INDIANAPOLIS — State legislators met Tuesday to review draft legislation that would end the COVID-19 public health emergency and restrict employers from mandating vaccines.
In an unusual move, Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, predicted that his bill could be passed in both chambers by Monday.
One observer remarked that he had never seen anything like that happen in all his years working for and with the General Assembly. “We ... frankly have a concern with the process that this is going under. January will be my 42nd legislative session, and I’ve never seen a hearing on a preliminary draft,” said Kevin Brinegar, president and CEO of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
Lehman said it was due time for the public health emergency to end but that the bill didn’t force Gov. Eric Holcomb to let his current executive order expire at the end of the month.
“If this bill passes on the 29th (of November) and effectively says we’ve addressed the governor’s concerns on ending this, I would hope at that point that the governor would then not extend this emergency,” Lehman said, noting the current order expires Dec. 1.
On Saturday, legislators published the bill, which includes language that would continue enhanced Medicaid and SNAP (food assistance) benefits until March, pending federal action. But the state’s requirements for businesses mandating vaccines attracted the most attention, as the federal vaccine mandate for businesses with more than 100 employees lingers in court.
As written, the legislation lets businesses require vaccines for their employees but stipulates that businesses — including universities — must allow for religious and medical exemptions, can mandate testing just once a week and cannot pass the cost of testing onto the employee. If an employee complies with all of the above, that person cannot be fired for being unvaccinated.
Business owners and representatives appealed to Republicans, saying businesses should be able to make decisions for their own companies.
“We simply believe employers are in the best position to determine what’s best for their workforce,” said Patrick Tamm, president and CEO of the Indiana Restaurant and Lodging Association. “Our main concern is testing requirements … (The state is) providing 12,000 to 17,000 tests daily. Our testing capacity is not what it was at one time.”
Earlier this month, Brinegar called for the legislature to leave the choice to companies during the Chamber’s annual legislative preview.
Democrats decried the speeded-up process, which bypasses the usual three full readings and hearings in multiple committees.
“Why are we straying from the usual process that we engage in? There’s at least three standing committees that I can think this bill should be going through,” said Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. “Will there be second reading amendment opportunities? We’re going to be coming back in a little over a month for our usual session. Why are we costing the taxpayers additional money to consider this?”
At the conclusion of seven hours of testimony, Lehman said that there were several issues that merited continued discussion, including federal vaccine mandates on contractors, a move not blocked by courts.
“This can’t wait until January; I think we should take this action now.”
Both the House and the Senate will meet Monday, before the 2022 session’s start on Jan. 4. On Monday, the Senate will consider second amendments and suspend procedural rules to let the legislation proceed.