Last year state legislatures considered thousands of measures related to the coronavirus pandemic, covering everything from telemedicine and virtual school instruction to paid sick leave and eviction moratoriums. This year is shaping up to be no less active for state COVID-19 legislation. And although state lawmakers continue to have many of the same concerns they had in 2020, some of last year’s priorities appear to have receded a bit while others have emerged.
As of the end of January, states had introduced over 2,000 COVID-19-related measures, according to State Net’s legislative tracking system. That’s roughly half the number introduced in all of 2020, although states didn’t really start taking action on the coronavirus last year until March, and many states suspended their sessions or ended them early. This is also the first year of a biennium, when state legislatures tend to introduce more bills.
No Letup on Some Pandemic Issues
Some issues continue to be just as pressing for state lawmakers as they were last year. For instance, 37 states have introduced bills this year concerning health care workforce issues, such as occupational licensing requirements for out-of-state workers, about the same number of states as introduced such measures last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ COVID-19 legislation database, which allows a subset of State Net’s data, identified as being associated with COVID-19, to be parsed by year, subject and keyword.
NCSL’s database also shows that more than half of the states considered legislation last year aimed at limiting liability from COVID-19-related lawsuits. Most of those bills dealt with civil immunity for health care providers or educational institutions, although over a dozen mostly Republican-governed states enacted broad COVID-19 liability shield laws via executive order or legislation that protect businesses and their employees from COVID-related claims unless they are grossly negligent.
Despite a lack of evidence that such lawsuits are common, lawmakers in several other states, including Florida, Indiana, Montana and Wisconsin, have prioritized enacting broad liability protections this year.
“Although the courts aren’t packed, I’ll submit, it’s the fear of frivolous lawsuits as this evolves,” Florida Rep. Lawrence McClure (R), sponsor of a COVID liability bill in his state (HB 7), told a House committee last month, as Bloomberg Law reported. “We have the obligation to define that and put the business community at ease.”
The unlikelihood of a federal liability shield being enacted now that Democrats - who’ve been resistant to the idea - control both chambers of Congress and the White House may give additional impetus to the state efforts.
A big employment-related issue in 2020, paid sick leave, will continue to be so this year, according to Suzanne Hultin, program director of NCSL’s Employment, Labor and Retirement Program.
“Two states, Colorado and New York, enacted paid sick leave in 2020,” she told SNCJ. “Numerous states have already introduced bills this year and we anticipate more to come.”
Wade Fickler, group director of NCSL’s Children, Youth and Families Program, said much the same about the issues of housing and child care.
“Concerns about housing, homelessness and the viability of the child care industry are on the minds of many legislators,” he said. “Because of the pandemic, our nation’s shortage of safe, stable and affordable housing and its reliance on a patchwork, market-based approach to child care are intertwined with public health and economic recovery.”
Legislative oversight of executive power also “continues to be an area of legislative activity in 2021,” said Natalie Wood, director of NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening. Last year legislative chambers in at least 30 states introduced measures to limit governors’ powers during the pandemic or other emergencies, and 10 states enacted such measures, she said, adding that legislative chambers in at least 33 states have introduced or are considering similar measures this year.
Some COVID-19 Priorities Wane
Legislative activity seems to have dropped off a little on one of last year’s top health-related concerns: telemedicine. A dozen states have introduced measures this year dealing with telehealth or telemedicine in relation to the pandemic. Only one of those measures, a resolution commending telehealth providers in Virginia (SR 109), has been passed by its originating chamber. By the end of last March - effectively the first month of coronavirus-related legislative activity in 2020 - six states had already enacted such measures.
The issue of business interruption insurance, meanwhile, appears to have completely run out of steam, after the failure of multiple bills last year aimed at requiring insurers to cover pandemic-related business stoppages. The measures, including New York AB 10226 (2019) and Ohio HB 589 (2019), had drawn considerable pushback from industry groups.
“Broad business communities will be ultimately harmed by these kinds of proposals in that they may prevent potential financial assistance from anticipated relief programs, and will have a deep chilling effect on the availability of insurance for the business community moving forward,” Erin Collins, vice president of state affairs at the National Association of Mutual Insurers, said last March, as Business Insurance reported.
New Priorities Emerge
One of the biggest concerns - if not the biggest concern - for state lawmakers this year is one that wasn’t much of an issue last year: coronavirus vaccine distribution.
“State legislatures were primarily focused on telehealth, testing and contact tracing, and addressing scope of practice issues around vaccine administration in 2020,” said Tahra Johnson, program director for public health and maternal and child health in NCSL’s Health Program. “Now that there are vaccines approved by FDA, state legislators are focused on the COVID-19 vaccine distribution and allocation as well as other policies around the vaccine.”
Johnson said more than 30 states have introduced vaccine-related measures so far this year. (For a full accounting of 2021 state vaccine legislation at the time of this writing see Bird’s eye view.) The measures include prohibitions against worker immunization mandates, authorizations for pharmacists and other health care workers to administer vaccines, directives for public awareness programs and frameworks for distribution, among other things.
There’s also been a big surge of activity this year on an issue that’s been around a lot longer than COVID-19 but which took on a new sense of urgency because of it: voter access. Last year many states expanded access to voting by mail or instituted other changes to their election procedures to make it easier to cast a ballot during the pandemic. Unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud have triggered a backlash against those efforts.
As of Feb. 3, 28 states had carried over, prefiled or introduced more than 100 bills that would restrict voter access, three times the number of such bills considered by the same time last year, according to analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice. The measures include limits on voting by mail and new voter ID requirements, among other things, with some of the most sweeping proposals coming in Georgia and Arizona, states where President Biden notched rare Democratic victories in November but where Republicans control both the legislature and the governor’s office.
“Some of them are for show; some of them have to be taken more seriously,” former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a Republican, said of the new voting measures at a recent news conference organized by the Voter Protection Program, as reported by National Public Radio.
The activity on voter access this year hasn’t been just one-way, however. The Brennan Center also noted that 35 states had carried over, prefiled or introduced more than 400 bills that would expand access, roughly twice the number of such measures considered by Feb. 3, 2020.
A multitude of other pandemic related issues are also on state legislatures’ agendas. And with the year having just begun, there may be more shifts of focus ahead.
-- By KOREY CLARK