Republican Lawmakers cancel one-day session after backlash to COVID vaccine mandate bill

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Republican legislative leaders announced they are canceling their one-day legislative session originally planned for Monday after fierce backlash to their proposal to severely limit private companies' abilities to mandate vaccines.

That proposed draft bill also would have enabled Gov. Eric Holcomb to end Indiana's public health emergency while still permitting the state to keep in place federal funding and certain protective measures, such as allowing for the vaccination of children ages 5 to 11 outside of a doctor's office.

Without those change, Holcomb announced Wednesday that he will extend the state public health emergency for another 30 days, adding that he'll continue to work with House Speaker Todd Huston and Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray so that he can end the emergency in the future.

Huston and Bray said in statements that they now plan to address concerns about vaccine mandates and the necessary Indiana law changes needed to end the state emergency when lawmakers reconvene for the regular session in January.

More: Indiana Congressman Jim Baird fined $5,000 for bypassing House security

The contentious issue aren't going away; the heated debate has just been postponed.

"Tuesday's passionate public testimony reinforced the concerns I've heard from constituents and business leaders over the federal mandates. While most Indiana companies are acting in good faith, it's unacceptable that some employers are blatantly disregarding well-established vaccine exemptions, and we'll address these issues through legislation," Huston said in a statement. "Over the next month, we'll continue to listen and talk with stakeholders about our policy proposals, and we'll file legislation in the near future. Hoosiers can rest assured that we'll hit the ground running come Jan. 4."

Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston (left) chats with Phil GiaQuinta on Organization Day at Indiana Statehouse, Indianapolis, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.
Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston (left) chats with Phil GiaQuinta on Organization Day at Indiana Statehouse, Indianapolis, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.

Lawmakers met for seven hours Tuesday to take public testimony on the proposed draft bill.

Under the preliminary draft bill, private businesses that have vaccine mandates were required to grant employees exemptions for religious or medical reasons — including if someone was planning to become pregnant in the future. They also would have had to give employees the choice to get tested weekly for free instead of vaccinated.

More than half a dozen people testified on Tuesday that they had lost their jobs because they refused to get vaccinated. Others emphasized their concerns about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, and argued that they didn't feel like anyone should be able to determine whether they were religious enough to get an exemption.

But representatives from both health care and business organizations had concerns about severely restricting the ability of companies to require vaccinations.

Representatives from the state's largest companies and those in the hospitality industry worried about the inconsistencies between federal and state regulations and the confusion it could cause for their members. Likewise, they were concerned about a provision in the proposed bill that would require employers to pay for COVID-19 tests.

Meanwhile some health care professionals argued that the language specifying Hoosiers could be granted exemptions if they plan to become pregnant or are already could make pregnant women feel less comfortable getting the vaccine.

"I think this bill does harm our efforts to get people vaccinate," said Dr. Stephen Tharp, a representative from the Indiana State Medical Association. "The more people that get vaccinated, the less people are going to get sick."

Just over 50% of Hoosiers are fully vaccinated. On Wednesday the state passed the four thousand mark for daily new COVID cases.

Democrats and some lobbyists were also concerned by the process Republican lawmakers were using to push the restrictive language across the finish line.

Instead of waiting until January as they usually do, lawmakers agreed to come back to the Statehouse for a rare one-day session on Nov. 29 to address Holcomb's concerns. But, they slipped other measures into the proposed draft bill that Holcomb hadn't asked for — such as requiring businesses to allow for certain vaccine exemptions.

Further deviating from normal legislative procedures, that language was proposed, but not actually filed as a bill, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving Day. Republican leaders planned to file the bill on Nov. 29 and vote on it on that same day, instead of on separate days as required in most cases under the Indiana Constitution.

Likewise, the public was only allowed to testify on the proposed language on one day — the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and the bill was poised to bypass any committee votes and instead go directly to the floor. Leadership also had not committed to allowing for amendments on the floor.

Kevin Brinegar, president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, answers questions on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, at the Indiana State House in Indianapolis. The House and Senate Rules and Legislative Procedures committees held a joint meeting to hear public comments on a draft bill involving COVID-19 vaccinations. The hearing focused on ending Gov. Holcomb's pandemic state of emergency order and mask and vaccine mandates for citizens and businesses.
Kevin Brinegar, president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, answers questions on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, at the Indiana State House in Indianapolis. The House and Senate Rules and Legislative Procedures committees held a joint meeting to hear public comments on a draft bill involving COVID-19 vaccinations. The hearing focused on ending Gov. Holcomb's pandemic state of emergency order and mask and vaccine mandates for citizens and businesses.

"We also frankly have a concern with the process that this is going under," Kevin Brinegar, president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said during his testimony Tuesday.

Brinegar said in the 41 legislative sessions he has been a part of, he had never witnessed a hearing over just a preliminary draft. Likewise, Brinegar said he had only seen one special session held between Organization Day and January. And that, he said, was because the state was "in deep financial trouble" and needed to make changes to ensure it ended the fiscal year with enough money in state coffers.

Lawmakers are now slated to reconvene on Jan. 4.

"The ongoing complexities of the issues raised and the potential unintended consequences," Bray said in a statement, "the logistics of moving legislation to the floor during a time when the General Assembly is not typically in session, and the need for the public and members of the General Assembly to fully vet the legislation have led to the conclusion that the efforts to gather input and better solutions should continue until the legislature reconvenes in January."

Call IndyStar reporter Kaitlin Lange at 317-432-9270. Follow her on Twitter: @kaitlin_lange.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indiana General Assembly cancels session after push back on bill

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