If Statehouse Republicans hoped their disastrous seven-hour hearing on vaccine mandate restrictions would be overlooked in a busy holiday week, the Indiana attorney general didn't help the cause last Wednesday.
Just as news releases dropped announcing the one-day session scheduled for Tuesday was canceled, Todd Rokita posted a photo of himself and his son in the empty Senate chamber: “Giving #2 son a personal tour of the Statehouse today as he is off the rest of the week for Thanksgiving. Here we are at the State Senate...ready to pass a bill rescinding emergency powers and prohibiting businesses from requiring vax!”
Oops. The embarrassing effort to rush through limits on vaccine requirements had just been scrapped, but the attorney general was clearly not in the loop.
In addition to the wasteful day-long hearing, their blunder also resulted in extension of the state's public health emergency. The initial purpose of a one-day session was to approve language that would have allowed Gov. Eric Holcomb to lift the emergency while ensuring federal COVID-19 funding would be maintained. Instead, Holcomb was forced to extend the public health emergency for another month to keep the federal dollars coming.
But some lawmakers saw a chance to score political points. They threw together a measure that would have required private businesses to allow vaccine requirement exemptions for religious or medical reasons – including an employee who planned to become pregnant in the future. They also would have been required to give workers the choice to get tested weekly instead of vaccinated, although it was unclear who would pay for testing.
At last week's hearing before members of the House and Senate Rules Committees, Democratic Rep. Terri Austin asked her Republican colleagues why there was a rush to restrict vaccine requirements.
“I think I was where you might have been, Rep. Austin, until I got that call that said, 'I'm losing my job,' ” Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, said. “And I sat there and thought, 'Can I wait 30 more days and 20 more people lose their jobs and 50 more people lose their jobs?' This is an issue where, I think, the employment community and employees have said, 'You need to do something to wrap something around this to give us some guidance.' ”
As of Monday morning, more than 3.4 million Hoosiers were fully vaccinated. That means 3.4 million Hoosiers have followed the advice of medical professionals or, at least, acknowledged the authority their employer has to require vaccines. But Lehman and other legislative leaders suddenly decided the rights of an individual trumped the rights of all others during a pandemic.
With the rush to adopt restrictions derailed, House Republicans decided to make it a priority in the regular session, which begins Jan. 4. House Bill 1001 incorporates the vaccine mandate provisions, although language allowing medical exemptions for “pregnancy or anticipated pregnancy” was wisely removed from the bill.
Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, said the formal legislative process is preferable to the unprecedented route of releasing draft language on a Saturday and suspending rules to ask lawmakers to vote on it just over a week later.
“There will be a proper vetting,” said the House minority leader, “It's going to go through the proper process, with committee hearings and amendments. There's a reason we have these procedures. We have committee hearings to improve bills.”
GiaQuinta is undecided on his support for it.
“We'll see how the discussion goes, but I still think it's a problem,” he said. “What we heard from businesses is that they should have the right to protect their workers, their customers.”
And the newly filed bill doesn't erase the Republicans' initial blunder. Taxpayers will pick up the $183 per-diem expense for each of the lawmakers at last week's hearing, a steep cost for a fool's errand. We can only hope the regular session doesn't prove to be as much of a waste.