Wyoming lawmakers to mull penalties for requiring vaccines

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Requiring workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 would result in up to $10 million in fines and at least $500,000 in damages under bills Wyoming lawmakers will consider in a rare special session that began Tuesday.

In all, they plan to look at 20 proposals — including a few having nothing to do with President Joe Biden’s plans to require COVID-19 vaccination for certain workers — over the next several days after legislators debated whether to adjourn without considering anything at all.

The House and Senate voted to move ahead despite rejecting time-saving rules to limit testimony and debate and prohibit bills unrelated to COVID-19 vaccination in an effort to wrap up the session in just three days.

“If this is important enough for us to assemble here, it’s important for us to do it right,” said Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, who voted against the special rules and in favor of adjournment.

Other lawmakers warned of high stakes, saying they expected the Biden administration to release details of its COVID-19 vaccination mandate for health care workers, federal contractors and large businesses early next week.

“In five days we are going to have hundreds of people, potentially thousands, who are going to lose their jobs because of a mandate,” Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, said.

Gray is lead sponsor of a bill co-sponsored by 11 others that would allow people denied work because they’re not vaccinated to collect at least $500,000 in civil damages. A bill sponsored by Rep. Bill Fortner, R-Gillette, would fine any public servant who tries to enforce any COVID-19 vaccine mandate up to $10 million.

Schools would be barred from enforcing student mask-wearing and vaccination against not just COVID-19 but any disease under a bill sponsored by Rep. Ocean Andrew, R-Laramie. The bill is named for a Laramie high school student who was suspended for refusing to wear a mask and then arrested for alleged trespassing when she returned to school and refused to leave.

Wyoming has been one the most vaccine-resistant states, behind only West Virginia, and as a result one of the highest COVID-19 rates in the U.S. over the past couple months. The vast majority, about 84%, of those filling Wyoming hospitals with record numbers of COVID-19 patients have not been fully vaccinated, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.

Even so, many Wyoming workers have been vocally opposed to vaccine mandates, saying they would rather face routine testing for the virus than get the jab.

It remains to be seen, though, which if any of the anti-vaccine-mandate bills would have any real effect if passed. Federal law trumps state law under the U.S. Constitution and Gov. Mark Gordon has signaled willingness to veto, saying he opposed state mandates as well as federal ones.

“I believe in liberty for individuals and that those liberties extend to how individuals choose to run their businesses. These principles cannot be decoupled for political expediency,” Gordon wrote in a statement to lawmakers read in the House and Senate.

The rejection of special rules for the session means some bills unrelated to COVID-19 could get traction like during a typical legislative session.

One would allow state officials to proceed with expanding the federal Medicaid health-coverage program in the state, an idea getting more debate and support in Wyoming in recent years. Another bill would freeze increases to firefighter pensions.

Not all COVID-19 vaccination bills oppose the federal mandate, meanwhile. People who quit jobs because their employers wouldn’t enforce COVID-19 vaccination requirements would qualify for unemployment benefits under a bill sponsored by Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie.

Wyoming lawmakers planning how to allocate federal coronavirus relief funding held their first special session in 16 years in 2020. The current special session is the 24th in state history.

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The Associated Press

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