Vaccines, Race Theory Emerge As Session's Hot-Button Issues

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Bills to prevent vaccine mandates and the teaching of certain concepts of race and racism will get hearings — and almost certain approval — when the Republican-controlled Legislature returns to the Capitol next week for a special session.

The original intent of the special session, which convenes at 9 a.m. Monday, was to approve a new map of legislative districts and the spending of $1.1 billion in federal coronavirus relief aid. But the hot-button conservative issues could overshadow those measures, both of which already have been vetted in recent weeks and aren’t expected to be widely contested .

The special session called by GOP Gov. Doug Burgum last week through an executive order has no time restriction and may last indefinitely, though legislative leaders said they hoped it would only last five days.

More than two dozen bills were submitted ahead of the session, many of which aim to restrict vaccination mandates and ban the teaching of certain concepts of race and racism, known as “critical race theory.”

Several of the bills have come from a loosely organized group of ultraconservative legislators known as the Bastiat Caucus, which supports limited government and gun rights.

Any bills that are introduced will have to first win the endorsement of the House or Senate’s delayed-bills committee. The bipartisan panels both have five members and are controlled by the Legislature’s GOP leadership.

North Dakota Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature. Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner and House Majority Leader Chet Pollert said they prefer only one bill each be advanced addressing vaccine mandates and critical race theory.

Though there is no clear favorite measure at present among lawmakers addressing critical race theory, several legislators, including Pollert, said they support an anti-vaccine mandate bill sponsored by Hurdsfield GOP Rep. Robin Weisz, a longtime and widely respected lawmaker who heads the Human Services Committee. His bill would provide exemptions for medical or religious reasons, and would allow workers to avoid vaccinations if they agree to frequent testing for the coronavirus.

Bismarck Republican Rep. Rick Becker, who heads the Bastiat Caucus, recently signed on as a co-sponsor to Weisz’s bill, despite being the primary sponsor of another bill aimed at preventing vaccine mandates in the state.

Becker said his colleague’s bill doesn’t go far enough but likely has the best shot of passage in the Legislature.

The prospect of vaccine mandates has become a lightning-rod issue in North Dakota, with a rally planned Monday at the statehouse to urge lawmakers to pass legislation opposing them.

State Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, a Republican, has brought North Dakota into a federal lawsuit against President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for employees of government contractors.

The Biden administration is also requiring vaccinations for all federal workers and certain health care workers. Private employers with 100 or more workers will have to require them to be vaccinated or tested weekly.

The GOP majority leaders said they would personally support legislation that emerges from the session that prohibits vaccine mandates and bans public schools from teaching critical race theory — an academic way of thinking about America’s history through the lens of racism. With support of the GOP leaders, most Republican lawmakers in both chambers, who overwhelmingly outnumber Democrats, certainly will follow suit.

Any legislation during a special session could take effect immediately upon being approved by a majority vote. It’s unclear if Burgum would sign the measures. Spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the governor typically does not comment on legislation before it reaches his desk.

GOP leaders said they want to limit the introduction of bills in the time-compressed session, and it’s unclear what other measures, including tax-related bills, may surface for debate.