Opposition grows as Texas Republicans try to upend vaccine mandates
Republicans in the Texas Legislature face an uphill battle as they try to pass a bill exempting most of the state’s workforce from vaccine requirements enacted by their employers.
For one, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott asked them to take up the matter just this week, following up on an executive order he issued Monday. Now there are just six days left in the current special session.
On top of that, the legislation has been denounced by both Democrats, who view the vaccine rules as necessary for public health reasons, and some Republicans, who disagree with government interference in business decisions.
In another sign of trouble, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, an influential and well-funded group whose PAC tends to support conservatives, on Wednesday came out against one of the bills ordered up by Abbott, House Bill 155, which the Texas House State Affairs Committee considered Wednesday.
The bill would require employers to allow employees to receive an exemption from a vaccine requirement based on their acquired immunity after contracting COVID-19; because of a medical condition; or for “reasons of conscience, including a religious belief.”
The lawsuit reform group said in a statement that the bill would put employers in an “untenable position” and would expose them to “substantial liability” because it conflicts with federal guidance from the Biden administration requiring large companies to mandate vaccines. The group also has concerns about a provision that allows employees to sue employers who violate the law and recover court fees.
“When you begin to add more and more exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine, it creates more and more litigation,” said Lee Parsley, general counsel for the group. “That’s what we’ve seen over the years: The exceptions to the doctrine have created litigation and richer lawyers.”
Glenn Hamer, president of Texas Association of Business, gave similar testimony at Wednesday’s hearing.
“Our big-time concern is the cause of action,” Hamer said. “That, in our view, needs to change.”
Abbott caught Texas by surprise with his executive order, issued after 5 p.m. on Monday. It was just two months ago that the governor declared in an executive order that he would bar local and state officials from requiring vaccines but would not meddle in private business decisions.
The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, who is a physician, said that while he is vaccinated, he believes it’s a personal decision.
“Unfortunately, with respect to the COVID pandemic, we’ve gotten away I think from that foundational medical principle of patient autonomy, and we were sort of trampling all over it,” Oliverson said. “Americans in general do not like being compelled and told what they must do, especially when they believe it violates or intrudes upon their specific rights as an individual.”
Neither Oliverson nor committee chair Rep. Chris Paddie expected the panel to rush the legislation through to passage.
“Maybe we get there, maybe we don’t, but that’s not going to trump — no pun intended — any sense of political expediency here to try to satisfy the politics versus good policy,” Paddie said.
At the end of a seven-hour hearing, Oliverson said he would revisit the legal liability provision, as well as clarify the definition of “reasons of conscience” and consult with health groups about carve-outs for places of work involving vulnerable, immunocompromised Texans. He planned to bring back a revised bill Thursday.
The Texas Senate State Affairs Committee will consider a similar but more sweeping bill on Thursday that would prohibit government entities, school districts and public and private institutions of higher education from requiring COVID-19 vaccines, in addition to forcing private employers to accept medical and conscience exemptions.
Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, raised concerns about putting businesses in a “difficult situation” if Texas adopts a new law that contradicts federal requirements.
“I’m just really struggling with this fact that we’re sitting here talking about what we may do, but at the same time, that’s not going to get our employers out from what the federal government is telling them to do, and that’s going to be a long drawn-out legal fight,” he said.
Among those who testified in favor of the bill was Regan DeMarines, legislative director for Texans for Vaccine Choice. DeMarines said Texans are suffering from having to choose between “their health and their livelihood” to keep their jobs.
“Every medical product has risk, and where there’s risk there must always be choice,” DeMarines said. “We hope that we can give citizens of Texas the ability to seek life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness without strings of a forced medical intervention attached to that freedom.”
Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, who is a lawyer and also a franchise owner of Orangetheory Fitness clubs in the Rio Grande Valley, said his main concern is the bill’s effect on small businesses.
“Right now, every business — and you know my experience with small business — is struggling,” Lucio III said. “We don’t need to be eliminating anything in the toolbox to run their business to give them an opportunity to succeed and survive this very hard time.”
Dr. John Zerwas, a former Republican state representative and special adviser to Abbott, though he registered as neutral on the bill, said he agreed with Lucio’s evaluation.
“I think it’s the business of small business to determine what’s best for their clients or their customers and for the livelihood of the business that they’re in,” Zerwas said.
Zerwas also asked that lawmakers keep intact an existing law that requires hospitals to set policies that require employees and others in the facilities receive immunizations for certain “vaccine preventable diseases,” as determined by the CDC.
Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, asked Zerwas if he believed more Texans would have died if the state had depended on herd immunity alone instead of making a concerted effort to get as many vaccinated as possible.
“Absolutely,” Zerwas said.