Businesses hurt by COVID closures could get paid under bills

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Posted at 5:20 PM, Mar 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-11 18:20:06-05

TOPEKA, Kan. — Businesses that were ordered to shut down or limit capacity because of the pandemic could receive financial relief under two bills that would address pending litigation but have riled up county leaders who could be forced to pay out millions.

Both bills provide businesses the chance to apply for property tax reimbursements, although the details vary.

Eric Stafford, a lobbyist for the influential Kansas Chamber of Commerce, said during a hearing Thursday in the Assessment and Taxation committee that the state's emergency management law allows people to pursue claims for compensation in court if their property is "commandeered or otherwise used" by state or local officials. A lawsuit is pending [].

"The state could be on the hook for a significant amount of money if something isn't resolved," he said. "I think these is where these two bills come into play to start the discussion of figuring out what that path forward is not only to help the businesses that were suffering economic impact during the pandemic but also limiting the state's liability in a manner that helps control what the costs will be."

Scott Schneider, a lobbyist for restaurant owners, said restaurants have suffered tremendously during the pandemic, with monthly losses at the beginning of the pandemic in the hundreds of millions. He said many restaurants were forced to shut their doors.

"I think that the litigants took a step back asking the Legislature to find a solution and if the Legislature doesn't find a solution, then the state and the local governments are fully on notice that the next year that plaintiffs could seek redress through the courts," he said.

Sedgwick County officials, though, are raising alarms about the legislation, The Wichita Eagle reported [] this week.

One of the bills [] would create a "certificate of government use" for businesses that had to follow public health orders designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Those certificates would entitle the businesses to cash payments and/or tax breaks from state or local government if their business was restricted in any manner.

The bill would also pressure counties and cities to drop mask mandates at the end of April, or face having to pay businesses compensation as long as the requirements stay in effect.

Sedgwick County officials say the bill aims to "gut" the county's authority to deal with health crises and is designed to punish local governments for acting after the Republican-dominated Legislature stripped Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly of emergency powers and punted public health decisions to the county level.

"It's clear from from this legislation that they're blaming the entire pandemic and its effects on businesses on county shutdowns or government shutdowns or state shutdowns, and I just think it's unfair," County Counselor Mike Pepoon told county commissioners Tuesday.

The other bill [] also would provide aid to businesses that were subjected to public health orders designed to stem the spread of the outbreak. But lobbyists expressed concerns that it targets property owners, and many restaurants lease their space.