Under the pretense of “protecting” Wyoming companies from a limited federal vaccine mandate, state lawmakers are launching a regulatory assault that will punish businesses for complying with federal law and leave workers exposed to increased health risks.
It’s unprecedented and unconscionable.
Senate File 20-Penalties for mandating COVID-19 vaccinations is the most extreme bill that will be considered at the special session that begins today. (It has an identical mirror bill in the House, HB 20, as do all measures that have been filed.) The bill would impose a sentence of up to one year in jail and/or a fine up to $10 million on a federal or state public servant who enforces a vaccine mandate.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Tom James (R-Rock Springs) and Rep. Bill Fortner (R-Gillette), is absolute nonsense. It should have as much chance of passing as its ancestor bills that tried to stop enforcement of federal gun laws did — zero. But there are plenty of other measures sponsored by state legislators that should seriously concern everyone who wants to see an end to this pandemic.
Take House Bill 1-COVID-19 employer vaccine mandates, which includes this remarkable provision: “To protect the health, safety and welfare of the people of Wyoming, it is necessary for the Legislature to exercise its police powers to ensure the state of Wyoming does not experience a greater shortage of workers in general, and health care workers in particular, by imposition of unconditional employer COVID-19 vaccine mandates.”
How in the world does allowing unvaccinated workers to expose others to COVID-19 — including healthcare workers and the medically compromised — protect our collective “health, safety and welfare?” And frankly, the idea of this Legislature exercising its “police powers” makes me shudder.
Please keep in mind that OSHA has not even issued the rules for President Joe Biden’s so-called “vaccine mandate,” which isn’t a mandate at all. Biden said his executive order will allow people who do not want to take the vaccine to instead be tested for COVID-19 weekly. It also allows for religious exemptions. That’s not “unconditional.”
The president’s order would affect only companies with more than 100 employees, federal agencies and certain health care facilities. House Bill 1, however, would apply to every business in the state, regardless of size.
The fact it is co-sponsored by Senate President Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) and House Speaker Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) and other key members of the GOP leadership means it’s the primary bill that will be discussed.
It’s no surprise that the Wyoming Business Alliance and the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce oppose both HB 1 and House Bill 2-Federal COVID Vaccine Mandates-Penalties and Remedies. In addition to imposing up to a six-month jail sentence and/or a $750 fine for enforcing the mandate, HB 2 would give the governor $1 million to mount a legal challenge to any federal vaccine mandate.
“We can’t let our collective detest for federal overregulation cloud our judgment on how we allow our businesses to operate in a free-market economy grounded in making choices and living with the consequences,” WBA President Cindy DeLancey said in a statement. She added that “two wrongs don’t make a right.”
DeLancey pointed out that over 98% of Wyoming businesses have fewer than 100 employees and would not be subject to the federal mandate.
She asked lawmakers to allow business leaders and their employees to make their own decisions. The Legislature should instead be focused on opportunities to grow and diversify the state’s economy, DeLancey said.
It’s excellent advice they should heed, but won’t.
Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce Director Dale Steenbergen told the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle that HB 1 and HB 2 are antithetical to capitalism.
“More regulation is never an answer to existing regulatory overreach,” Steenbergen said. He noted the bind that any legislative action would cause, since it would effectively give businesses the choice to violate either federal or state laws.
“We’re caught in the blender,” Steenbergen said.
The Supremacy Clause of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution declares that the federal laws are the supreme law of the land, and judges are bound to recognize this regardless of state laws to the contrary. That’s all businesses need to know to jump out of the blender and make the right decision.
Both bills would prohibit enforcement of a federal vaccine mandate in Wyoming until the state exhausts all of its legal remedies. Why does the Legislature insist on funding lost causes just to show how much it hates the federal government? Bankrolling frivolous lawsuits at a time when lawmakers have cut millions from public education and health and social services is outrageous.
The Legislature has scheduled the special session for only three days. Lawmakers must vote on establishing special rules, including whether each chamber will be allowed to simultaneously consider and mark-up identical bills, also known as “mirror bills.”
The standard legislative rules require mirror bills to only be used for budget measures. It will take a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate to expand that practice, which is a pretty high bar. Whether it can be met will go a long way toward establishing the degree to which the Legislature is now controlled by the far-right politicians who pushed for this wasteful session.
Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), co-chairman of the Select Committee on Legislative Process, is encouraging his colleagues to vote against the rule change. In a white paper developed with former Equality State Policy Center Director Chris Merrill, the pair call the mirror bill process “a deeply flawed, inferior approach to lawmaking that undermines the wisdom and intent of a bicameral Legislature.”
Case and Merrill correctly argue that the mirror bill process compresses the timeline for deliberations during a special session and limits an essential part — public input and involvement. There is no time for the public to comment on the proposed legislation, which in this case has a dramatic impact on Wyoming residents.
This isn’t the way the legislative process is supposed to work.
This disturbing chapter in Wyoming legislative history comes as the state boasts a COVID-19 vaccination rate of about 43% — second worst in the nation behind only West Virginia.
The session comes on the heels of Wyoming’s highest weekly death toll — 69 residents — in the entire year.
State lawmakers should be laser-focused on ways to reduce the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Instead, this will be a session designed for grandstanding.
Wyoming needs to do something about its critical shortage of healthcare workers, but the answer isn’t to allow employees to work at hospitals and medical centers without being vaccinated against the deadly virus.
There’s a health emergency in Wyoming, but the remedies posed in the vast majority of bills will only exacerbate the state’s problems.
The federal vaccine mandate, whenever it is finalized, will be aimed at reducing the impact of the most severe health crisis this country has ever faced. The policy will be the work of highly-trained professionals focused on saving lives.
Prohibiting the new regulations, litigating against them and punishing people for enforcing them is, sadly, the work of fools, and will ensure that yet more Wyomingites die as political casualties.