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Two Vaccine Mandate Bills Win First Senate Approval

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The two bills aimed at countering a proposed federal coronavirus vaccine mandate still alive in the Legislature’s special session cleared their first hurdle in the state Senate on Monday despite arguments they will do little to protect workers against the mandate.

Wyoming’s Senate approved HB1001 and HB1002 in their first full floor review as supporters argued both bills struck a needed balance between the desire to mitigate the impacts of the mandate proposed by President Joe Biden and the needs and rights of the state and its workers.

“We are trying to strike a balance between having a case to make in court without chewing the innocent up along the way,” Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, said of HB1002. 

The Biden administration has proposed a vaccine mandate for federal employees, health care workers and employees at companies that employ more than 100 people.

The Legislature called itself into a special session to chart Wyoming’s response to the mandate. Twenty bills were initially proposed for consideration during the session, but only two having to do with the mandate cleared either chamber. HB1001 and HB1002 were both approved by the House last week before it adjourned to return on Wednesday.

HB1001 would prohibit employers with more than 100 employees or those that have contracts for services with the federal government or work with Medicare or Medicaid from making vaccination a condition of employment unless they could prove such a mandate is important for their business.

The bill was approved for a second reading in the Senate on Tuesday despite arguments it does little to shield employees from the mandate.

“This does not push back on the federal mandate,” said Sen. Jim Anderson, R-Casper. “It continues to make more state regulations for the employees and the employers. I don’t think we need more mandates from the state on employers.”

Many legislators have said the proposal could leave affected employers caught in the middle of trying to adhere to both state and federal laws, but Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee that reviewed both bills, said the bills were amended to keep them from taking effect unless the legal challenges filed against the mandate are successful.

The amendment to HB1002 will allow state and local public entities to continue receiving federal assistance until a final determination is made on the constitutionality of the mandate in federal courts, Perkins said. The bill would prohibit those entities from enforcing a vaccine mandate, but not take effect until the federal mandate is found unconstitutional.

Perkins said without such safeguards, people who rely on that federal assistance could lose needed services if the federal government cuts off funding during the debate.

“This is not ideal for those who want to press the battle, but it will certainly save a lot of casualties going forward,” he said. 

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Explainer: What Does It Mean To Be Censured In The Wyoming Legislature?

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, could become the first legislator in recent history to be censured for a breach of decorum, if his colleagues vote to do so this week.

Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, told his colleagues on Friday that he was going to bring a motion to censure “one member and possibly two members” of the body this week. One is likely Harshman, but Bear did not clarify who the second was, saying he wanted to speak with the member first.

The Legislative Service Office told Cowboy State Daily on Monday that no legislator had been censured for breach of decorum in recent history. A censure is a formal expression of disapproval that has no effect.

Bear’s announcement comes after Harshman lost his privileges to participate remotely in the Legislature’s current special session. The action was Harshman’s punishment for an incident Thursday when Harshman, who was participating in the session by Zoom, was overheard using foul language directed at fellow Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper.

“Chuck Gray, f*****,” he was heard saying. “Little f*******.”

Harshman, the former Speaker of the House, did not realize his audio was on when he made the comments.

House Speaker Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, handed down the punishment after identifying three breaches of conduct Harshman committed on Thursday: Addressing the body without permission from the chair, using a name of another member and inappropriate language.

“Your conduct was unbecoming, so I want to condemn it, clearly,” Barlow said.

Bear on Friday announced that as a result of the incident, he would seek to censure Harshman, a move he originally planned to make on Monday. However, the House is not in session again until Wednesday.

According to the Wyoming Legislature’s rules, which the Senate and House of Representatives voted on during the legislative session in the spring, reprimand or censure of a legislator shall require the affirmative vote of a majority of the elected members.

The censure would remain on LSO records.

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With No Bills Pending, Wyoming House Breaks Until Wednesday

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Having no intention to introduce the lone piece of legislation approved by Wyoming’s Senate, Wyoming’s House Speaker announced Friday that representatives would not return to the floor of the Capitol to continue their special session until Wednesday.

Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, announced he would not move to introduce SF1019, which does not deal with a proposed federal coronavirus vaccination mandate, basically allowing it to die.

With no pending legislation before the House, Barlow said he saw no reason for the body to reconvene before Wednesday.

“(The Senate) did not send us a COVID-19 related bill,” he said. “They did send us a bill that is related to another subject and it’s not my intention to introduce that bill and refer it to committee.”

