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Idaho Senate panel kills three COVID-19 vaccine bills

by KEITH RIDLER Associated Press
| November 18, 2021 1:00 AM

BOISE (AP) — The Idaho Legislature appeared ready on Wednesday to wrap up the extended 2021 session after a Senate committee killed three bills having to do with COVID-19 vaccine legislation.

The Senate State Affairs Committee held all three bills in committee.

One bill involved making it easier for Idaho residents to get worker compensation if they become ill after taking an employee-mandated vaccine.

Another bill would have prohibited questioning the sincerity of people claiming religious exemptions from vaccinations. The third bill would have prevented employers from asking employees whether they have received the COVID-19 vaccine.

Lawmakers said versions of the legislation could return when the Legislature meets for its regular session in January.

Lawmakers opposed to the legislation said Idaho already has laws the three bills involved, and that even if passed, the remedy would remain in the courts.

The lawmakers also noted Idaho is involved in three federal lawsuits, and legislation is premature until those cases are decided.

The Legislature primarily reconvened on Monday to consider bills aimed at thwarting President Joe Biden's vaccine requirements for federal workers and contractors and vaccine requirements for large employers and health care employers.

The House ended up passing seven bills, but none made it through the Senate.

The workers compensation measure passed the House on a 67-3 vote. It was among seven COVID-19-related bills that the chamber pushed through with expedited voting and sent to the Senate.

Supporters said workers are getting sick after being vaccinated for COVID-19, and some are having problems receiving compensation. The bill tilts the field toward employees for compensation of hard-to-prove claims such as illnesses caused by vaccines, backers said.

“If the employer is telling you, you have to do this in order to work here, if they’re doing that, then, by golly, I think our system ought to provide a fair compensation method,” Democratic Rep. John Gannon said.

Bill opponents said Idaho’s worker compensation has worked well for decades and that workers sickened by vaccines are already being compensated.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says common side effects of getting the COVID-19 vaccine can include tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, fever and nausea.

Also sent to the Senate was a bill that would prohibit questioning the sincerity of people claiming religious exemptions from vaccinations. It passed 46-24 despite concerns it was merely a way for people to claim a religious exemption without any type of religious faith.

“By attempting to elevate those things to the level of religiosity, you don’t elevate them at all,” Republican Rep. Greg Chaney said. “You lower the sacredness of what it means to claim a religious exemption. What it means to have a sincerely held faith.”

Also sent to the Senate, on a 42-28 vote, was a bill that allows exemptions to mask mandates in schools. Backers said that would put parents in charge, while opponents said local officials should be allowed to make decisions depending on the level of COVID-19 infections and deaths in an area.

Another bill aimed at preventing what backers call discrimination based on vaccine status passed the House 48-22.

The House in quick succession also passed three other bills late Tuesday, all of which drew concerns in opinions from the Idaho attorney general's office.

One, which passed 41-27, prevents employers from asking employees about whether they have received the COVID-19 vaccine. Another bill, which passed 50-18, prohibits requiring proof of being vaccinated to enter or use state-owned public venues.

The last bill passed by the House, on a 43-24 vote, would add medical, religious, philosophical and natural immunity exemptions for employees from vaccine requirements by employers. That bill applies to all vaccines, not just COVID-19 vaccines, one lawmaker noted.

“We need these four powerful exemptions to protect our Idaho employees,” said the bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say a study has found that the vaccine provides better protection than natural immunity.

The Senate on a voice vote on Tuesday approved a declaration stating opposition to President Joe Biden's vaccine requirements for federal workers and contractors and vaccine requirements for large employers and health care employers.

The House also took that up and passed it on a voice vote as well.

Idaho is involved in three lawsuits against the Biden administration involving those requirements. One requiring employers with more than 100 workers to require vaccinations or frequent testing has been put on hold by a federal court.

Idaho lawmakers started meeting on Monday in what is essentially a continuation of the 2021 legislative session after more than five months off. The House never adjourned, though the Senate did. The Idaho attorney general's office has said reconvening was probably legal, but a court could rule otherwise. If that happens, the laws they are passing would not be valid.