Members of the House Minority Caucus introduced a series of bills on Thursday that are aimed at providing relief to small businesses that are struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proposals include requiring local health boards to establish clear criteria under which health officers may inspect, cite, or shutdown businesses deemed to be in violation of health regulations and requiring local governments to establish oversight boards to review health board decisions and to allow for an appeals process.

Another proposal would provide civil immunity to small businesses, religious institutions and other nonprofit organizations that unintentionally violate local health orders. Financial incentives include a two-year state tax holiday on retirement income that individuals or business owners may have been forced to withdraw early due to the pandemic and the establishment of travel tax credits for individuals and families to help boost the hospitality industry.

Also included is a proposal that would allow businesses that were either forced to close or limit their hours to receive a personal property tax refund on taxes they paid last year.

“COVID-19 closures have had a devastating impact on Maryland’s economy. Even though Maryland is doing better than many other states, many of our businesses are still struggling, and quite frankly, and are on life support,” House Minority Leader Nic Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) said at a virtual news conference.

Kipke relayed harrowing statistics gathered by the state’s leading business organizations, which estimated that business revenue in Maryland has declined more than 30% over the past year, that 40% of the state’s restaurants are in danger of shutting down for good and that 40,000-50,000 of its small businesses are hanging on by a thread.

“These businesses need to be able to keep more of their hard-earned dollars, they need certain legal protections, and they need the government to treat them as a partner instead of a problem,” Kipke said.

Del. Wayne Hartman (R-Wicomico and Worcester), who sponsored the retirement income distribution measure, echoed similar sentiments in touting his proposal.

“When you see someone drowning, you don’t throw them a cinder block. Taxing these distributions would do just that. This bill is a critical life preserver for individuals and for business owners experiencing significant economic hardships because of COVID-19.”

Del. Kevin Hornberger (R-Cecil), who sponsored the one-time business property tax refund measure, said his proposal will help many struggling businesses stay afloat.

“Restaurants who were completely shut down or had their services significantly curtailed still paid a tax on their ovens and broilers that remained cold, on the barstools that remained empty. Gyms who were forced to close still had to pay a tax on their exercise equipment that was gathering dust. Salons forced to shutter were still taxed on the chairs and dryers that sat unused. That’s just wrong. This bill will help these businesses, giving their money back to them.”

Senate Democrats unveiled their COVID-19 legislative policy package on Wednesday. It includes proposals to expand telehealth programs, improve vaccine distribution metrics and contact tracing, expand access to broadband internet service and increase oversight over the COVID-19 funds that Maryland receives from the federal government.

Gov. Larry Hogan signed a $1.1 billion COVID-19 stimulus relief bill into law on Monday that is geared toward helping both struggling small business owners and individuals.

This article originally on on February 19, 2021.

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