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What’s on tap today: Anti-vaccine mandate bills

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

This special session of the Alabama Legislature is focused on reapportionment, but anti-vaccine mandate bills might be the bigger topic on this busy Tuesday in the State House.

Legislation trying to push back on President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine order for federal workers and contractors and large employers will be in the Senate and a House committee today.

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon on Monday evening said he’s “fully supportive” of getting anti-vaccine mandate legislation through the House and leadership in the House and Senate have been working “on this issue for weeks and weeks.”

“I think we’re at a point where we can get some legislation on the floor,” McCutcheon said.

That’s a different tone than last week when he said the courts were the place to fight the mandate.

The U.S. Constitution’s supremacy clause says federal law overrides any conflicting state laws.

“We can’t pass a single piece of legislation to fix this,” McCutcheon said Monday. “The (Alabama attorney general) has to be involved in the court process, we need the governor’s support in this.” 

Because vaccine-related legislation was not included in Gov. Kay Ivey’s call for the special session on redistricting, it would take a two-thirds vote to pass the bills in each chamber.

That much support seems easily attainable in the Senate, where Senate bills 9 and 15 are ready for votes this morning. 

Senate Bill 9 by Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Daphne, would allow for vaccine requirement exemptions based on religious beliefs and medical reasons, including recovery from COVID-19.

Sen. Arthur Orr’s Senate Bill 15 prohibits an entity, institution of education or business from discriminating against a person who refuses to provide proof of immunization. It also says individuals who are fired or otherwise impacted because of their status can sue. “The court may award attorney fees and court costs to the prevailing party,” the bill says.

While Orr’s bill has the support of many Republicans, including Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, expect Democrats to speak against it.

“They tryin’ to kill people,” Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham said Monday night on the Senate floor. “I call this the ‘Freedom to Kill People Bill,’ that’s what it is.”

Meanwhile, one of the state’s largest business groups has questions about both Senate bills.

“We have strong concerns about the impact of this legislation on employers and their respective workforces,” said Susan Carothers, Vice President of investor relations for the Business Council of Alabama. These bills are moving quickly and we are attempting to work with the legislature.”

Both Senate Bills 9 and 15 passed a Senate committee on Monday afternoon along party lines. 

The House convenes at 10 a.m., the Senate at 10:30 a.m.

In other meetings today…

At 10:30 a.m., the House State Government Committee has public hearings, and likely votes, on Senate bills 1 and 2, the proposed new Senate and Alabama State Board of Education maps.

Also at 10:30, the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee will take up Senate Bill 3, which appropriates $80 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to hospitals and nursing homes. For what it’s worth, the doling out of this federal money is probably the least controversial item in this special session, though Senate Democrats did ask during debate Monday night what more could be done to help struggling rural hospitals.

And at 10:45, the House Health Committee will take up two House bills related to vaccine mandates.

Rep. Kyle South, R-Fayette, might have the shortest and most direct legislation in House Bill 4: “For any vaccination that was approved for use after Jan.  1, 2021, no individual shall be required to receive a vaccination if the administration of the vaccine conflicts with the individual’s sincerely held religious, personal or philosophical beliefs.”

The bill has several House leaders as co-sponsors, including Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, and Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark.

House Bill 10 by Rep. Rhett Marques, R-Enterprise, is the House version of Sen. Arthur Orr’s Senate Bill 10, likely to get a Senate vote today. The House bill has 19 co-sponsors. 

Separately, the two Senate budget committees have a joint budget hearing at 1:30 p.m.

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