Legislature advances 10 bills to start Wyoming special session

CHEYENNE — The special session called to push back against the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate was supported Tuesday morning by both chambers of the Wyoming Legislature, which together advanced 10 bills for committee review.

Neither the House nor the Senate voted to approve special session rules, however, which would have allowed identical bills to be introduced in both bodies as a time-saving measure during a planned three-day session. 

The House voted 20 to 37 against these rules, as did the Senate by a vote of 11 to 18. Representatives from both bodies shared concerns the special session rules might encourage a rushed process, with little opportunity for debate or public input. This led to the approval and application of rules from the general session earlier this year, with minor rule amendments considered by the House and Senate.

That means the special session could last up to 20 days, although some speculated 10 days was more realistic. 

“If it’s important enough for us to assemble here,” said Senate Minority Floor Leader Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, “it’s important enough for us to do it right.” 

Still, neither body voted to adjourn immediately, which would have required a majority vote of present members. The House voted 21 to 35 against, and the Senate voted 6 to 23. 

Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, was among those who urged his fellow representatives to vote for the special session rules and against adjournment. He called this “a critical moment in the history of our republic,” with the possibility of hundreds or thousands of people in the state losing their jobs as a result of the mandate. 

Others argued for immediate adjournment, including Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson. 

He said places like his district, which depend on tourism, would suffer if the state were to tell businesses it could not require COVID-19 vaccinations or other safety measures. 

Because state statute does not overrule federal law, it’s unclear what effect any of the bills passed during the special session would have. 

The Biden administration also has yet to present final details of the mandate, meaning legislators do not yet have a full understanding of the edict. 

House Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, introduced just six of the 20 bills received in the House of Representatives, after he announced his intention to introduce only bills specific to the mandate. 

Barlow said he believed these six bills cover the key themes legislators want to address during the special session. If the body had disagreed, it could have overruled him, he said. 

Barlow assigned House Bill 1002, which attempts to prohibit the enforcement of a federal vaccine mandate and authorizes legal action to fight the mandate, to the Judiciary Committee. The Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee received HB 1001, 1005 and 1009. 

HB 1001 would bar companies in Wyoming from requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, except under some circumstances. Among other provisions, the bill would also establish medical and religious exemptions, or an exemption based on an antibody test; require an employer to provide reasonable accommodations to an unvaccinated employee, such as frequent testing or reassignment; and provide severance pay for those who leave or are fired for being unvaccinated. 

HB 1005 would also require an employer to allow for medical and religious exemptions, making the employer liable for a minimum of $5,000 in damages if they do not grant an exemption and fire the employee. 

HB 1009 combines elements of both 1001 and 1005. 

The Labor, Health and Social Services Committee received HB 1006 and 1013. HB 1006 would require health care facilities, governmental entities and essential service providers to make reasonable accommodations to people unable or unwilling to prove their vaccination status. 

It also would create a personal exemption for any vaccine required of a school-aged child and says that requiring a vaccine as a condition of employment is discriminatory or unfair. 

HB 1013 would allow those who voluntarily leave their job because their employer does not comply with the federal vaccine mandate to receive unemployment benefits. 

House committees met Tuesday, beginning at 2:30 p.m., to discuss these bills. 

As part of a House-specific rule for the session approved 49-8, all bills requiring considerations for appropriations were assigned to the House Appropriations Committee, along with another committee. 

House Bills 1001, 1002 and 1009 were discussed during Tuesday’s Appropriations meeting, with all three recommended to pass. 

The Senate diverged from the House in its introductions of bills to the floor, as well as its recommendations for further discussion in committees. 

While 11 bills were received in the Senate for introduction, another five failed to make it past the floor and four were recommended to the appropriate committees. 

Senate File 1010 was one of the first to be voted down on the floor of the Senate. 

It was the Grace Smith Medical Freedom Act, which would have demanded state and county health officers grant waivers for immunization requirements and mask mandates imposed on K-12 students. 

The bill was dedicated to Grace Smith by Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, and Rep. Ocean Andrew, R-Laramie. Smith was recently arrested and removed from school property after refusing to adhere to the mask mandate at Laramie High School. 

“I apologize to Ms. Smith, and I apologize to my House sponsor down the hall, but I didn’t do a good enough job of representing the bill,” Biteman said. 

Other bills brought forward and not approved by the majority included Senate Files 1007, 1011, 1012 and 1020. 

Representatives who voted no voiced their apprehension due to fear of repeating prior passed legislation and possible state overreach. 

One of the bills considered the highest redundancy by the Senate was SF 1012. It would have set parameters for physicians and pharmacists to go unpunished by the board when prescribing medication. 

Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, who sponsored the bill with Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, said it was to support medical doctors seeking alternative treatments for COVID-19. 

After considerable debate, only four bills were introduced and approved by the body and assigned to Senate committees, which met Tuesday afternoon. 

The Senate Appropriations Committee received SF 1003, which addressed discrimination toward unvaccinated individuals in health care, education and other sectors of public life. It provided criminal penalties and authorized civil remedies regarding these issues. 

Similar discussions were had in the Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee in reference to SF 1004. 

The bill would have prohibited any employer in the state from requiring the COVID-19 vaccination, and a refusal of employment based on vaccination status would have had legal ramifications. Penalties for any person in violation ranged from a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for not more than six months, a fine of $750, or both, to action in court and the recovery of damages not less $500,000. 

“This is potentially an unbelievable lawsuit driver,” said Majority Floor Leader Senator Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower. 

The committee also received the only bill not related to topics brought on by the pandemic. SF 1019 related to a Wyoming gaming commission-scrivener error correction. 

The final bill the Senate approved for introduction and discussion within a committee was SF 1009, which was received by the Labor, Health and Social Services Committee. The bill shared similar characteristics to both SF 1003 and SF 1004, with concentrations on vaccination requirements. 

Although these were the only four pieces of legislation brought to Senate committees Tuesday, the other 11 bills received for introduction may have an opportunity to move forward. This will be at the discretion of Wyoming Senate leadership. 

The House has the same opportunity to send bills received for introduction but not yet appointed to committees. Both bodies were scheduled to reconvene at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.