An ambitious special legislative session that proposed 21 bills resisting expected federal test and vaccination rules ended Wednesday with a lone measure that was amended to minimize conflict with federal law.
Lawmakers considered 25 amendments and adopted 13 before passing House Bill 1002 – Federal COVID vaccine mandates-prohibition and remedies-2 late Wednesday evening. The measure seeks to protect individual rights by prohibiting “the enforcement of federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates,” by any public entity.
The 10-page bill, which heads to Gov. Mark Gordon for his signature or veto, says no public entity shall enforce any federal mandate requiring “that an employee shall receive a COVID-19 vaccination.” The measure, however, includes a carve-out for entities that could lose federal funding by following the Wyoming law instead of complying with federal standards.
That carve-out — accomplished by re-defining “public entity” in the bill — appears to protect hospitals and other medical institutions whose Medicare and Medicaid funding would be at risk should they not require vaccinations.
Other public entities — essentially state and local governments — can’t require a vaccination, the measure says. But that vaccine-mandate prohibition won’t be enforced if a federal vaccine requirement is in place, the bill says.
Should legal challenges lead a court to temporarily or permanently block any federal law, rule, standard, order or regulation, Wyoming’s prohibition on newly defined public entity vaccine requirements would kick back in.
The bill also appropriates $4 million to the governor for legal action, including joining suits brought by Wyoming citizens and businesses fighting federal regulations.
The session showed that “the majority of Wyoming residents [believe] that the decision to receive a COVID-19 vaccine is a personal choice,” Speaker of the House Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) and Senate President Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) said in a statement Thursday.
Gov. Gordon thanked lawmakers but stopped sort of congratulating them at the conclusion of the special session. “Your comprehensive debate shed light on the complicated issue of states’ rights and highlighted some particular challenges we face when addressing policies around this pandemic,” he said in a 170-word statement read into the Senate record.
Hours after Wednesday’s final legislative action, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released its standards for employers with 100 or more workers. The standards direct those who won’t be vaccinated to submit to weekly tests and wear a mask.
Gordon announced a lawsuit Thursday as the statewide COVID-19-related death count reached 1,243.
“The Attorney General has a strong legal strategy she developed with a coalition of other Attorneys General,” he said in a statement.
‘Affront’ to state sovereignty
Five pages of the HB-1002 cover findings that lay out Wyoming’s constitutional arguments against the proposed federal requirements. “The directive issued by the federal executive branch and the forthcoming rules by federal agencies regarding COVID-19 vaccination mandates cannot be a more direct affront to state sovereignty,” one passage reads.
Another page is dedicated to a resolution. “Any federal COVID-19 vaccination requirement or mandate [i]s an infringement on the rights of the citizens of Wyoming to make their own healthcare decisions without governmental coercion, intrusion or dictate,” one passage reads.
The meat of the bill amounts to 34 words: “No public entity shall enforce any mandate or standard of the federal government, whether emergency, temporary or permanent, that requires an employer to ensure or mandate that an employee shall receive a COVID-19 vaccination.”
Lawmakers arrived at that conclusion after voting for a special session in late October, rejecting fast-track rules and proposing 21 bills. They considered three of those in-depth over seven days.
The successful HB-1002 was subject to much political negotiating.
Legislators considered 24 amendments and adopted 12, not counting changes made in a House-Senate conference committee, before finally approving it. The closest votes came on third reading in the Senate and when the House voted for the House-Senate conference committee version. In both instances the bill earned support from about 66% of the elected members of each body where a simple majority was required.
Along the way, the Senate failed twice to pass House Bill 1001 – COVID-19 vaccine employer mandates, mustering only 15 of the required 16 votes on the first ballot and only 14 “ayes” on a second, reconsideration vote. As originally proposed, HB-1001 would have prohibited businesses from requiring workers be vaccinated, among other things.
Contentious debate saw the measure tortured with 55 amendments before it met its ignominious end.
The third measure considered in depth, Senate File 1003 – COVID-19 discriminatory practices-prohibition, sought to prevent insurance companies; entities providing benefits, services and education; and places of “public accommodation” from barring the unvaccinated or treating them differently. Only 13 senators voted for it, three shy of the tally required for passage.
Lawmakers and citizens brought passion to the Capitol during the session, many wading deep into theories of Constitutional law, the separation of powers, scientific method, business practices and personal liberties. Some of the sharpest contrasts came during testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee as it considered the ill-fated HB-1001.
“My fear is the impact of this bill is going to be to create chaos,” said Jeffrey Chapman, chief medical officer at the Cheyenne Regional Medical Center. While the Supreme Court requires a “sincerely held religious belief” for an exemption, the House version of the bill would have granted an exemption to anybody who asked for one.
“I think there needs to be something in the bill that says that employers have the ability to create some type of a process on what constitutes a religious exemption,” he said.
Joanna Vilos, chief legal and human resources officer at CRMC, said those standards exist. Adopting them “would be very helpful … so that employers aren’t confused about how to grant those religious exemptions.”
Jasper James Chen, president of the Wyoming Medical Society and a psychiatrist at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, focused on contemplated medical exemptions to any vaccine requirement.
“The complexity and the difficulty of this — the enforcement — just sets us up, for lack of a better term, chaos,” he said. “I don’t know how you’re going to implement all of the pieces of the bill as they stand in balancing individual rights versus employers’ rights.”
Any conflicts between Wyoming and federal laws — such as those proposed in the bill — would create problems, Scott W. Meier, president and CEO of Wyoming Bankers Association, told the committee. “We’re not in support of anything that puts additional burdens on our small businesses and including our banks,” he said.
Seventy-nine percent of employees at CRMC are voluntarily vaccinated, the center’s President and CEO Tim Thornell told the committee. He advocated against a prohibition against vaccine requirements.
“We have concerns today, and growing concerns over time, that employees who are vaccinated will not want to work in an environment where it is not required of all their peers,” he said. “We will absolutely be at risk of losing employees if we don’t have the option to have the vaccine requirement at some point in the future.”
Vaccine opponents laid out their worries.
Holly Brock, who said she represented 850 people with the Wyoming Medical Freedom Advocates group, described what she said were deleterious effects of COVID-19 vaccines among a “large group of women” aged 25-35.
“I have a couple of my dear friends who are experiencing high levels of abnormal bleeding,” she said. “I also have two friends with infants who are in vegetative states and unable to move their arms and legs, one of whom — their infant was flown to Lansing, which is the center that takes care of these, and they say within the last month they had 16 cases of this.”
Brock also referenced a privately funded study from a scientist friend in her group, she said, “who says they are finding an 82% pregnancy loss amongst vaccinated women in my age demographic.”
None of Brock’s claims, or those of any other witness, were verified by WyoFile or the committee.
She also attacked standards to justify a religious exemption. “We have very conservative cities with mosques being built in the centers because we stand for religious freedom in this country,” she said. “So how is it that they’re having to prove on the cross their religious convictions and sincere beliefs [in] a religious exemption?”