Anti-vaccine mandate bills get first Senate OK

CHEYENNE — As the Wyoming Legislature’s special session resumed Monday, lawmakers focused on revising the two remaining bills designed to push back on vaccine mandates. But regardless of where they sat on the issue, many lawmakers seemed frustrated with the legislative product.

House Bill 1001 enacts rules for certain Wyoming businesses that may choose to require COVID-19 vaccinations for their workers. House Bill 1002 declares that all public entities will not enforce federal mandates.

But the fast-paced session had some questioning whether there was adequate time to address complicated issues.

“This really is not a bill that should be done in a special session in just a few days,” Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, said of House Bill 1002.

Both bills began the day making it out of the Senate Appropriations Committee. By the close of Monday’s session, they’d also survived first reading in the full Senate.

While HB 1002 keeps public entities from enforcing federal COVID mandates, it contains a number of caveats.

“If it wasn’t so darn complicated, that’s all we’d have to do in the bill,” said chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper. “But how do we not put everyone in the crosshairs of the federal government?” Perkins asked. “That’s the rest of the bill.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee tried to make HB 1002 clearer by fixing language and enacting a couple more substantive policy changes.

The committee deleted text about vaccine passports from the bill as a whole. Lawmakers also added an amendment that allocates $10 million, up from $250,000, for Gov. Mark Gordon to litigate against vaccine mandates. Both Perkins and the governor’s office confirmed that they did not discuss the raise, but the committee felt it was necessary to enact a higher amount if the litigation warrants it.

Last week, the House Appropriations Committee had lowered the allocation from $1 million to $250,000 after a discussion with the governor’s office.

If the litigation money is not used, it will be rerouted back. The governor can’t use it for other purposes.

All members of the Senate Appropriations Committee voted for House Bill 1002. Meanwhile, Sens. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, and Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs voted in favor of HB 1001, while Perkins and Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, voted against it.

House Bill 1001 establishes rules for a select group of Wyoming employers if they choose to require COVID-19 vaccination of their workers. The measure underwent some amendments during committee, which mostly narrowed the focus so that “an employer can live with this bill and live with the federal mandate,” Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said.

Lawmakers did that, Case explained, by invoking some existing federal law in portions of the bill where employers may have gotten caught between federal and state law.

Now, unlike before, House Bill 1001 is far less likely to conflict with the state’s provisions, which was the major concern before Monday.

“This is the biggest and most complicated bill,” Perkins said.

As Monday’s session began, lawmakers entered the Senate still pointing out that the two remaining bills were not perfect, a sentiment that members of the House also continually pointed out.

“There’s no perfect solution to the problem in which we find ourselves, and the state finds itself and the citizens of the states find themselves,” Perkins said.

Monday brought a notable amount of public input — Perkins estimated that between 40 and 50 people testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee. Of those speakers, a majority of those who were in favor of the bills were vehemently anti-vaccine. Some shared misinformation with the committee.

Meanwhile, Cindy DeLancy, president of the Wyoming Business Alliance, argued that both of the bills are “anti-business” and put an “undue burden on businesses.”

“I think this is chaos and confusion with severe consequences for employers,” DeLancey said when testifying on House Bill 1002.

“It pits employees versus employers and invites litigation,” she said. “It’s just not something the business community can support.”

Lawmakers did seek to address some business concerns. One clause in the legislation says the state will back up companies that do not have the means to fight the mandates themselves.

“Go ahead and defy the federal government, and we’re right behind you if a fight breaks out. Is that adequate?” questioned Bill Landen, R-Casper.

Even with the changes, some lawmakers were concerned about how the legislation might affect private business.

“I don’t see us pushing against the feds, I just see us pushing down on Wyoming businesses,” said Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie.