One bill emerges from special session

CHEYENNE — One bill dedicated to fighting the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate emerged Wednesday evening as the Wyoming Legislature ended a seven-day special session. 

House Bill 1002 was passed and signed by both chambers. It will be sent to Gov. Mark Gordon’s desk for his signature, and upon approval could go into effect as soon as Friday. 

The legislation appropriates $4 million to the governor’s office for future litigation related to the mandate, and features a resolution to set the stage for Wyoming’s legal standing and right to defy the mandate. At the heart of it, the bill says that unless the “public entity,” as defined in the bill, receives federal funding, it can’t require employees to comply with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate. 

This comes after the announcement Friday that Wyoming is part of a 10-state coalition suing to block the Biden administration’s mandate as it relates to federal contractors and federally contracted employees.

Many state government officials view the overall mandate, which also would apply to businesses with 100 or more employees and health care workers whose employers receive Medicare or Medicaid funding, as a federal overreach. 

However, no one has yet seen the OSHA rules governing the mandate, so the details are unclear at this point. 

“Thank you for your diligence in looking for ways that the state of Wyoming might counter improper federal intrusions into the affairs of our citizens, businesses and state,” Gordon said in a prepared statement read in each chamber as the session ended Wednesday night. “If anything, your work over the past several days has shown what so many in Congress seem to have forgotten: that there is more to litigating than simply sounding off.” 

But in order for the House and Senate to finalize the bill and adjourn for a last time during this special session, there had to be countless debates and divisions. 

Forty-one bills were brought forward for introduction, and two made it to the final hours of the session. 

House Bill 1002 was not a favorite, as expressed by many lawmakers, but it was a compromise far more welcome than House Bill 1001. 

Although the majority of the representatives and senators agreed the federal vaccine mandate was unwanted, many were unsure whether the state government could legally confront the mandate outright in legislation. 

Along with questioning the constitutionality of the action, some were concerned with the possible consequences for businesses across Wyoming. Federal funding would be put at risk, including Medicare and Medicaid for hospitals; federal contracts might not be upheld; and there were opportunities for employers to be pitted against their employees in lawsuits. 

These concerns were especially present in the final hours of debate in the Senate regarding HB 1001. 

“We are meddling and making a mess of the laws of this state, for the businesses and individuals,” said Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne. “I urge you to trust the process of all three branches of government, which are working, and let the courts do their jobs and determine the constitutionality of these actions.” 

The bill had undergone drastic changes after its recommendation Monday by the Senate Appropriations Committee, and became almost unrecognizable from its original form in the House. The legislation at its most extreme provided no relief to businesses or entities, and was only a few paragraphs stating no employer in the state of Wyoming could require the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Although those changes, offered by Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, on second reading, were reversed Wednesday morning, it seemed many were still unhappy with the language of the bill.

In its final form for third reading in the Senate, stipulations were also set for state and county health officers. They would have had to approve every waiver of mask mandates and vaccine requirements imposed on K-12 students, regardless of the reasons for seeking the exemption. 

When it came time for the final vote, HB 1001 was rejected twice – 15-13 and then 14-13 on reconsideration – leaving only HB 1002. The bill was seen as too extreme, and with too many unknown consequences. 

“The essence of this is fear,” said Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson. 

But the final piece of legislation was received well by the body and seen as the safest option, with no amendments on third reading and an approval vote of 20 to 6. 

According to its greatest supporters in the Senate, HB 1002 allowed the body to move forward with litigation and to support the governor’s office, but kept businesses out of the line of fire. 

The House received it by mid-afternoon Wednesday for concurrence and did not seem to agree with its new intention. 

Not only would the bill, except the portion allocating funds, not go into effect until after litigation was finalized, it would define public entities differently. It was voted down 47 to 11 in the House and sent to a Joint Conference Committee comprised of three senators and three representatives. Throughout the afternoon, and well into the evening, discussions regarding language and the $10 million allocation continued. 

But compromise was possible in that committee, with $4 million agreed upon and a better refinement of the written resolution. 

HB 1002 was passed with the final changes 40 to 17 in the House, and 20 to 7 in the Senate. As only the second Legislature-called special session in state history ended, lawmakers were told to clear out their desks and prepare to continue the work required to get ready for the budget session, which begins Feb. 14.