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House ends session, but fate of business lawsuit protections uncertain

The Arizona House of Representatives voted to adjourn sine die Thursday and end its legislative session after voting on several pieces of legislation, including a bill that would give coronavirus liability protections to businesses and neuter provisions in Gov. Doug Ducey's stay-at-home order.

Two weeks ago, the Senate voted to adjourn, but House Republicans insisted on remaining in session.

The House met and considered bills this week for the first time since March 23 and held committee meetings in person and via teleconference under new guidelines that required personal protective equipment, except for when members were on the house floor.

Thursday's schedule was packed with bills that initially were believed to have been dead when the senate adjourned earlier this year, such as a bill that would cover pre-existing conditions if a GOP backed lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act is successful.

"That's the best 'aye' vote I've heard in months," House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, quipped when the representatives yelled a resounding "aye" on the vote to end the session.

Arizona House Democrats are now calling for Ducey to call a special session to address COVID-19.

"Our most important goal as a caucus is to pass legislation that will help hard-working Arizona residents and small businesses survive the COVID-19 pandemic," Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said in a press release after the vote. "The best place to do that is in a special session focused on the crisis, not here pretending the crisis has passed and that business as usual is possible right now..

Now the ball is now in the Senate's court, and some questions remain. Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, previously told Arizona Mirror that the Senate would remain in recess until the House sent over legislation on which it could act.

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Most of the bills the House passed originated in the Senate and weren't amended, meaning they can be sent to Ducey for his consideration. However, the civil liability bill and another bill that aids child care providers during the pandemic can't proceed unless without Senate action.

Fann has said she wants to take up a bill to shield businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits. But it's unclear whether Ducey would sign it. Although he is generally a strong supporter of measures that help businesses, the bill in question would strip away his power during the pandemic.

The bill, sponsored by Fountain Hills Republican Rep. John Kavanagh, would require that those who sue after contracting COVID-19 show that the business committed gross negligence, rather than the current standard of negligence.

It would also require that juries find clear and convincing evidence or wrongdoing, rather than a preponderance of evidence, which Kavanagh described as "50% plus a feather..

Kavanagh's bill also would drastically reduce the penalties for violating the Ducey's executive orders related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Currently, anyone found guilty of violating the orders, faces a class 1 misdemeanor, which comes with fines of up to $2,500 and as much as six months in jail. Kavanagh's bill would reduce the penalty to a civil violation, which is punishable only by a small fine.

"I've been in many public places without a mask and been ok and with that I vote aye," Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, said while explaining his yes vote on Kavanagh's bill Thursday.

Democrats expressed their concern with the bill, saying that it only had two days to be heard and it did not have a proper stakeholder process. They also voiced concerns that the bill would prioritize businesses over workers.

In one example given by Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, a nursing home that exposed a person to COVID-19 could not be held liable, Blan.

Even some Republicans acknowledged that skipping the normally deliberative process means the bill suffers.

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"This is not the greatest bill," Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear said, apologizing to Kavanagh and agreeing that a larger stakeholder process would have been helpful.

Osborne said she isn't "thrilled" about the bill, but "I stand today because I know our businesses are in fear and we need to do something to calm that..

The bill passed on a party line vote.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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