The special session that began Tuesday was called by the Legislature to chart Wyoming’s response to the mandate proposed by the administration of Joe Biden.

The House approved two bills related to the mandate, one prohibiting some employers from requiring their workers to get the vaccine to keep their jobs and another saying agencies in the state will not enforce the mandate. Those bills now move to the Senate for review next week.

The Senate killed its only mandate-related bill, which would have prohibited people who have not received the vaccine from being discriminated against, while approving one other bill, which would allow law enforcement officials with the Wyoming Gaming Commission to participate in the state’s retirement system.

Barlow said throughout the special session that he would not introduce legislation that did not relate to the mandate.

The Senate is expected to spend Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday reviewing the House measures and representatives will return to the floor on Wednesday to look at any changes proposed by the Senate.

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Wyoming House Approves First Anti-Mandate Bill Despite Criticism It Does Little

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would ban some Wyoming employers from using a person’s coronavirus vaccination status as a condition of employment won final House approval on Friday despite criticism that it does little to actually oppose a proposed federal vaccination mandate.

The House voted 38-20 to send HB1001 to the Senate for review on Monday, the fifth day of the special legislative session called to chart Wyoming’s response to a vaccination mandate for health care workers, federal employees and workers at businesses that employ more than 100 people.

The bill won final House approval after supporters argued it gave the state a good base from which to fight against the vaccination mandate proposed by the administration of President Joe Biden.

“This is an attempt for us to say this is what we think ought to be done,” said Rep. Tim Hallinan, R-Gillette. “I’d say this is a compromise. I believe this compromise is a good one. It sets up exemptions that are appropriate and they will eventually go before the court system and I think they set up a good marker for what Wyoming’s position is.”

The Legislature called itself into session to determine a response to the Biden administration’s proposal, which has not yet taken effect.

As originally proposed, HB1001 would have prohibited employers from using a person’s vaccination status to determine whether they would keep their jobs, although employers would be able to adopt their own vaccination mandates if they could prove the step was necessary to protect the health, safety and welfare of their workplaces.

As amended, the bill would extend the prohibition only to companies employing more than 100 and those with federal contracts or that work with Medicaid or Medicare, leaving other businesses free to adopt their own rules regarding vaccinations.

Opponents said the state has in essence created a new mandate to put on companies already faced with the possibility of dealing with a federal vaccination mandate.

“I’m arguing against this bill because I really think that we have overstepped and the state will now be guilty of doing the same thing we are upset at the federal government for doing, which is overreaching and putting their nose into somewhere it doesn’t belong,” said Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander.

Others maintained that while legislators entered the special session thinking they would offer a law to give the state a way to battle the federal mandate, the resulting legislation will not accomplish what they hoped.

“If your only goal was not to affect businesses and push back against the federal mandate, this bill doesn’t do that,” said Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson.But supporters including Rep. Mike Greear, R-Worland, said the bill was a good starting point that could be refined as it moved through the remainder of the process.

“We have a bill that says we’re going to respect people’s rights about what they’re going to do dealing with this vaccine,” he said. “It says in Wyoming you can have a mandate, you just have to do it the right way.”

Greear said by setting out the conditions by which businesses can implement their own vaccine mandates, the state has created certainty for businesses.

Also approved in its third reading by a vote of 41-14 was HB1002, a bill that would prevent Wyoming officials from enforcing any federal vaccination mandates and explaining the Legislature’s opposition to the vaccination mandates.

The bill was approved for Senate review next week despite criticism that it accomplished little.

“We’ve been here four days at $25,000 a pop for two bills, the second one where it’s ‘Let’s beat my chest real hard, go home and say we did something,’” said Yin. “I’m not sure how this bill does anything different than what the governor is already doing.”

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Wyoming Senate Defeats Bill That Would Have Prohibited Vaccine Discrimination

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming Senate defeated a bill on Friday that would have prohibited people from being discriminated against based on whether they have received the coronavirus vaccine.

Senate File 1003 would have prohibited using a person’s vaccination status to bar them from receiving public benefits, services or educational opportunities or from accessing areas otherwise open to the public. The bill was defeated by a vote of 13-15 in its third and final reading in the Senate.

The bill was one of three still being considered by legislators in the special session called to chart Wyoming’s response to a federal vaccine mandate proposed by the administration of President Joe Biden. The mandate would apply to federal employees, health care workers and workers at companies employing more than 100.

