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Idaho Senate committee kills three vaccine-related bills

The Senate in session at the Idaho Capitol on April 6, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Otto Kitsinger
The Senate in session at the Idaho Capitol on April 6, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Senators cite lack of time for amendments and too many ambiguities

The Senate State Affairs Committee decided not to advance three bills passed by the Idaho House of Representatives on Tuesday, effectively killing the bills until at least the next legislative session in January.

The committee met for nearly four hours to hear from bill sponsors and to take testimony from the public on thethree vaccine-related bills. Most of the arguments from senators against advancing the bill came down to not having enough time to consider the potential unintended consequences that could arise from the legislation and their contention that much of what was trying to be accomplished with the new bills was already part of existing Idaho law.

Members of the committee, including chairwoman Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Caldwell, said Idaho is already involved in three lawsuits against the federal government over vaccine mandates that will likely be decided in the coming months, and any legislation passed this week could put employers in a position of being forced to violate either federal law or state law.

The committee’s inaction stopped legislation banning mask or vaccine mandates from coming out of the reconvened session like some lawmakers had hoped.

What were the bills about?

House Bill 414, which states that employers cannot question the sincerity of someone’s beliefs when applying for a religious exemption, was first on the list, but senators said it wasn’t clear how “sincerity” would be judged by employers or in a legal sense. Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said there were no outlines for what thresholds an employer would have to adhere to in order to comply with the law.

“Interestingly, it’s frequently fairly obvious if it’s a religious exemption or not that the person’s applying for,” said Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, who presented the bill in place of Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star, whose tractor broke down during his harvest work and delayed his arrival to the Capitol. “‘I don’t like the vaccine for scientific reasons’ would obviously not be a religious exemption application. … The slippery slope has always been, and the hard thing has always been, how do you gauge the sincerity of someone, because people don’t communicate as well as any of us think we do.”

At the end of the hearing, Sen. Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, motioned to send House Bill 414 to the Senate floor with a recommendation that it pass, but received no second from another committee member.

House Bill 417, which passed with only three “no” votes in the House on Tuesday, received more positive feedback from senators, although it was ultimately still tabled in committee. The bill would add vaccine-related injuries to the existing worker’s compensation law in Idaho so that individuals who were required by an employer to receive a vaccination could be compensated if they had an adverse reaction. The bill did not define what would qualify as an injury, and senators were concerned about language that states employees could be compensated if the injury “may be related” to receiving the vaccine.

Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, said she thought it was an important bill that could be amended by the next legislative session in January. Anthon said he opposed holding it in committee because he wanted it passed sooner, but that he was happy to work with other legislators to make amendments.

“I sincerely believe in the intent of this bill,” said Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise. “… But I have an overriding concern here that … we not impose financial burden on Idaho employers for federal mandates, and I do think that we should instead cover that financial burden in terms of the potential for increased premium costs … that should be paid for from the federal COVID funds that Idaho has received.”

House Bill 419, a one-paragraph bill creating a “don’t ask, don’t tell” type of policy for any person, firm, corporation or other business entity or representative on COVID-19 vaccination status.

Lee asked the bill sponsor, Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, about adding the language to Idaho Code given that Idaho is already fighting the federal mandates in court.

“My concern is adding language that … signals to the citizens of Idaho that we are giving them something that is more than what we already have,” Lee said. “And I’m concerned about offering something that people can say, ‘Look, the statute says this when the constitution already says it,’ and we’re not really giving them anything more than perhaps just, ‘Hey, this feels good,’ because the fight will be had in the courts.”

Mendive said it would give people comfort that Idaho is standing up for the constitution, which he said is being ignored. The bill would be saying to the federal government that Idaho doesn’t like the COVID-19 mandates, he said.

“Words in our code are things that people who enforce our laws look to, to figure out: is the law clear? Does it tell me exactly what I need to know in order to proceed with my conduct in a legal and appropriate fashion?” Burgoyne said. “When we clutter up the code with feel-good stuff, we create ambiguities that cost people money and create legal uncertainties.”

Mendive’s bill received no motion to send it to the Senate floor. Lodge told Mendive they would look at it again “first thing” in the next legislative session in January.

So far, the only item passed by both the House and Senate is ajoint statement saying the Idaho Legislature disapproves of federal vaccine mandates.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state.