Rep. Stephen Owens, center, and Rep. Kristey Williams, right, watch during the Nov. 22, 2021, special session as votes are recorded on legislation allowing exemptions for COVID-19 vaccine requirements. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Rep. John Eplee, a Republican primary care physician from Atchison, shot down fears of the COVID-19 vaccine in a speech Monday on the House floor.
Several other Republicans raised concerns about the safety and efficiency of the vaccine during debate over a bill expanding the ways workers can opt out of COVID-19 vaccine mandates and punishing businesses that question their beliefs. The House passed the bill by a 78-40 vote, setting up negotiations with the Senate to iron out differences in competing bills.
Anti-vaxxers packed the gallery overlooking the House chamber for this historic special session debate and were repeatedly admonished for jeering, applauding or coughing on the lawmakers below.
“There is no doubt in my mind as a practicing, living, breathing, primary care physician that this vaccine is incredibly safe and very prudent to give to our patients,” Eplee said.
Eplee said he personally has ordered the vaccine for at least several hundred patients and has not seen any serious side effects. He dismissed frequently debunked misinformation based on unverified reports collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Environment.
His little hospital is now filling up again with COVID-19 patients again, Eplee said, and every single one of them is unvaccinated.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if you think we’re going to be done with the virus through this bill or through other things, you’re fooling yourself,” Eplee said. “This virus doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican, and this virus isn’t done with us. It’s going to continue to percolate along. It’s going to find vulnerable, unvaccinated and vaccine-vulnerable people.”
Eplee said he wasn’t thrilled with the House bill but, in deference to some of those in the gallery, he explained that he would support the legislation — so long as it doesn’t change after negotiations with the Senate — because he believes in his constituents.
GOP leaders in advance of the special session prepared last-minute updates to proposed exemptions previously outlined during meetings of a special overreach committee. The House passed a bill that would allow employees to claim an exemption on moral grounds, in addition to medical reasons or sincerely held religious beliefs.
The House version of the bill doesn’t provide unemployment benefits for individuals who don’t want to get vaccinated against the deadly disease, a key difference from the Senate version.
In the House bill, businesses are not allowed to question employees about the exemptions. Employees can file a grievance with the Kansas Department of Labor if they are denied an exemption or allege retaliation. The agency is required to investigate those complaints and within 25 days turn over findings to the attorney general, who can then file civil action in court. Small businesses face a fine up to $10,000 for each violation. For businesses with more than 100 employees, the fine can be as high as $50,000. The fines will go to the state, not the employees filing grievances.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman advised House Republicans in a meeting before the session opened to avoid the temptation to add provisions to the bill that “sound good” — a reference to anti-vaxxers who are unhappy the legislation isn’t more extreme — and embrace court-tested language already in the bill.
“This is about federal mandates, not about if a vaccine works or doesn’t work,” Ryckman told reporters Sunday night. “This is about the federal government inserting themselves between someone’s health and their job.”
The House strategy is to secure the exemptions so a broader bill providing for unemployment benefits is unnecessary. The labor department already plans to approve benefits for individuals who have been fired from their job because of a vaccine mandate, depending on circumstances of each case. Employees who quit before they are fired won’t receive benefits — 10 such individuals have already been denied benefits.
In the pre-session meeting, several representatives raised concerns about extending exemptions on the basis of “non-theistic moral and ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong.” Others raised concerns about the prohibition on inquiring about the validity of religious beliefs.
“A lot of people are going to find Jesus, and I think that’s fantastic,” said Rep. Stephen Owens, a Hesston Republican who defended the bill.
The Kansas Chamber issued a statement Monday morning opposing the bill, placing them at rare odds with Republican lawmakers. During floor debate, Democrats seized the opportunity to chastise Republicans for proposing legislation that would hurt businesses.
“Make no mistake: We do not have the support of business of Kansas,” said Rep. Annie Kuether, D-Topeka.
Rep. Rui Xu, D-Westwood, pointed out 14 references to the word “shall” in the three-page bill.
“If this is not a mandate, what is it?” Xu said. “And if this is not an expansion of government, what is it?”
Some Republicans complained the legislation doesn’t go far enough to protect unvaccinated residents.
Rep. Michael Houser, R-Columbus, said he isn’t vaccinated and doesn’t plan to be vaccinated. He urged his “patriot friends” to hound their state senators and representatives between now and the start of the regular session in January. If they don’t push back against the current mandates, Houser said, the federal government eventually could force every employee at every business of any size to be vaccinated.
“What’s next?” Houser said. “I mean, they gonna start loading unvaccinated into cattle cars and keeping us segregated?”
The House bill only applies to COVID-19 vaccines required by employers. It also contains a sunset provision, in which the bill expires after two years. Owens said the hope is the Legislature at that time will remove the “COVID-19” references and finalize a law that applies the exemptions to all types of vaccines.
The special session is a response to a series of federal mandates. A federal court already has suspended a requirement that employees of large businesses to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing and wear a mask at work. Another mandate applies to employees of Medicaid and Medicare providers, including long-term care facilities. The federal government also requires its own employees to be vaccinated, a measure that extends to federal contractors.
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said lawmakers were selling constituents a bill of goods that isn’t true by telling them the law would save their jobs. Federal orders are the law of the land, he said, and any challenges to them will be decided in court.
“What we do here won’t change that,” Carmichael said.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican who is running for governor in next year’s election, told House Republicans in a meeting Sunday night that the best recourse for Kansas employees are the lawsuits he has joined to challenge the federal mandates.
“The one thing I can say with confidence is that if we succeed in these three lawsuits, that is the best and most certain way to ensure that those three federal mandates … do not have legal effect in Kansas and therefore avoids all the types of questions,” Schmidt said.
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