From left, Sen. Renee Erickson, Sen. Ethan Corson and Senate President Ty Masterson confer during negotiations Monday with House members. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — The Kansas Legislature completed a 14-hour special session Monday night by sending Gov. Laura Kelly a bill packed with generous medical, religious and philosophical exemptions to federal COVID-19 vaccination mandates and the potential of state unemployment benefits to people fired for refusing to be inoculated.
As legislators were voting on the measure, the Democratic governor issued a brief statement saying she would sign the bill when it reached her desk.
The House and Senate began the day by adopting rival bills in response to President Joe Biden’s nationwide order requiring vaccination of millions of federal employees, contractors, health care workers and people employed at large companies. In an unusually short meeting in the evening, six negotiators representing the House and Senate hammered out a deal that incorporated the House version of exemptions and Senate provisions on jobless benefits.
The Senate affirmed the decision on a vote of 24-11, while the House completed the process on a vote of 77-34.
The final version was watered down by dropping a Senate amendment forbidding Kansas businesses from imposing vaccination requirements on employees and an amendment banning discrimination against workers based on vaccination status. The settlement deleted a 2023 sunset of the law and retained a severability clause to preserve the bill if portions were successfully challenged in court.
In addition, the package would funnel civil fines as high as $50,000 paid by businesses for violation of the law to the state’s unemployment fund rather than the general treasury.
Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, and Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, lead negotiators for the Senate and House, exchanged a couple of offers on behalf of their bipartisan three-person negotiating teams before landing on middle ground. The four GOP members embraced the compromise, while both Democrats rejected the pact.
“In the greater scheme of things,” Masterson said, “we have to stay focused on the priority, which is protecting those people right now that could be losing their jobs.”
Kelly announced opposition to Biden’s vaccination mandates before scheduling the unprecedented special session, which was the first in state history to be triggered by petitions signed by senators and representatives.
Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, said the bill wouldn’t provide the job security sought by people who believe vaccination by government order to be tyranny.
“They think they’re safe, and they don’t have to get a vaccination,” she said. “It’s not going to change anything for them.”
Rep. Vic Miller, a Topeka Democrat, said the legislation was structured so that nobody will have to claim unemployment. Workers won’t have a reason to quit, he said, because Republicans who wrote the bill “built a hole so big that you can’t avoid driving through it when you exercise your religious exemption.”
“Frankly, I don’t think anybody is going to ultimately qualify for unemployment,” Miller said. “It’s a pretend thing, to pretend that they care about these people. It’s — it’s bulls***.”
Miller said the governor’s staff encouraged him to agree to the deal negotiated between Senate and House members, but he refused. The legislation is “a scam,” he said, that allows anybody who is “just slightly smart enough to apply for the exemption” to avoid complying with a vaccine mandate.
“All they have to do is sign a phony statement that they believe the devil is their religion, and therefore they qualify,” Miller said.
Several Democrats worried about how they should explain their opposition to a bill signed by the Democratic governor.
“That does not help us when the governor is doing one thing, and we’re doing the other,” said Rep. Annie Kuether, D-Topeka.
Miller replied with a wry reference to a directive the governor’s chief of staff, Will Lawrence, gave to former health secretary Lee Norman, as revealed in a Kansas Reflector story last week.
“I think it’s important we stay in our lane,” Miller said.
Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, said the legislation will require employers to choose between keeping their federal contracts and complying with state law. He joked there was only one reason to vote for the bill: The Kansas Chamber opposes it. Several Democrats said they would look forward to receiving checks from the chamber for supporting businesses, a sarcastic remark about an organization that spends heavily on GOP candidates.
Carmichael predicted major employers that already have implemented mandates will stand by them.
“We will find ourselves over at the federal courthouse as soon as the governor autographs this,” Carmichael said. “Before the ink is even dry, we will have more litigation, and in the meantime, people who think that the Kansas Legislature has saved their job will find themselves on the street.”
The long debates
Anti-vaxxers filled House and Senate galleries and hosted a Statehouse rally Monday to remind legislators of their irritation with Biden’s executive order during the pandemic. In the House, they were repeatedly admonished for jeering, applauding or coughing on the lawmakers below. People opposed to any form of vaccination mandate dominated the joint House and Senate committee hearings on purported government overreach.
“We know that there’s some of you that think it doesn’t go far enough,” said Senate Majority Leader Larry Alley, Republican from Winfield. “This bill protects liberty and protects individual freedom, and keeps Kansans working and protects our religious beliefs.”
GOP Rep. John Eplee, a primary care physician from Atchison, rained on the anti-vaxxers’ political parade by declaring the vaccine “incredibly safe and very prudent to give to our patients.”
So far, COVID-19 has contributed to the deaths of 6,643 and hospitalizations of 15,490 since March 2020 in Kansas. The state has seen 458,000 people with confirmed cases of COVID-19.
“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.”
The negotiated compromise excluded the amendment passed by the Senate banning employers in Kansas from adopting COVID-19 vaccination mandates without consent of the Legislature. It was an idea of Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Republican.
“My rights don’t start with the employer,” Pyle said. “Employees feel like they’re being punched in the nose. This says, ‘Merry Christmas for everybody,’ you have a job.”
Business of COVID
The Kansas Chamber issued a statement opposing the COVID-19 legislation, placing it at rare odds with Republican lawmakers. During floor debate in the House, Democrats seized the opportunity to chastise Republicans for proposing legislation that would hurt businesses.
Rep. Rui Xu, D-Westwood, pointed out 14 references to the word “shall” in the three-page House version. In other words, the Legislature responded to a federal mandate with a state mandate.
“If this is not a mandate, what is it?” Xu said. “And if this is not an expansion of government, what is it?”
The labor department plans to approve unemployment benefits for individuals fired from their job because of a vaccine mandate, depending on circumstances of each case.
Sen. Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican who owns an auto dealership with 40 employees, said he was opposed to federal vaccination mandates but would prefer constitutional challenges play out in court rather than adopt a series of disjointed responses in the 50 state legislatures.
Employers who ignore either federal or state directives on vaccinations risk financial penalties from either level of government, he said.
“This puts Kansas small business in a very, very difficult situation,” Longbine said. “My biggest concern is we’re giving employers around the state a false sense of security.”
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