Prospects dim for bill to streamline food truck licensing, say legislators, advocate

A bill that would streamline food truck licensing could be tabled this session unless lawmakers act quickly.

A bill that would change the way food trucks are licensed in Maryland is likely to be tabled until the next General Assembly session, according to legislators and the bill's chief advocate.

The proposal would allow food trucks to be licensed in one county and operate in all of them, instead of obtaining separate licenses and inspections for each jurisdiction, a measure that could save food truck operators thousands of dollars annually. Dave Pulford, a major proponent of the bill and president of the Maryland Mobile Food Vendors Association, said he felt his organization had strong momentum going into committee hearings.

Now, he's not optimistic the bill will pass this session because of pushback it has received from the Restaurant Association of Maryland and health inspectors. The bill hasn't made it out of committee yet in either the House of Delegates or the Senate.

"I really want to get to the point where we start negotiating through this,” Pulford, who owns the Upslidedown Dave food truck, said. "We’ll negotiate just about anything to get some relief from this.”

Sen. John Astle, vice-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, proposed holding a summer work session to tune the bill's fine points. But he doesn't expect the committee to take any action on it before the end of the session.

"We had a work group here, and the various entities are so far apart that with my experience here I didn’t see us getting enough consensus that we could get a bill that we could get out this year,” Astle said. "We’re up to our eyeballs right now.”

Pulford said a summer work group isn't a viable option for him and other food truck owners, who do most of their business during the warm months.  

Del. Warren Miller, who wrote the bill, said he was pleased with the progress subcommittees in the House made on the bill and felt optimistic it would make it through the House. But it needs support on both sides of the legislature and because it's hung up in the Senate, it's unlikely it will pass this session.

"We’re kind of in a holding pattern,” Miller said. "I just don’t understand the obstacles the health departments are putting in front of these guys."

The proposal has received opposition from the Restaurant Association of Maryland, which says it wants a level playing field with foods trucks, and from health inspectors statewide who worry food trucks will not adhere to health codes that are stricter in some counties than others. 

It's a concern Pulford said he understands. He and other operators have emphasized they're not trying to skirt strict regulations; rather, they're interested in maintaining high health and safety standards.

"If somebody’s not a good operator, I want them off,” Pulford said. "We want healthful food delivered to our customers because our reputation's really critical.”

Some of the confusion around the bill has stemmed from the definition of a food truck, which Pulford said doesn't clearly distinguish his line of work from hot dog carts on the street, for example. 

If the bill is tabled until 2017, Pulford said defining a food truck and specific rules for food trucks is something his organization would like to address next year, as well. 

"We’re trying to separate from the mobile-vendor thought process because we’re different,” Pulford said. "We are literally a mobile kitchen. ... I want to be treated like a caterer.”

For now, he isn't optimistic the bill will pass because other bills are more pressing. If stakeholders in the bill are able to convene during the summer to hash out the details, there's a chance it could be introduced as an emergency bill next year so that the new regulations would take effect when the bill is signed, rather than in October. 

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