UPDATE Oct 22 — The 20 bills filed for the special session are available for review at the Legislature’s website.

Wyoming lawmakers are deeply divided along party lines over the need for, and structure of, a forthcoming special legislative session called to fight proposed federal COVID-19 vaccination and/or testing rules.

Democrats have labeled the Oct. 26 to Oct. 28 convening a waste of time and money that could force Wyoming businesses to choose between violating either a federal or state law.

The special session will be “an undue burden to the taxpayer [and] a waste of time and resources for legislators and our staff,” minority leaders Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) and Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) wrote their Republican counterparts earlier this month.

The session will weigh on Wyoming businesses “who would be forced to choose between following state OR federal law, requiring them to be in violation of one or the other,” the letter reads.

Senate President Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) disagreed, saying that the legislature was being duly responsive to public demand. “We just started to hear more overall concern with [COVID-19 vaccine] mandates,” he said.

“When people are showing an interest [in a special session] we have an obligation to reach out,” he said of his decision to poll lawmakers and launch the session.

Thirty-five House members and 17 senators voted to hold the special session, enough to attain majority approval in the 60-seat lower and 30-seat upper chambers. All nine Democrats either boycotted the poll or voted against the session.

Meantime, the House and Senate Rules & Procedure Committee will debate four pages of special session rules Thursday, according to Dockstader and Speaker of the House  Eric Barlow (R-Gillette). The two committees will discuss — but not vote on — expedited procedures for the three-day session. The committee meeting will be broadcast via livestream available on the Legislature’s website.

Among other things, the proposed rules would give majority floor leaders the authority to propose bills for consideration, call for mirror bills to advance in the House and Senate simultaneously, limit committee discussion and legislators’ speaking time and otherwise condense the process of enacting legislation.

Convened to address what Dockstader and Barlow called  “a critical situation … relating to COVID-19 vaccine mandates,” the special session seeks to counter pending temporary federal emergency standards expected to be enacted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 Action Plan calls for that agency to enact standards to require all employers with 100 or more workers to have employees produce a weekly negative test result or get vaccinated.

Biden’s plan also calls for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to require the vaccination of workers in most healthcare settings that receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement. 

The Wyoming Department of Health lists 1,136 COVID-19-related deaths to date, and reports 39.1% of Wyoming’s population has been vaccinated. The New York Times puts Wyoming’s vaccination rate higher and just ahead of Idaho’s and last-place West Virginia’s.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 67% of Wyoming adults have had at least one shot and that residents have the most vaccine hesitancy of any state. Fully 25.3% of Wyoming adults are reluctant to get the jab, compared to a nationwide rate of 10.9%; 58.1% of those Wyomingites list mistrust of the government as a reason.

Will two-thirds agree to rules?

The special session will address federal regulations that have yet to be enacted. OSHA has submitted its proposed rules to the White House, according to Bloomberg Law, but has not yet adopted them.

Wyoming Democrats will vote against the special session rules, the party’s leaders’ letter to Dockstader and Barlow states. Current legislative rules require the new special session procedures to be adopted by a two-thirds majority, their letter says.

House Majority Floor Leader Eric Barlow (R-Gillette), left, and Senate Majority Leader Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) wait to speak with reporters on the opening day of the 2018 Legislative session. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

That suggests that the vote margins that enabled the special session — 35 of 60 in the House and 17 of 30 in the Senate, would not be sufficient to adopt a new process of expedited lawmaking.

The proposed special session rules “would rush the legislative process” and limit “the ability to work through considerations from each chamber,” the minority leaders’ letter reads. Proposed session rules would limit debate and public opportunity “to provide meaningful commentary in both chambers.

“If a bill is important, it deserves consideration through a full legislative process, including committee hearings, public participation and three separate readings by both the House and Senate,” the Democrats’ letter states.

In addition, the Democratic Caucus “firmly believes that a special session is not necessary, that the proposed rules would violate the spirit of our deliberative public legislative process and that passage of these votes would only serve to create an opportunity for grandstanding instead of constructive problem solving,” according to the letter. 

Democrats also noted the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution “that indicates that federal laws override state directives.” The session would cost an estimated $25,000 a day, they wrote.

Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson) was blunter, calling the GOP-led special session “a circular firing squad.”

The nonpartisan Equality State Policy Center called for transparency and public participation. “A special session does not permit for the normal process of planning and participation and lawmakers must take this into account,” Executive Director Jenn Lowe said in a statement.

Republicans see it differently. Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper) has proposed bills to fine a business $500,000 for firing or otherwise basing employment decisions on a worker’s vaccine status, according to reporting by the Casper Star-Tribune.

