Gov. Laura Kelly to sign bill targeting COVID vaccine mandates as Legislature wraps up special session

Andrew Bahl Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas Senate members mingle around the chamber before the start of Monday's special session.

Gov. Laura Kelly's office said she would sign a compromise response to federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates, including a provision to allow residents who lose their jobs to collect unemployment benefits, despite previously articulated concerns from the business community.

It comes after a grueling 13 hours of stops and starts, with both chambers wrapping up their work Monday night after approving the retooled bill. The debate also saw a host of other policies proposed and later discarded, though many will likely reappear when legislators return to Topeka for their regular session in January.

In a statement released late Monday, shortly after the Kansas Senate began debating the bill, Kelly promised to "sign the CCR for HB 2001 when it reaches my desk." Neither chamber had the supermajority support required to override a veto from the Democratic governor.

More:Legislators roll out new vaccine mandate legislation as special session begins — but hurdles remain

It remained unclear throughout the day if Kelly would sign the legislation, though both Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, and House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said during GOP caucus meetings that the governor's staff had signaled she would sign the bill.

The mixed signals from Kelly's office frustrated House Democrats, who vented those sentiments during their own caucus meeting.

One member said it was concerning that their Republican colleagues appeared to be getting more updates from the governor's office, while others reiterated concerns the bill was nothing more than a political stunt.

Rep. Jerry Stogsdill, D-Prairie Village, said any issues articulating the party's stance on the bill would be "the governor's problem if you ask me, not ours."

"We voted the right direction and if she chooses not to, well, that's on her," Stogsdill said.

House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said the governor's opposition changed little for his members.

"I think they can explain their votes because it's not a good bill," he told reporters shortly before the House vote.

Members reverse course, embrace unemployment provision

Senate president Ty Masterson, R-Andover, talks with colleagues before the start of Monday's special session at the Statehouse.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has joined a host of other states that have filed lawsuits against the three principal directives from President Joe Biden's administration, which require employees at large companies either be vaccinated or test weekly, as well as vaccine requirements for federal contractors and health care workers.

Legislators forced the governor to call a special session to further target vaccine mandates — both those from the federal government and ones imposed by private employers.

The final bill includes provisions making it easier for workers to get out of vaccine mandates, particularly for those with religious or moral objections, while also providing unemployment benefits for unvaccinated people who lose their jobs.

Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, said the bill did not go far enough, but it was still "a victory for liberty and the patriots standing tall across Kansas."

"Tonight was the beginning of a turning point back toward individual liberty," he said.

The dropped provisions would have banned employers from requiring vaccines without the consent of the Legislature and barred discrimination based on whether a person has gotten the COVID-19 vaccine. Both policies were adopted by the Kansas Senate and later excluded from negotiations between the two chambers.

More:'Alarming news' on COVID case increases has Kansas doctor 'cautiously braced' for another surge

But the Senate prevailed in getting the unemployment component into the final bill.

Republican members argued the practical effect of that provision, thanks to a larger framework which would expand when a person could get a medical or religious exemption from the vaccine, including a provision elevating moral or ethical objections to the shots to the level of a sincerely held religious belief.

The bill also includes a provision which would require unemployment benefits be refunded to the state if a company is deemed to have improperly denied an exemption and an employee is reinstated to their position with back pay.

The Kansas Department of Labor will now be charged with investigating employers who illicitly deny exemptions, issuing a report and forwarding it to the attorney general's office, who can seek civil damages up to $10,000 for small employers or $50,000 for larger companies.

Concerns from business community remain

But some Kansas House members remained concerned about the potential ramifications the legislation could have on businesses. 

The Kansas Chamber said in a statement that they maintained their opposition to the bill, saying the group are "not able to support any mandate or penalties on businesses that impacts their ability to make informed decisions on how best to maintain their operations and could lead to unintended consequences."

The group, as well as their allies in the business community, were concerned about the unemployment component as well, arguing it could have a disastrous effect on the fund used to pay unemployment benefits, which is bankrolled via businesses paying payroll taxes. 

More:Federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates could cost Kansas businesses $43 million, Sen. Roger Marshall says

The Kansas Department of Labor told legislators earlier this month that only 10 residents had filed for unemployment due to dismissal over refusal to get the vaccine, with the claims still in adjudication.

Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, said the final bill did not provide clarity for employees or employers.

"My concern is that Kansas is a right-to-work state," he said. "I think we're giving Kansas citizens a false impression that they're getting additional privileges and rights, which violate that right to work tenets and our statute laws, and quite honestly infringe upon the property rights of business owners."

Legislature set to pursue more aggressive anti-mandate policies in January

Masterson, the Senate president, said maintaining the unemployment protections, which are retroactive to when Biden first announced the mandates in September, were a "win" for his members, who largely favored the idea.

He predicted some of the other, more aggressive measures on vaccines and vaccine mandates would be a hot button topic in January.

"I think it shows you the energy behind that," Masterson told reporters. "I'm sure there will be a few members who feel that may not have been something that was dropped but in the greater scheme of things, we have to stay focused on the priority which is protecting those people right now that can be losing their jobs. (The other provisions) is something that can be dealt with in regular session."

The energy on the bolder anti-mandate policies largely stems from a cadre of conservative senators, who successfully pushed for their inclusion earlier in the day.

Sen. Alicia Straub, R-Ellinwood, got a watered-down version of an earlier anti-discrimination amendment added to the bill after opposition from Masterson. Republican and Democrat speakers agreed Straub's language had no functional impact on the bill.

Meanwhile, an amendment from Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, blocked employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations without the Legislature's authorization. He said his language would help unvaccinated workers — and legislators — get through the holidays.

More:State-backed community, business COVID-19 testing to continue into 2022 under new funding plan

"My whole objective here is to put a prohibition on the requirement for the vaccine," Pyle said.

The conference committee nixed both plans.

Masterson also blocked an amendment from Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, that would have helped railroad workers get time off to get vaccinated.

Sen. Kellie Warren, R-Leawood, said the rules committee determined that proposal was not germane to the vaccine exemption bill, which "does not discuss what to do if you are an employee who wants to get a vaccine."

‘That ship, you're not going to turn it around on a moment's notice’

After the Senate passed the bill, Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, said the pandemic has plagued society and led to divisiveness.

"I hope — for Kansas's sake, the country's sake, the world — that we find some way to curb this scourge, this pandemic," he said.

As of Monday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has reported 6,643 deaths from COVID-19, including six children.

A group of conservative lawmakers also introduced a separate bill targeting several public health measures, though it was never brought to the floor.

Among other provisions, the bill has wide-ranging bans on discrimination based on vaccination status, bars government incentives to get vaccinated, requires hospitals and nursing homes to allow certain in-person visitors, has an apparent nod to Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, blocks the KDHE secretary from mandating vaccines for schoolchildren and bans government mask mandates.

The provisions apply to all infectious diseases, not just COVID-19.

Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson, a supporter of both that bill and Straub's and Pyle's amendments, acknowledged "disappointment" that the provisions did not get attention during the special session but noted he was a "realist" and expressed optimism they would be on the top of the agenda in January.

"That ship, you're not going to turn it around on a moment's notice," Steffen said. "The ice is breaking and I'm excited to come back in January and pass a bill to squash these mandates once and for all."

Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at abahl@gannett.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.