TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Influential Kansas business groups have strong misgivings about Republican proposals aimed at financially protecting workers refusing COVID-19 inoculations while vocal anti-mandate activists don't think the measures go far enough.
A joint legislative committee on Friday endorsed a proposal to make it easier for workers to claim religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates and another to provide unemployment benefits to workers who are fired for refusing to get vaccinated. Both are a response to vaccine mandates from President Joe Biden applying to more than 100 million workers.
Republican lawmakers have forced a Thanksgiving-week special session of the GOP-controlled Legislature to consider the two GOP proposals for resisting the mandates. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly has expressed opposition to the Democratic president's mandates but has not embraced specific proposals. Lawmakers are set to convene Nov. 22.
The proposals drew criticism from the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. They fear that the unemployment measure will prove costly, raising the state taxes on businesses that help finance the benefits. They said the other measure could force business owners to choose between facing federal fines for granting exemptions too easily or facing lawsuits from aggrieved employees who don't get them.
“We didn't ask to be here,” said chamber lobbyist Eric Stafford. “We ask that you not punish us.”
Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, drafted the proposals after the committee heard two days of testimony from dozens of people, almost all of them strongly opposed to the mandates.
But the strongest vaccine-mandate critics were not pleased with Masterson's proposals, viewing them as too weak.
Some want to also allow exemptions for people who have non-religious objections to COVID-19 vaccines, while others want to prohibit private employers from imposing mandates.
“The draft bills we are being asked to comment on today, while a step in the right direction, don’t go far enough to end the madness,” said Gary Morgan, a resident of the Kansas City suburb of Shawnee.
Masterson shrugged off the criticism during a break in the committee's meeting. He serves on the panel.
“You know what? Good legislation doesn't make anybody happy,” he said.
Support for a special legislative session among Republicans grew quickly this week after Masterson outlined his proposals Tuesday. The Kansas Constitution required Kelly to call a special session if two-thirds of both chambers demanded one by petition and with that condition met, Kelly issued a the call Friday evening. The full Legislature has been out of session since May and wasn't set to reconvene until January.
A third proposal on vaccine mandates emerged Friday from Democratic Rep. Vic Miller, of Topeka, but it's not yet clear whether Republican leaders will allow it to be considered during the special session. It would allow workers to sue their employers if those employers imposed COVID-19 vaccine mandates separate from the federal mandates and the workers were harmed by the shots.
“It is possible for employers to do it on their own, independent of the feds,” Miller said. “When you cause injury, you should be responsible.”
Some mandate critics are generally are anti-vaccine, and some have repeated widespread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.
A few critics have compared Biden’s mandates to the Holocaust that killed millions of Jews during World War II, despite sharp criticism. That happened again Friday, when Kansas City, Kansas, resident Daran Duffy and two members of his family wore large yellow Stars of David on their chests, a reference to the stars Jews were forced to wear in Germany under the Nazis.
State Sen. Pat Pettey, a Kansas City Democrat, objected so strongly that the committee's GOP chairwoman gaveled her down.
“You are not respecting Jewish people,” she told Duffy. “You are desecrating that memory.”
Masterson later tweeted that GOP senators rejected such analogies “in the strongest possible terms,” adding, “Such comparisons are inappropriate and bear no resemblance to the issues we are debating today.”
This story has been corrected to show that the Senate president outlined his proposals Tuesday, not Monday.
Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.