Senate agrees to review one COVID bill
CHEYENNE — Day 2 of the Legislature's special session was a short one for members of the Wyoming Senate, who passed two bills Wednesday morning before adjourning.
Twenty bills were originally introduced in the Senate, with six advancing to first reading following Tuesday's approval of the special session continuing. Many were designed to oppose the Biden administration’s recent vaccine mandate, and to address pandemic-driven disputes often seen this year in local school board and city council meetings.
“I’m trying to put us all back on an equal playing field,” said state Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, “to where we’re not discriminating and dividing against one another.”
Her bill was one of the two pieces of legislation to survive past introduction, and is meant to support individuals facing unemployment and unequal opportunities due to vaccination status. Nearly a third of the Senate co-sponsored the bill, alongside 11 House members.
Correcting an error in gambling bill
But the COVID-19 discriminatory practices-prohibition bill was not the first piece of legislation up for discussion on the second day of the special session. Instead, a bill relating in no way to the pandemic or vaccine mandates made its way onto the Senate floor, which some considered a misuse of time.
“I heard people say yesterday that we came down here and we didn’t even need to be here, that we could have waited until (the regular) session,” said Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne. “Now we’re down here doing bills we should be doing in the session.”
Although some representatives agreed, others said the legislation related to the state's gambling statues was necessary.
“My understanding is that the magnitude of the possible trouble that will be caused if this bill and this error is not corrected, is such that we might have had to have a special session anyhow,” said Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper.
Scott was a part of the Corporations, Elections and Political Divisions Committee, which received Senate File 1019 for introduction Tuesday afternoon. He and his colleagues unanimously passed and forwarded the bill for first reading after hearing testimony from sponsor Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne.
The proposed legislation addresses an error made not only by the Wyoming Legislature, but Attorney General Bridget Hill and Gov. Mark Gordon.
When House Bill 171 was passed last March, it allowed for skill-based games in the state and regulated multiple sectors of Wyoming’s Gaming Commission. There was a limit set to one year for the allowance of skill-based games, which was repealed in 2021 by a new law.
Due to scrivener’s error (an unintentional error made in the drafting of the bill), the law repealed the limit and, in the process, the entire original House Bill 171. This would be mended by the passage of Senate File 1019.
“There’s no fun in admitting that you made a mistake, but we need to own it,” said Ellis. “We need to fix it and make it right.”
She said by bringing it forward in the special session, time and taxpayer dollars would be used more efficiently. It was subsequently supported by the majority of the Senate.
Preventing vaccine-based discrimination
Although this was the first of the bills to be debated, it was not the one most discussed. Nearly two hours were spent in the Senate on the only other piece of legislation passed, and got to the heart of the reason for the special session.
It was received by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday and passed unanimously, but with controversial issues to address, according to some senators.
Senate File 1003 prohibits discrimination based on COVID-19 vaccination status, as related to health insurance and access to benefits, services or education opportunities. It also does not allow individuals to inquire about a person’s vaccination status, whether that be for employment or the partaking of public goods.
Some have seen the vaccination inquiries and requirements as not only an invasion of privacy, but a form of discrimination that goes against civil rights laws.
Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, even went so far as to compare it to the discrimination people of color have experienced historically in the United States.
“I’m hearing members who are perfectly OK with that,” said Biteman. “They think it’s funny to have a vax bar versus an un-vaxxed bar. It’s not funny to have a black-only bar and a white-only bar.”
He said the country had moved beyond those days, but it may be going back toward divisive methods. His example was treating people a certain way based on their choices, such as being vaccinated or not.
Biteman and many of his colleagues wanted a consequence for such treatment in the bill.
Any person or public accommodation, such as a business or hotel, that violates these actions could be guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months of imprisonment, a fine not to exceed $750, or both. It would also let those who felt discriminated against file a civil case against the violator for compensatory damages and equitable relief.
With such punitive measures, the bill brings into question many sectors of public life. The first is an individual’s right to free speech in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Some senators argued there were certain situations in which it was important to ask about vaccination status, especially in the health care industry. And others said even if it was inappropriate, an individual had a right to simply not answer.
“On page 62, it says it’s a crime to ask a person or to inquire [about their vaccination status], and that clearly is a violation,” said Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan.
Freedom of speech would not be the only issue in the future, if the bill were to pass. Health care providers, airports, businesses and many others contribute to Wyoming's economy. Federal funds given to these and other entities could be put at risk for those who couldn’t certify the number of vaccinated employees, especially hospitals who have a requirement to meet for Medicare, Medicaid and other government programs.
And there is the possibility of OSHA penalties for industries, which might drive companies out of the state.
“That’s good news for our attorneys,” said Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, “but I don’t know if that’s good news for our state.”
Nonetheless, the bill was approved for a second reading. Many senators said without the special session rules, there is enough time to amend the bill and work toward a balanced piece of legislation.