Conservative lawmakers talk about banning vaccine mandates, but lack a quorum

(UPDATED: Sept. 16, 10:05 a.m., with details on a second failed attempt to get a quorum.)

A group of conservative legislators floated changes to state vaccine laws at the Statehouse Wednesday and Thursday, but lacked the authority to make policy changes or the presence of legislative leaders from their own party.

Fifteen Republican state representatives on Wednesday descended on the House floor after rallying anti-vaccine-mandate protesters on the Statehouse steps. The lawmakers rattled off over a half dozen proposals to outlaw or soften vaccine mandates in an unusually empty chamber that lacked even half the membership needed for a quorum. In another attempt to get a quorum Thursday morning, only 10 of 70 representatives attended another meeting on the House floor that lasted roughly 10 minutes.

Stanley Republican Rep. Dorothy Moon called Wednesday’s bid to reconvene and a proceeding rally “a huge success” for forwarding the group’s goals. The lawmakers will continue to call on House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, to reconvene the long-recessed chamber. And they’ll head home after their trip to Boise, Moon told EdNews Thursday morning.

Before twice hoping to pass draft bills, the legislators wove school mask mandates, gun rights, vaccine mandates and the vaccinating and testing of children for COVID-19 into wide-ranging criticisms of their political foes at Wednesday’s rally.

Their comments touched on schools — albeit briefly. At some points, their decrials lacked clarity. As Moon railed against vaccine mandates for businesses issued by President Joe Biden, a crowd member shouted, “They’re injecting our kids!”

“That’s right. They are injecting and testing the kids,” said Moon, to the crowd of about 200 of the Republican bloc’s supporters. The “they” went unidentified.

Nearly all 200 Lincoln Auditorium seats were filled later Wednesday afternoon as polarizing physician Dr. Ryan Cole spoke mostly to anti-vaccine attendees.

House members’ failed bids to convene had a number of noticeable absences. As the drastically diminished crowd showed up to hear lawmakers’ proposals Wednesday, Bedke was not in attendance. He didn’t show up Thursday, either.

Bedke has said he opposes Biden’s plan to mandate vaccinations or weekly COVID-19 tests for businesses with more than 100 employees — a move that triggered lawmakers’ return to Boise Wednesday. But Bedke also said he’ll only call the House back from its recess to vote on legislation that has the bicameral support needed to pass.

With only 15 House members present in the chamber Wednesday, the group fell far short of its goal — a 35-member quorum which would have allowed legislators to introduce and vote on potential laws. More problematic was the Senate. At least two senators were around the Statehouse Wednesday, but in May, the Senate finished business for the year, voting to adjourn until January.

In a statement, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry rebuked Wednesday’s actions.

“On behalf of many proud Idaho companies in the business community, IACI is sad to see a small minority of state representatives gather for an illegitimate session today at the state Capitol to attempt yet again to put big government in charge of decisions businesses should be making for themselves,” said Alex LaBeau, president of the prominent business lobbying group.

The legislators will push the draft bills they discussed if and when the House reconvenes, Moon said.

One, from Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, would add forced vaccination as illegal “assault.” Two others, from Reps. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, and Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, would make it a misdemeanor to mandate medical procedures like vaccinations as conditions of employment.

Rep. Tammy Nichols speaks to anti-vaccine protesters before meeting with fellow Republicans to discuss vaccine mandates. Sami Edge/Idaho Education News

There’s no clear path right now to passing legislation floated Wednesday. One proposal to beef up exemptions for employer vaccine mandates is close to having majority support in the House, said Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay. But no one speculated on whether the Senate would back any of the draft bills until Thursday.

“Bottom line is: The Senate wasn’t gonna cooperate anyway. We just needed to get the House in here to make a statement,” Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, told EdNews Thursday morning.

Nichols also revived a failed attempt to ban all vaccine requirements, which would apply to schools. But no Idaho-run schools have mandated COVID-19 vaccines for students or teachers. And none of Wednesday’s proposals directly targeted schools, though education was still a talking point for some.

“I have helped several parents unmask their kids at the schools and lift those mask mandates,” said Nichols, to cheers and applause from rallygoers.

The backlash against Biden’s vaccine requirements accompanies a surge in coronavirus cases that has forced North Idaho hospitals to ration care and health officials to warn that hospitals in the Treasure and Magic valleys may soon follow suit.

The only education organizations in Idaho impacted by Biden’s new coronavirus plan will be federally run schools and Head Start programs, where staff members must get the jab.

Who was there

According to the Idaho Press, other House representatives who attended Wednesday’s floor meeting were:

  • Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens.
  • Rep. Chad Christensen, R-Iona.
  • Rep. Greg Ferch, R-Boise.
  • Rep. Codi Galloway, R-Boise.
  • Rep. Terry Gestrin, R-Donnelly.
  • Rep. Karey Hanks, R-St. Anthony.
  • Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene.
  • Rep. Doug Okuniewicz, R-Hayden.
  • Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard.
  • Rep. Tony Wisniewski, R-Post Falls.

Rep. Mike Kingsley, R-Lewiston, attended the rally, but wasn’t on the House floor.

One senator attended the rally, Hammett Republican Christy Zito. Sen. Regina Bayer, R-Meridian, attended Cole’ presentation.

Republican Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin attended the rally and hosted Cole’s presentation.

Blake Jones

Blake Jones

Reporter Blake Jones covers the politics and policy of Idaho's K-12 public school system. He's a lifelong Idahoan, and holds degrees in Creative Writing and Political Economy from the College of Idaho. Follow Blake on Twitter @jonesblakej. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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