The Wyoming Senate is set for a Donnybrook on Wednesday morning over two special-session bills that seek to fight expected federal COVID-19 test-and/or-vaccinate requirements.
A principal point of contention is whether Wyoming should pass a state law that bars employers from imposing vaccine rules called for by President Joe Biden. Many fear that such a measure would force businesses to choose between breaking either state or federal law.
Business leaders and others testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday were nearly unanimous in asking lawmakers not to pit their operations between conflicting state and federal jurisdictions. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle used Old West imagery, describing the potential outcome as a showdown, standoff or shootout between the state and federal governments, with Wyoming enterprises caught in the crossfire.
Critics said that, as written, the measure would jeopardize hospitals’ and other health-care businesses’ Medicare and Medicaid funding, potentially bankrupting the state’s medical system. Any other company or individual that does business with the federal government would also be in jeopardy if they chose to follow a new Wyoming law prohibiting enforcement of federal requirements and standards, they said.
“A conflict between laws could put our air service at risk,” said Mary Kate Buckley, president of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, which seeks to employ a total of 2,000 workers this upcoming season. “Following the law is very important to me as a leader.”
In response, committee members approved a raft of amendments to House Bill 1 — COVID-19 vaccine employer mandates (officially designated 1001) intended to avoid such conflicts — many of the changes dealing with the timing and nature of enforcement.
Then the measure proceeded to the Senate floor for consideration by the full body where, Monday and Tuesday, members spent hours bandying heavily debated amendments back and forth. At one point Sen. Drew Perkins (R-Casper), chairman of the Appropriations Committee acknowledged that the amended bill might be seen as “a gummer” — a reference to its teeth having been pulled.
But a successful, sweeping 11th hour amendment brought by Sen. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne) passed 16-10 Tuesday afternoon struck paragraph after paragraph of the already tortured HB-1, settling on a couple of key phrases. For one, the bill would now prohibit employers from enforcing a federal vaccine requirement provided that testing was available instead.
That’s what President Biden ordered OSHA to adopt for employers with 100 or more workers. But Biden’s plan also places a strong requirement for most health care workers operating with Medicare and Medicaid funding to be outright vaccinated.
Federal contractors and others who do business with the government also face that vaccine requirement. All of which keeps alive the specter of conflicts with the FAA and numerous other federal agencies.
Perkins warned his colleagues about the risks of gambling with federal revenue. “We may not have a state left if we don’t go about it in a more temperate way,” he said.
Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) told colleagues that any measure the Legislature comes up with in a special session could be half baked. In addition to HB-1, the Senate will consider House Bill 2 – Federal COVID vaccine mandates-prohibition and remedies-2.
Kinskey, who is also a member of the Appropriations Committee, said he was hearing 1,000 whispering voices expressing doubt. “This is not a bill that should be done in a special session in just a few days,” he said of HB-1.
Numerous business representatives had told the committee they did not want to be pinched between opposing state and federal laws. Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) said a confrontational approach would hurt not just businesses, but the people who work in them.
He supported a version of the bill that “did no harm,” he said. But other senators wanted a fight, promoting personal choice over requirements. Hutchings’ amendment would allow the Wyoming law to go into effect regardless of court challenges.
“We need to make a decision whether we’re going to prostrate ourselves here before the federal government and just say ‘you can do whatever you want, we won’t do anything as a Wyoming Legislature,’” Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) said. Any action the federal government would take to cut off funding is speculative, he added.
Hutchings suggested that Wyoming should call federal regulators’ bluff.
Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) said a $10 million allocation for lawsuits in the bill would help the state and businesses.
“We are fully arming ourselves and our businesses to go into this fight with the federal government,” he said. “And yeah, there’s going to be collateral damage either way.
“If we go and we tip the scales in favor of businesses and against the employees, there’s collateral damage there. If we tip the scales the other way there’s collateral damage.”
Both measures will be debated by the Senate a third and final time Wednesday.