The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, November 23, 2021 1:00 am

Hastened vaccine bill criticized

GOP provision hampers businesses using mandates

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – The rare and hastily called one-day legislative session Republicans announced Saturday is drawing negative reviews while Gov. Eric Holcomb also has questions about language that lawmakers sprung on him.

The primary purpose of Monday's meeting is being positioned as a way to end the public health emergency called by Holcomb by putting three administrative changes into law that would still allow the state to collect millions in additional federal dollars.

But Republican leadership in the House and Senate inserted new wording that would severely restrict vaccine mandates by Indiana businesses as well as schools and universities.

“Why are we rushing this through?” asked House Democrat Leader Rep. Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne. “I'm not very happy with the process at all.”

He said the three items related to the public health emergency could be handled when legislators return in January, noting that Holcomb has renewed the order more than a dozen times and saying one more renewal isn't a reason to suspend rules and act in November.

The current order expires at the end of the month.

GiaQuinta also said the employer provision is brand new and hasn't been vetted at all.

“There are a lot of questions and confusion. These things should be vetted thoroughly,” he said. “We are going to be back in a few weeks.”

Only 10 days will pass from when the never-before-considered measure was made public Saturday to its final passage next Monday – most of that over a major holiday.

A public hearing before the House and Senate Rules Committees will occur today even though a bill hasn't been filed – only a draft posted to the General Assembly website. Two-thirds of the members of the chambers will be needed to suspend a rule in the Indiana Constitution calling for bills to be heard on at least three separate days.

Republicans have those numbers – if everyone shows up.

Holcomb has said repeatedly for months that businesses should be able to decide whether to mandate vaccines for their employees. Some have in Indiana, such as IU Health and Eli Lilly and Co.

But the measure being proposed would hamper – and effectively block – those mandates.

Holcomb focused Monday on the three items in the bill he is seeking while saying he will discuss the vaccine language with lawmakers.

“This is the very beginning of the process. I understand this is atypical because it's such an accelerated process – hopefully driven by the collective agreement that we all want to sunset, or end, the emergency order as soon as possible,” he said.

“I'm happy my three things are included. I want to follow up on some additional items that they included.”

Holcomb hopes Hoosiers show up and express their concerns at the hearing, as he will be doing privately. He would not say whether he would veto a bill if the employer provision remains.

Passing a bill in one day is extraordinary in Indiana history.

In 2018 and 1987, lawmakers came back for one day after a regular session to finalize bills when the clock ran out. But those bills – including the state budget – had been vetted during the normal process for months.

In 2008, lawmakers approved House Bill 1010 on Organization Day in November with broad bipartisan support. It ratified decisions made by Gov. Mitch Daniels over that summer to abate a property tax crisis and tweaked property tax rebate checks coming to many Hoosiers.

Lawmakers were just back for Organization Day on Nov. 16.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce is scrambling after the employer provision was made public Saturday. One of its legislative agenda items was to protect business autonomy on the decision to mandate vaccines.

“At the highest level, it interferes with an employer's ability to run their business and determine with respect to COVID what is best to keep their employees, customers and patents safe,” said Kevin Brinegar, president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

“What is the emergency? They dropped it on a Saturday with a hearing the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. It would be law by this time next week.”

He acknowledged the measure could have been worse – it isn't a full ban like other states have done – but for practical purposes, it essentially eliminates the mandates.

“It strongly discourages companies from doing that, and that appears to be the purpose,” he said.

For instance, it would require companies that choose a mandate to provide a weekly testing option for employees – at the cost of the employer. It also requires a business to accept all exemption requests for medical and religious beliefs. That upends decades worth of state and federal precedent that allows employers to decide whether they are legitimate.

Brinegar said it creates a six-month exemption from a vaccine mandate after a person has recovered from COVID-19, but he doesn't know where that time frame came from. It also provides a specific exemption for anyone pregnant or anticipating getting pregnant. He said that conflicts with federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for pregnant women to get the vaccine to head off serious illness.

He doesn't know how many businesses are requiring vaccines but said there are several in the health care industry or restaurant and hospitality field. Brinegar also isn't sure how the bill would affect mandates that are already in place.

“This is ripe for litigation,” he said.

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