Kansas House passes plan on COVID mandates, debate in Senate continues

The Kansas House of Represenatives gathered Monday, Nov. 22, 2021 during a special session over...
The Kansas House of Represenatives gathered Monday, Nov. 22, 2021 during a special session over COVID-19 mandates.(WIBW/Danielle Martin)
Published: Nov. 22, 2021 at 8:57 AM CST
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Conservative Kansas legislators are trying to tamp down fears about the cost and other potential problems with their proposal to provide unemployment benefits to workers who lose their jobs for refusing COVID-19 vaccines.

The GOP-controlled Legislature is considering the measure during a special session that began Monday morning, along with another proposal that would make it easier for workers to claim religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The measures are responses to vaccine mandates from President Joe Biden covering more than 100 million American workers.

Just after noon on Monday, the House passed HB 2001 by a 78 to 40 vote. As of 12:15 p.m., the Senate continued to debate.

The push for unemployment benefits for vaccine-refusing workers comes after GOP lawmakers worried for months that the depletion of funds to pay claims last year during the pandemic would force an increase in the state tax that finances the benefits. There’s bipartisan concern that the unemployment proposal before lawmakers now could lead to such a tax increase.

“I certainly don’t want to see increased unemployment taxes or that type of thing because of our actions,” Republican state Sen. Jeff Longbine of Emporia said.

Kansas’ special legislative session comes as Republican governors, state attorneys general and lawmakers are pursuing ways to push back against the Biden mandates. Iowa enacted a law last month extending unemployment benefits to workers who refuse to get vaccinated.

Although vaccine mandates from private companies and local officials have boosted inoculation rates, GOP officials across the U.S. see Biden’s mandates as violating personal liberties.

“No American should lose their livelihood because their personal health care decisions differ from the preferences of the president of the United States,” said C.J. Grover, a spokesperson for Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican running for governor next year. He endorsed the legislative proposals.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly opposes Biden’s mandates but didn’t publicly embrace specific proposals ahead of the special session. Her administration is handling questions about whether unvaccinated workers receive unemployment benefits case by case.

Lawmakers have no good estimates of how much the GOP unemployment proposal might cost the state. Business groups have suggested it could be hundreds of millions of dollars, but backers of the measure insist it will be close to zero.

They said that’s because of the companion proposal on religious exemptions. It says workers asking for exemptions must get them without having their belief scrutinized — and employers could face tens of thousands of dollars in state fines if exemptions are rejected. Conservative Republicans said workers will seek exemptions knowing they’ll be granted and that people won’t lose their jobs, so unemployment benefits won’t be needed.

“If we were to only pass the unemployment piece and not the other part, then we could have some real issues, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” said Rep. Stephen Owens, a Hesston Republican.

Critics predict abuses. Rabbi Moti Rieber, the executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, said the policy would allow people with political objections to falsely claim religious ones.

“Opposition to the public health is the religion,” he said. “Trumpism is the religion.”

One question is whether such a state law can be enforced because federal law is supreme. A mandate from Biden for workers at companies with 100 or more employees allows workers to opt for regular COVID-19 testing instead, and it permits “reasonable accommodations” for “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

Owens and other Republicans argue that the Kansas measure on religious exemptions wouldn’t conflict with Biden’s mandate and would withstand a possible court challenge. They argue that the proposal merely gives more guidance to businesses.

“If they just stick to that and accept the exemptions, we will protect the unemployment fund,” said Republican Rep. Sean Tarwater, of Stilwell.

But the influential Kansas Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Business had strong doubts.

They fear businesses would face a choice: Comply with state law and face federal government fines or follow the federal mandate and get sued in state court.

“It certainly is a very tough place to be,” said Chuck Grier, president and CEO of UCI, an industrial construction company. “And it’s also a very tough place to be when you think that you could potentially lose employees who are good employees because they refuse to follow a government mandate.”

Some Democrats argue that the proposals are being rushed. Lawrence Rep. Boog Highberger dismisses them as “political theater” signaling a refusal by Republicans to sacrifice for the public good.

“If the people in the Kansas Legislature were running our country in the 40s and 50s, we would have lost World War II and we’d still have polio,” Highberger said.

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