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Vegas Chamber presses delegation for business liability protection

Humberto Sanchez

The Nevada Independent

A statue is adorned with a gold face mask in front of Caesars Palace on Thursday, June 4, 2020. The property opened its doors to the public at 10 a.m. after the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted the temporary shutdown.
Photo: Mikayla Whitmore / The Nevada Independent
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was first published Sept. 18 by The Nevada Independent and is republished here with permission. For more Nevada news, including wall-to-wall coronavirus coverage and a constantly updating live blog, visit The Nevada Independent.

Concerned that a spate of COVID-19-related lawsuits could bankrupt businesses, members of the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce implored the state’s congressional delegation during the chamber’s annual D.C. retreat to pass a federal liability protection measure. 

“At no level do I defend people that don’t do what they’re supposed to do,” stressed Tom Burns, the Vegas chamber chairman, who said that employers want assurance that they will not be sued if they are following the federal, state and local safety guidelines.

Members of the Vegas chamber, which held its week-long D.C. outreach meeting virtually this year, also discussed establishing a federally backed disruption insurance program, the state of congressional negotiations on the next pandemic recovery package and infrastructure projects that would benefit the state. 

Liability

But liability protection was the topic that brought up most often to each delegation member. While Democrats and Republicans are generally split over the liability protection issue, with Republicans supportive and and Democratic leaders wary, all members of the delegation signaled some degree of support. 

The push for a federal liability measure comes after the chamber helped pass a state bill in August that provided businesses protection against lawsuits unless a plaintiff can prove a violation of minimum health standards with “gross negligence.” A federal law would give additional certainty to businesses and make decision making easier for businesses that operate in more than one state, Burns said. 

Hospitals, health care facilities and public and charter schools are exempted under the state law, and Burns said the chamber would like them to be afforded protections under a federal law.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto echoed her Democratic colleagues by noting that the business concerns need to be weighed against the rights of workers and consumers. 

“I think we absolutely need some protections both for businesses and workers,” Cortez Masto told chamber members. “I think there’s a balance to be found. And I don’t support the extremes on either side. I’ve heard from our small businesses; it makes complete sense to me their concerns and they’re reasonable. But we can’t do too much, we can’t overreach.”

Liability protection was not included in a $3 trillion pandemic aid bill passed by the Democratic-run House in May. 

Rep. Dina Titus said that there is a chance the issue doesn’t end up in the next pandemic package. “It’s certainly something that’s on the table, but needs to be done in the right way,” she said. 

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said liability projection for business, health care providers and schools is his red line. 

Cortez Masto said she does not support the GOP’s liability bill introduced by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and included in the GOP COVID-19 relief package introduced in July. Under that measure, businesses, schools and other organizations would only be liable if they demonstrated gross negligence or intentional misconduct, and could shift cases to federal court if they chose.

Democrats, such as Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, said the proposal is too business-friendly. Cortez Masto noted that it was never considered in committee and Democrats had no input. 

“It literally was drafted behind closed doors and dropped on the floor of the Senate,” Cortez Masto said. “That’s not how you get things done.” 

pared Senate GOP pandemic bill that included the liability language failed to win the 60 votes needed to advance last week. No Democrats supported the measure.

Rep. Steven Horsford and Titus both said that any federal law must not conflict with the state law. Federal law typically trumps state law. 

“We need to make sure that laws like the ones passed in Nevada are preserved,” Horsford said.

Disruption insurance

Businesses are also pushing for a new insurance program, backed by the federal government, on disruptions caused by the pandemic. Insurers currently don’t cover pandemic-related disruption following the 2002 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).  

“That’s because there’s no way to price for that or gather the money to put the coffers aside,” said Burns, who is president of the insurance firm Cragin & Pike in Las Vegas.

Insurers use premium payments from one group to pay for the insurance liabilities of another. But when all groups are affected, as in a pandemic, that model does not work.

The chamber supports a federally backstopped system as is used in terrorism risk and flood insurance. 

Horsford and Cortez Masto, who serve on the Ways and Means Committee and Finance Committee, respectively, said that is being considered by those tax-writing committees and other committees of jurisdiction.

“We need to design our legislation at the federal level to make that part of the economic recovery,” Horsford said. 

COVID relief

Members of the delegation also discussed the need to pass another pandemic relief bill, but all said that chances are slim that Congress can come to a consensus before the election. 

“Apparently the political geniuses-that-be think that nothing needs to get done in the next 45 days before the election,” said Rep. Mark Amodei, the state’s only congressional Republican. 

Amodei, along with Rep. Susie Lee, belongs to the Problem Solvers Caucus, which is a group of 50 House members, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, who work on bipartisan legislative solutions. The group released a $1.5 trillion COVID-aid bill Tuesday that they hope can help restart negotiations, which broke down in early August.

While Democratic leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said the bill is too small, Lee said she hopes “the pressure we’re putting on” will force a deal.

“This is CPR for the economy,” Lee said of the need for more aid. 

Infrastructure

The chamber also highlighted infrastructure projects that it wants to see completed and would help the state’s economy, including completing I-11 between Las Vegas and Phoenix and widening the I-15 corridor to California.

Sen. Jacky Rosen would like to see an expansive infrastructure package that along with transportation funding for I-11 also includes funding for broadband. 

“I think if we make those investments in broadband, then we’ll be poised for success,” Rosen said.

She added that she has a broad definition of infrastructure and that she foresees the possibility for agreement on bipartisan legislation 

“I consider education critical infrastructure too, so whether it’s education, whether it’s your freeways, highways, bridges, roads, ports, etc, etc. I think that there’s really good space for that, a bipartisan space, and that’s what I’m going to really push towards in the next session,” Rosen said.

The Nevada Independent is a 501(c)3 nonprofit news organization. The following people or entities mentioned in this article are financial supporters: Steven Horsford – $1,000.00; Susie Lee – $1,120.00; and Titus for Congress – $1,000.00.