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Stories, Stats, Impacts: Wyoming Public Media is here to keep you current on the news surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite failures, many Wyoming lawmakers say the special session against COVID-19 vaccine mandates was necessary

Wyoming Legislature Senate chambers
Bob Beck
Wyoming Public Media

A special legislative session against federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates led to a lot of debate but no substantive legislation this week. The result was a bit of a surprise, but many think lawmakers bit off more than they could chew.

Early in the week during debate in the Senate, Torrington Sen. Cheri Steinmetz tried to fire up the troops.

"Are we going to draw the line in the sand or not? Are we actually going to stand up and do something or not?" Steinmetz said. "Are we all going to stand on the same side-the state of Wyoming, employers, and employees-and demand state sovereignty and that they respect our rights?"

The goal of the special session was to preemptively push back on the Biden administration's mandates for health care workers and businesses, while also addressing the local businesses who wanted mandates. But the biggest reason the session came about was because of concerns from constituents. Worland Rep. Michael Greear said he'd never seen anything like it.

Sen. Bill Landen
Bob Beck
Wyoming Public Media
Casper Sen. Bill Landen debates during the last day of the special session.

"I might have 25 to 30 people reach out to me on a hot topic. I talked to well over 400 people on this issue," said Greear. "Pressure was building. And, you know, our branch of government is supposed to come down here, represent those people, debate and discuss the ideas. And from that standpoint, this was a success."

The Senate had long debates over a bill that tried to protect people from being discriminated against if they hadn't received a vaccine. It would also sanction businesses that mandated COVID-19 vaccinations. But the bill failed because many objected to creating a protected class for the unvaccinated and others thought the bill was anti-business.

The House did pass a wide-ranging bill that tried to push back on federal mandates, provide guidelines for Wyoming businesses who did want mandates, while also protecting workers and citizens. When the bill got to the Senate, business leaders in the state, including those in the healthcare industry testified against the measure in committee. Sheridan Sen. Dave Kinskey shared his concerns about unintended consequences like losing federal funding, especially medicare and Medicaid.

"This is a bill that should be worked and reworked and worked and reworked by a committee. And have some of the smartest minds in the state look at it and see if we're missing something. "Because my biggest worry is, I think we're threading the needle. We might in fact be too clever by half."

In the end, the measure failed by one vote leaving the legislature with a third bill that made statements, but did little other than allocate $4 million for state leaders to sue.

Fellow Sheridan Sen. Bo Biteman was devastated they were unable to do anything substantial.

"I've never felt this much pressure to get something done for the people. And then to come out as failures. It's really a punch in the gut," said Biteman.

Casper Sen. Bill Landen said both pieces of legislation that failed went too far for him-especially some late amendments that made school districts provide exceptions for both vaccine and mask mandates.

"I am not necessarily in favor of the federal mandate. But I'm certainly not in favor of rolling over the top of our school boards out there, or putting our small business in harm's way," said Landen. "And I'm certainly not interested in putting our hospitals and our medical care units in jeopardy of losing federal funding."

Sen. Mike Gireau
Bob Beck
Wyoming Public Media
Jackson Dem. Sen. Mike Gireau argues against the final bill during the recent legislative session.

Jackson Sen. Mike Gireau noted that people in his district were completely opposed to the session. He noted that the Jackson Chamber of Commerce recently named their health officer the citizen of the year-the opposite of what was happening in many other counties. In other words, they had a different perspective.

"Our vaccination rate in my county is way up. We believe in the vaccine, we believe in what it does," said Gireau. "In our hospital, infectious rates are down and the death rate is down. And so my constituents don't see some of the urgency."

Gireau and Landen both said that the best solution is having the state sue and see what happens. The governor has taken that action.

Senate Vice President Larry Hicks said it was an important issue that needed to be debated, but he admitted that the bills got too big and with too many issues to consider. Hicks had plans to meet with fellow lawmakers who were mad about the outcome and he said he was going to attempt to settle them down.

"I think there's a few people who are very angry and will likely lash out. The people who understand the process and who have been here understand that this is an ongoing dialogue. Many times it takes three sessions to pass a piece of legislation, you don't burn down the bridge today that you need to get to tomorrow," said Hicks.

Plus he added, they will probably get to debate the issue again when legislators return for the budget session in a couple of months.

Bob Beck has been News Director of Wyoming Public Radio since 1988. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.
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