Rep. Tom James (R-Rock Springs) wants a law to prevent any Wyoming public servant from enforcing any federal COVID-19 requirement for vaccination or application of nasal spray, pill or tablet, according to his Facebook page. Violators would be subject to misdemeanor charges and barred from government work and retirement benefits under his proposal.

James would prosecute federal officials, too, subjecting them to state misdemeanor charges, a year’s imprisonment and a fine if they attempt to enforce a preventative treatment, according to his Facebook page.

Republican legislative leaders Dockstader and Barlow wrote in a press release that they understand Gov. Mark Gordon continues to work on the issue and that they “support any resolution to the issues surrounding COVID-19 vaccine mandates, which ultimately benefit the people of Wyoming, however those resolutions can be achieved.”

Gordon on Wednesday called Biden’s test-or-vaccinate policy “a mandate that employers require that their employees get a COVID-19 vaccine.” In an op-ed he called the president’s bid to require vaccination of health-care workers supported by Medicare or Medicaid a “hair-brained” idea. 

“This federal overreach is plainly unacceptable,” Gordon wrote.

Wyoming Attorney General Bridget Hill, along with 23 other attorneys general, signed a letter to President Biden in September calling his plan “disastrous and counterproductive.” They went further.

“Your edict is also illegal,” they wrote.

COVID-19 has killed 729,434 in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University & Health.Emergency temporary standards applied by OSHA are only valid for six months, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. It quoted one employment attorney who suggested that businesses start encouraging workers to get vaccinated to make compliance easier once the federal rule goes into effect.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. As a healthcare worker I am in full agreement with vaccine mandates for those who receive federal dollars. As a nurse I am charged to protect my patients and to ‘do no harm.’ If I refuse to comply- go somewhere else to work, simple as that. Yes we have choices-make use of it and move on. Tired of the whining about this .
    It is irresponsible for our governor to play politics just to pander to hard core republicans .

  2. One would certainly hope that the Legislators sponsoring these bills understand the interaction of state and federal OSHA. If state standards do not meet the minimum requirements of federal OSHA, Wyoming could lose primacy and OSHA enforcement would fall to the feds. That would mean there would be no more multiple no fine visits from inspectors, fines would jump up to the federal levels rather than the hand slaps of state fines. Perhaps the Legislators need to talk to industry representatives about how that might impact them before they go off half-cocked, because I can assure you that if these bills are signed by the Governor, Wyoming’s primacy will be challenged.

  3. Shame on Republicans who put partisan politics over public health. As much as I love Wyoming, I detest the political machinations of people who have never attended the sheer magnitude of unnecessary deaths our providers have witnessed. Recently, due to all available ICU beds being filled by COVID-19 patients, one Lander physician had to call 28 different hospitals in adjoining states to find a bed for a critically ill patient.

    We are rapidly closing in on 800,000 deaths due to this virus in the United States alone.

    Clearly there are far too few legislators with the decency, the political courage to simply do the right thing. I am so saddened by this stupid, endless debate.

  4. In order to salvage SOMETHING of value from this hastily convened comclave, with the topic being tangentially about public health , perhaps this would be a fine time for the Legislature and Governor to do a great thing for the people of Wyoming : adopt MEDICAID EXPANSION.

    I honestly cannot think of anything more important to Wyoming than that . Certainly not a Don Quixotic farce to challenge the bedrock of the US Constitution by asserting a state government can overrule the federal government. I thought we settled that long ago … the supremacy clause, Article VI Clause II of the US Constitution. We should also recognize that SCOTUS rulked way back in 1905 with Jacobson v. Massachusetts that the State has the authority to order mandatory vaccination in the interests of public health.

    But hey, if the Wyoming firebrand GOP want to heave more bales of tea into the harbor and convene to argue government overreach , be sure someone brings up that is exactly what the Wyoming Republican Party is advocating and attempting to legislate..the State of Wyoming overreaching the federal vaccine mandate. The streets run in both directions.

  5. Another beautiful day with no masks and no shots and no sickness. Wyoming is Beautiful and Free as long as people live and let live.

  6. What would hair-brained mean as opposed to hare-brained?
    This fun typo aside, thanks for informing us.

    1. Thank you thank you thank you! Was waiting for someone to comment on “hair-brained.” Not necessarily a typo but that was kind.

  7. “State law cannot trump federal law.”

    Mandates and executive orders are not laws. These are only implied and not enumerated powers of a president. Precedence was established when Democrat run states and cities actually ignored federal immigration laws to create “sanctuary cities” and the US Constitution to create restrictive gun laws. So, Red states will ignore the current mandates and executive orders of Biden.

