After an abbreviated legislative session last year due to Covid-19, Arizona lawmakers stepped into the 2021 session this week under pressure to enact policies to steer the state to full economic recovery in the coming months.
Covid relief will be the first order of business, said the incoming chair of the House Commerce Committee, Rep. Jeff Weninger (R-Chandler).
“Covid is number one and that’s twofold: rolling out the vaccine and taking care of people, and making sure businesses can survive and thrive and they’re not damaged and go out of business for something that was completely out of their control,” he said.
Getting the word out about existing and new federal relief programs to help companies and individuals affected by the pandemic is also a top priority, Weninger said.
Third term as Commerce Committee chair
Weninger, a small business owner who operates restaurants across metro Phoenix, is serving his third consecutive term as the chair of the Commerce Committee, which oversees regulatory activities that impact industries.
During his tenure, Weninger has sponsored and co-sponsored numerous business-related bills. Among them, bills to create tax credits to spur affordable housing, expand telemedicine coverage, attract high-tech industry, and institute crowd-funding legislation to give small companies greater access to capital.
Weninger spoke to Chamber Business News about what he foresees as top priorities for the 2021 session.
Adopt business-friendly policies to attract industry, jobs
In addition to COVID relief, maintaining Arizona’s reputation as a “tax friendly and regulatory friendly” state will be a high priority to continue to attract a diversity of industry and high paying jobs, Weninger said.
“That is why we have been so successful for the past six years. We’ve had a renaissance of businesses moving here and expanding here and growing here and that is why our budget is in the incredible shape it is in today,” he said, referring to the state’s $1 billion rainy day fund.
Lessen negative impact from Prop. 208 tax hike
The passage of Proposition 208 moved Arizona up to one of the highest income tax states for certain earners and small business owners, Weninger said.
The intent was to provide new funding for education. But tens of thousands of small businesses that file their taxes under the individual tax code could be affected as well. That threatens to severely hamper the state’s ability to retain and attract investment, he said.
Lawmakers are brainstorming solutions to mitigate some of the impacts, particularly for small companies with 500 or fewer employees. Expect to see some tax reforms to help.
“The voters voted it in, so how do we keep our budget in a safe place and make us attractive for this mass exodus from California and other states,” Weninger said. “We want to make sure we have policies in place that won’t have them just driving right by Arizona on their way to Texas.
“We’ve done a great job for a while making sure that doesn’t happen, but we need to find a way to make sure that doesn’t happen with Prop. 208.”
Protection from frivolous lawsuits, regulatory reform, telemedicine
Others goals this session will be to enact legislation to protect responsible companies and organizations from frivolous COVID-19 lawsuits, promote expansion of virtual and digital services like telemedicine, and implement regulatory reforms to reduce costs on companies and individuals.
Expect bills to close student achievement gaps, fund workforce initiatives, and improve water and transportation infrastructure, he said.
Alcohol-to-go compromise to push up restaurant, bar profits
As a restaurant owner who had to adapt to survive the pandemic disruptions, Weninger is seeking solutions to aid the struggling bar and restaurant industry as well. One proposal is to expand alcohol-to-go for a variety of establishments.
“We’re talking about a compromise, a new right for restaurants, bars, grocery stores that don’t have the option right now,” he said. “The bars have been hit very, very hard and they were actually completely shut down for a while, so we don’t want to take a privilege outright that they have had already — and their licenses cost a lot more.”
Federal relief programs for individuals, businesses
For individuals and businesses financially struggling because of Covid-19, Weninger is strongly encouraging them to apply for existing and new federal relief programs including the Paycheck Protection Program and Employee Retention Tax Credit.
For more information about these and other programs, go to: CARES Act relief programs.