Rep. Charles Scott, R-Casper, spoke against the bill Friday, expressing concern about its implications for those trying to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“What I’m afraid we’re going to do with this bill, and with some of the others, is to put something into law that prevents some of the efforts to be sensible in trying to deal with what really is a deadly disease,” he said. “I think we would have been better served maybe to deal with some of these issues in our next regular budget session when we would have what the federal government is doing right in front of us and know what problems they might occur.”

The bill was killed despite arguments by supporters that the state needs to take some steps against overreach by the federal government.

Sen. Ed Cooper, R-Ten Sleep, recalled a time he was in Baltics and saw soldiers enforcing the “lack of personal freedoms” by demanding to see identification papers carried by citizens. SF1003, Cooper said, was designed to prevent such developments in Wyoming.

“It is about passports, it’s about personal freedoms and it’s about where this country is headed if we don’t stop,” Cooper said. “We have to stand up at some point and draw that line in the sand.”

Sen. Tim Salazar, R-Riverton, said the situation with the vaccine mandate came down to a person choosing between a “forced vaccination” or putting food on the table, noting that many of his constituents have called to tell them they would be out of a job Monday due to their refusal to get a COVID vaccine.

Banner Health, which runs several health care facilities in Wyoming, has ordered its employees to get the vaccine by Nov. 1 in order to keep their jobs.

While Salazar expressed some concern about the bill, he voted in support of it.

Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, pointed out that there is a big difference between discriminating against someone for their sex, religion or race compared to their vaccination status.

“We’ve morally agreed that we shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of color or race, we’ve come to that agreement there is not a downside,” he said. “There very much is a downside with respect to vaccination status.”

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Rep. Harshman Apologizes For Cursing At Rep. Gray During Session; Has Remote Privileges Revoked

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A state representative apologized to fellow representatives on Friday morning after he was caught on a live microphone cursing one of his House colleagues and was punished by losing his privileges to participate in the Legislature’s special session remotely.

During a debate on Thursday, Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, was participating in the Legislature’s special session remotely via Zoom when he was heard using foul language directed at fellow Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper.

“Chuck Gray, f*****,” he was heard saying. “Little f*******.”

Harshman, the former Speaker of the House, did not realize his audio was on when he made the comments.

He appeared in person at the beginning of the fourth day of the session to apologize to the body and Gray in particular.

“What happened yesterday was a breach of conduct on the floor of this house and it’s not acceptable and I come here to apologize for that,” Harshman said. “We’ve all worked very hard to keep that decorum, so I apologize for that. It’s wrong and I know better than that.”

Harshman apologized for creating a distraction, particularly during the special session.

Speaker of the House Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, identified three breaches of conduct Harshman committed on Thursday: Addressing the body without permission from the chair, using a name of another member and inappropriate language.

“Your conduct was unbecoming, so I want to condemn it, clearly,” Barlow said.

Due to these breaches, Harshman had his remote privileges revoked, meaning he would have to attend the rest of the session, which will last until at least Wednesday, in person.

Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, told his colleagues that he was going to bring a motion to censure “one member and possibly two members” of the body on Monday. One is likely Harshman, but he did not clarify who the second was, saying he wanted to speak with them privately first.

“I don’t come to you with this lightly,” Bear said. “We should have already been on our best behavior, but that’s not what happened at the end of the debate.”

He asked the legislators to fast over the weekend, so they could be focused in prayer because their votes on Monday could be “pivotal.”

Bear said the incident reaffirmed his belief that allowing legislators to take part in sessions remotely would hurt the decorum of the Legislature.

“Being in a room like this, (decorum) has to be elevated so high in our hears and minds,” he said. “I feared at the time that Zoom would lighten that up.”

Carbon County Republican Chair Joey Correnti said people should have the same outrage over Rep. Harshman’s language that they did over a GOP precinct committeeman’s obscene email to a state senator “if they wanted to be looked at as relevant and legitimate.”

“Whether he did it remotely or not does not matter,” Correnti said. “As an elected member of that body his voice went out over the floor of that chamber and in that action the former Speaker of the House Representative Steve Harshman desecrated that chamber by speaking those words on its floor.”

Gray did not immediately respond to Cowboy State Daily’s request for comment.

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Wyoming Democrats Fail To Introduce Bill To Create COVID Impact Program

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Democrat leaders in Wyoming’s Legislature on Friday unsuccessfully proposed new legislation that would create a COVID impact support program using American Rescue Plan funds, legislators announced.

