Indiana lawmakers won’t return for one-day session on COVID-19 legislation

Republican legislative leaders have decided against bringing state lawmakers back for a one-day session on Monday to vote on a bill that would have restricted employer COVID-19 vaccine mandates and put in place actions to end the statewide public health emergency order.

In a sudden and dramatic turnabout on Wednesday, House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, and Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, said in statements that their plans changed following seven hours of public testimony on the bill draft on Tuesday. They said lawmakers plan to continue to pursue legislation to address the public health emergency and workplace vaccine mandates, but that will now be done during the regular legislative session starting Jan. 4.

The legislative proposal would have effectively forced private employers that mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for employees to allow for any medical or religious exemptions — no questions asked.

Bray and Huston cited a number of reasons why they backtracked on the plan to fast-track the bill, including several concerns brought up from people who testified on Tuesday. Leaders in the business and medical communities said the bill’s vaccine restrictions went too far. But several individuals with fears of losing their jobs for refusing the vaccine and general vaccine objectors said the bill did not do enough.

“Tuesday’s passionate public testimony reinforced the concerns I’ve heard from constituents and business leaders over the federal mandates. While most Indiana companies are acting in good faith, it’s unacceptable that some employers are blatantly disregarding well-established vaccine exemptions, and we’ll address these issues through legislation,” Huston said in a written statement. “Over the next month, we’ll continue to listen and talk with stakeholders about our policy proposals, and we’ll file legislation in the near future. Hoosiers can rest assured that we’ll hit the ground running come Jan. 4.”

There was also pushback on the rush to expedite the measure with one day for public comment and bypassing committee votes to take the bill straight to the House and Senate floors for final votes on Monday.

“The ongoing complexities of the issues raised and the potential unintended consequences, the logistics of moving legislation to the floor during a time when the General Assembly is not typically in session, and the need for the public and members of the General Assembly to fully vet the legislation have led to the conclusion that the efforts to gather input and better solutions should continue until the legislature reconvenes in January,” Bray said in a written statement.

The legislative proposal would have also put in place three administrative actions Gov. Eric Holcomb said were needed to end the statewide public health emergency order that’s been in place since March 2020. That included allowing the state to keep receiving federal funding for Medicaid expenses and food assistance programs, along with allowing the state health commissioner to issue a standing doctor’s order allowing pharmacists to administer COVID-19 vaccinations for children ages 5 to 11.

Holcomb said in a statement that he now plans to extend the public health emergency and the executive order through December.

“Last week, I made clear what would be necessary to responsibly allow the state public health emergency to expire. However, following the announcement that the General Assembly will not return on Monday, Nov. 29, I plan to extend the state public health emergency and the executive order next week for another 30 days to preserve the necessary provisions. I will continue to work closely with Speaker Huston and Senator Bray as we move into next legislative session,” Holcomb said in a written statement.

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