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Lawmakers fast-track COVID-19 bills, liability protection

By KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama lawmakers on Thursday fast-tracked a pair of pandemic bills — one to exempt coronavirus relief payments from state income tax and another to shield businesses, health care providers and others from virus-related lawsuits.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and GOP lawmakers had named the bills — along with with a third to renew the state’s pool of industrial recruitment incentives — as the top priority for the first two weeks of the legislative session.

The Alabama Senate swiftly approved legislation that would provide businesses and others protection from liability in coronavirus-related lawsuits, provided the entities were taking precautions to limit the spread of the virus. The bill passed without debate on a 27-1 vote. It now moves to the Alabama House of Representatives.

The bill by Republican Sen. Arthur Orr could provide immunity for businesses, health care providers and others from certain damages claimed by individuals who allege they contracted or were exposed to the virus.

The bill would shield businesses, schools, health care providers, churches and others from lawsuits over COVID-19 exposure unless the person could prove the entity was acting with reckless or intentional misconduct.

Orr said the bill would give protection to companies, churches and other entities from virus-related claims only if they were following appropriate precautions.

“A business that chose to ignore that guidance and did not require, say like masks in their workplace or took no steps to try to limit the interaction of their workers being very close together, then they would not have protection in that safe harbor,” Orr said.

Robyn Hyden of Alabama Arise, an advocacy group for low-income people, urged the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to take more steps to protect and help workers.

“Front-line workers deserve access to health care, hazard pay and social support programs if they are unable to work in a high-risk field. Too many workers are being driven into risky working conditions with no alternatives,” Hyden said.

The House voted 94-0 for the bill that would exempt coronavirus stimulus payments, grants, and small loans forgiveness approved by Congress from state income taxes. The bill now moves to the Alabama Senate.

“These monies were meant to tide people over until the economy recovered. it was never meant as an opportunity to grow the state’s bank account,” Ivey said in her State of the State address Tuesday night.

Ivey in December signed a proclamation to allow Alabama citizens and businesses to avoid paying state taxes on certain benefits received under the federal CARES Act. The proclamation will be in effect if a person or business files their 2020 taxes before final passage of the legislation, Department of Revenue spokeswoman Amanda Collier wrote in an email.

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