House Bill 1021, offered four days into a special legislative session designed to chart Wyoming’s response to a proposed federal coronavirus madate, would have created a program using ARP funds to provide monetary support for food, medicine, child care, mental health support and lost wages for people and families suffering from COVID impacts.

The bill’s introduction was defeated on a vote of 11-45.

One of the bill’s cosponsors, Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, urged legislators to change their rules to allow introduction of the bill because of the hardships experienced by Wyoming residents because of the coronavirus.

“We’ve heard from our constituents that they have struggled tremendously in trying to access basic necessities,” she said. “If COVID relief funding isn’t meant to ensure that those with COVID are able to access food, proper medical care, and resources while missing work to recover, then I don’t know what it’s meant for.”

But opponents to the bill pointed out it was offered very late in the special session. Under the session’s rules, legislation was to be filed five days before the session began.

In addition, several opponents criticized the program that would be established by the bill.

“”We’re distributing literally hundreds and hundreds of millions of (federal) dollars,” said Rep. Evan Simpson, R-Afton. “One of the criticisms I hear from my constituency is we’ve been too liberal and we’re actually encouraging people to stay home.”

The program would have been administered through the Wyoming Department of Family Services in coordination with existing social service programs (in an effort to prevent duplication of services), the legislators explained, and it is designed to provide a hand up for those quarantined or recovering from COVID who lack access to basic services.

Benefits under the program shall be initiated by boards of county commissioners who may request increased support to individuals and families suffering from the impacts of COVID-19. 

If the bill passes, $20 million from American Rescue Plan funds will be provided the Wyoming Department of Family Services to distribute.

“Whether an individual without a support system nearby to help with meals, or a family with lost wages who is deciding between rent and medication, this program is meant to alleviate the unnecessary suffering felt by our Wyoming friends and neighbors,” said Rep. Trey Sherwood, D-Laramie.

Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, told Cowboy State Daily that the lawmakers were able to introduce new legislation on Friday due to the legislature working under the 66th legislature’s normal rules.

“Even during a budget session, you can file a bill on the last day of the schedule,” Yin told Cowboy Stae Daily. “We do have some introduction limits based on House Rule 4-5, where we’d need a 2/3 vote to introduce a bill after the 15th legislative day, however, we’re not anywhere near that date”

This is the first new legislation introduced since the special session began on Tuesday, as the deadline for bills was set five days before the session started.

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Wyoming Special Session Day 3: Legislators Grapple With Individual, Business Rights

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s lawmakers continued their efforts to find a balance between the rights of individuals and the rights of the state’s businesses Wednesday as they advanced legislation aimed at reducing the impact of a proposed federal coronavirus vaccine mandate.

While House members worked to fine tune a bill that would prohibit employers from requiring their workers to obtain a coronavirus vaccination against their will, the Senate worked to accommodate what some called a new protected class of people who are unable or unwilling to get the vaccination.

The discussions came during the third day of the Legislature’s special session to chart Wyoming’s response to a federal coronavirus vaccine mandate proposed by the administration of President Joe Biden. Biden has proposed making a vaccine mandatory for federal employees, health care workers and employees of companies that employ more than 100 workers.

The House is examining two measures aimed at countering the mandate. One, HB1001, would prohibit employers from making coronavirus vaccination a requirement for employment except in some circumstances. Those circumstances include that the employer determines such a mandate is critical to ensuring the health, safety and welfare of the workplace and that the employer grants exemptions to the requirement when requested.

Some have argued companies that receive federal contracts would be stuck between the requirements of the state law and the federal mandate and Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, suggested that companies be allowed to adopt vaccine mandates if they receive $100,000 or more in federal funding.

But the amendment was rejected when opponents argued such a rule would amount to discrimination against small businesses that have smaller contracts with the federal government.

Others argued the Legislature has no right to dictate to businesses that may want to adopt a vaccine mandate.

“This is capitalism, folks,” said Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne. “Saying you’re going to stop people from doing what they want to do with their business is not allowing capitalism to take place.”

The bill itself was advanced to a third and final reading on the House floor, scheduled for Friday, and House Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, said he expected to see efforts to kill the bill during that debate.

Also approved for a third reading on Friday was HB1002, which would prohibit the enforcement of federal coronavirus mandates.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, members worked on SF1003, which would prohibit discrimination based on whether a person had received a coronavirus vaccine.