  8. I have two Wyoming small businesses. Both are run out of my home. These maniacs are decrying Biden’s mandate – which doesn’t apply to me or most native Wyoming businesses! – as “government overreach,” but are threatening to impose an overreaching mandate that DOES apply to me! It would require me to allow unvaccinated people to invade the sanctity of my home and infect my family, my employees, and customers with whom they came in contact. What’s more, my employees, all of whom willingly got vaccinated (I gave them paid time off both to get their shots and to recover from any side effects if needed) have immunocompromised and frail family members. They would simply walk out of the office if I allowed an unvaccinated one in, effectively shutting our businesses down. In what way would this Draconian edict fight government overreach? Answer: It wouldn’t. It would impose it on all small Wyoming businesses, but not on large, out-of-state businesses (because they’d be exempted by the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution).

    If the Legislature is unable to buck the yoke of an out-of-state political party which does not represent our Wyoming values of tolerance, consideration for others, and minimalist government, I will be forced to stop all hiring, for fear of being accused of turning away an antivaxxer. I’ll hire the work out to independent contractors – possibly from out of state. And if I can’t do that, I’ll sell or fold. But I’m certainly not going to let them harm me, my family, my employees, my employees’ families, or my customers with insane, dangerous regulations. That’s wrong, and it’s not the Wyoming Way.

    1. Freedom isn’t free after all Mr. Glass. Apparently it always has to come at the direct expense of anyone whom conservatives don’t like or agree with.

  9. Conservative pragmatist Senator Cale Case of Lander speaks it best for his fractured Republican Party when he outright opposes this vaccine mandate special session. Paraphrasing , Case says we can’t call a special session every time a group of partisans get mad about something and start making a lot of noise. He’s quite right about that.

    Read thru the list of bill proposed , paying attention to the titles and intentions, and especially who is sponsoring them. It is overwhelmingly a collection of recipes from the Wyoming GOP for making sausage , jerky , and moonshine . A few attempts at counter-legislation from the sober Dems does not alter the vector that the GOP believes they can conjure up State law to totally override federal law. That mandate was long ego established as Constitutional bedrock. State law cannot TRUMP federal law.
    But the Republicans who should know better …don’t. If you are searching for real government overreach, start there. A gang of State partisan legislative gangsters trying to strongarm federal authority on an issue well outside their boundaries. All those reactionary anti-vaccine mandate provisions are overreach.

    Meanwhile, Wyoming is still being ravaged by the virus. Hospitalizations are in ther ed zone. Infections and case loads alarming. The state economy is still surviving on the billion$ in federal Covid relief bailout money that salvaged Wyoming government’s misguided duff with not so much as a thnk you from the Governor and the GOP. Wyoming was in serious financial straits long before the virus bwgn circulating. Federal grant money and tax relief saved us , for now, but that is sunsetting.
    The ONLY tool in anybody’s toolbox that will effectively challenge and largely defeat SARS CoV-2 is universal vaccination. We have the secret sauce, several proven formulas that will prevent virus proliferation , but only if enough people vaxx up. After all, mandated vaccination in the public good has long been established and impolemented with astounding success. Every one of those loud proud anti-vaxxer Republicans is walking around with 10-20 antigens from a previous vaccination in them, to their esteemed health.
    That the campaign to vaccinate America against Covid went from positive pathology and public health into the negatives of politics and misguided misinformed beliefs is entirely the root result of Republican dereliction and demagoguery. Nowhere worse than Wyoming.

    We are where we are today because of Republican ideologic failure, obstruction , obstinance, and ignorance compounded. Anyone who believes that our monolithic Wyoming state leadership and Legislature overwhelmingly dominated by Republicans will provide working solution to the pandemic when they in fact are responsible for prolonging it, is utterly delusional.The special session will little more than really bad political theater. A farce

    After 20 months of dealing with Covid and its harsh consequences, to get the pandemic behind us once and for all the Biden federal vaccine mandate is absolutely the right path at this point in time . Maybe the only path left to us as Americans. Take it.

  10. It’s is critical that people get vaccinated. It saves lives. Conversely not vaccinating kills people. “Period”. The Supreme Court has been supporting this in state after state. These deaths are what happens when politicians and journalists practice medicine. It must cease immediately.

  11. This meeting of the legislature will be an exercise in political onanism. The wingnuts of the Wyoming Republican leadership are pandering to their most degraded followers. OK, Republicans: now you can look up “onanism.”

  12. It seems that some Wyoming legislators are hell bent on punishing employers who want to preserve the health of their workers. Go figure.

  13. With all the ongoing covid deaths of senior republicans in this state, combined with the rarity of senior democrat deaths in this state, the equation seems to be shifting there a bit…

  14. Rep. James wants a to prevent federal and Wyoming public servants from enforcing federal requirements. Violators would be subject to misdemeanor charges, jail time, loss of employment and benefits.
    It seems his proposed penalties might be harsher that those of Biden’s proposal.
    Sure am glad he has facebook so he can grandstand for the lunacy fringe.