical “preponderance of the evidence” standard for negligence claims.
“There’s a great cloud of fear that hangs over the business community about being sued, and its slowing down their efforts to open,” said Rep. John Kavanagh, a Fountain Hills Republican.
Democrats said making it virtually impossible to sue would eliminate accountability for employers that play fast and loose with the health of their workers and customers.
“If a business makes a risky decision during the COVID-19 pandemic, they should be held accountable,” said Rep. Pam Powers Hanley, a Tucson Democrat.
It’s unclear whether Gov. Doug Ducey would sign the measure. He’s generally supportive of measures improving conditions for business owners, but the bill also would strip his own power. It would ban misdemeanor criminal penalties for people who refuse to comply with his virus emergency orders and prohibit government agencies from stripping business licenses from those who ignore his orders.
Ducey riled many GOP lawmakers after he threatened to strip liquor licenses if needed.
Ducey has lifted his stay-home order and restrictions on most business operations but has left the door open to reviving them if the state sees a surge in COVID-19 infections.