The bill’s language that would prevent anyone from refusing access to services, goods or facilities to those who have not been vaccinated was moved into the the section of state criminal law having to do with discrimination at the request of Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper.

“If you’re going to prohibit discrimination based on a person’s COVID-19 vaccination status …  we’re going to make that at least somewhat of a protected class for the purposes of public accommodations, then the individuals subject to those laws, particularly the businesses, the stores, the restaurants, the motels … they ought to know they have one place to go to figure out what their obligation is and who they cannot discriminate against,” he said.

Several people said they objected to creating a new protected class of people, but supported the amendment because it made the intent of the bill itself more clear.

“I think this clarifies the bill and makes it more pointed what we’re voting on in third reading,” said Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander. “I don’t think this belongs in the list of protected classes. The amendment restructures the bill so it’s a clear choice when we get there.”

The bill itself was forwarded to a third reading on the Senate floor on Friday.

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Wyoming Special Session To Last Until At Least Wednesday

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The special session of Wyoming’s Legislature, originally scheduled to last three days, will now stretch into the next week at least, the Wyoming Speaker of the House said on Thursday.

Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, told his fellow legislators to plan on being at the Wyoming Capitol until at least Wednesday.

“No bills will be accelerated, that means we’ll do third reading tomorrow,” Barlow said. “I don’t see any point working on a Saturday. Then come back Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.”

Barlow added that the House, which spent the better part of Wednesday and Thursday reviewing two bills, will likely see short days next week when it receives the Senate’s measures. The Senate, which wrapped up its work before noon on Thursday after finishing its second review of two bills, will probably have longer days as it looks over the House bills, he said.

Only four bills remain of the 20 originally proposed in each chamber for review during the special session, called to chart Wyoming’s response to a proposed federal coronavirus vaccine mandate.

In the House, those bills still in play were HB1001, which specifies that vaccination status cannot be used as a condition of employment except under certain conditions and HB1002, which would prohibit the enforcement of mandates related to coronavirus and reiterate the governor’s authority to take legal action to defend the state against mandates.

In the Senate, SF1003 was the focus of much of Thursday’s work. The bill would prohibit using a person’s vaccination status to bar them from receiving public benefits, services or educational opportunities.

The second bill up for a second reading in the Senate, SF1019, would correct an error in existing law that prevented law enforcement officers for the Wyoming Gaming Commission from participating in the state’s retirement system.

Initially when the special session was proposed, it was only supposed to last three days and would have wrapped up Thursday. However, special rules for the session drafted to speed up the process to accommodate that timeline were rejected.

By law, legislators have up to 20 days to finish the session.

Beginning Monday, the House bills will move to the Senate for review and the Senate bills will move to the House.

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Wyoming Legislature Day 3: Lawmakers Review Four Remaining Bills

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s legislators continued to work Thursday morning on the four bills to survive the introduction process during their special session.

Representatives and senators were in the midst of their second review of the bills, three of which would address the proposed federal coronavirus vaccination mandate and one of which would correct an error in state law.

The session, which entered its third day Thursday, was called by legislators themselves to chart Wyoming’s response to the vaccine mandate proposed by the administration of President Joe Biden.

Of 20 bills originally proposed for review by each chamber, the bodies on Wednesday approved two for a second reading on Thursday.

In the House, those bills were HB1001, which specifies that vaccination status cannot be used as a condition of employment except under certain conditions and HB1002, which would prohibit the enforcement of mandates related to coronavirus and reiterate the governor’s authority to take legal action to defend the state against mandates.

In the Senate, SF1003 was the focus of much of Thursday’s work. The bill would prohibit using a person’s vaccination status to bear them from receiving public benefits, services or educational opportunities.

The second bill up for a second reading in the Senate, SF1019, would correct an error in existing law that prevented law enforcement officers for the Wyoming Gaming Commission from participating in the state’s retirement system.

A third bill was placed on the “general file” in the Senate, but there was no immediate indication that the bill would be considered for the special session.

The bill, SF1009, would require employers to provide severance pay for employees who quit or are fired because they are unable or unwilling to take the coronavirus vaccine and would require employers to grant exemptions to their vaccination requirements if employees submit written evidence of an objection on medical or religious grounds.

The measures receiving a second review on the House and Senate floor will most likely be read a third time Friday, when legislators will vote to approve or deny them as amended.

After that, beginning Monday, the House bills will move to the Senate for review and the Senate bills will move to the House.

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