Kansas Republicans say they have support for special legislative session on COVID vaccine mandates

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Top legislative Republicans say all of their members have signed petitions to call a special session on COVID-19 vaccine mandates, meaning lawmakers would have the two-thirds majority required for such an event.

Top legislative Republicans say all of their members have signed petitions to call a special session on COVID-19 vaccine mandates, meaning lawmakers would have the two-thirds majority required for such an event.

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, and House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said in separate news releases that each member of their caucus has formally supported the special session, which is slated to occur Nov. 22.

It would be a historic moment, as the Kansas Legislature has never before initiated a special session on its own. Each of the state's 24 prior special sessions has been called by the governor.

More:COVID vaccine panel recommends special session in Kansas Legislature in response to federal mandates

Under this route, however, Gov. Laura Kelly would have no choice but to recall lawmakers to Topeka, with legislative leaders saying they will deliver the petitions to her office Friday morning.

"This unprecedented action is necessitated by equally unprecedented actions from the Biden administration that enacted these mandates unilaterally, without respecting the constitutional law making power reserved for Congress," top House Republicans said in a statement. "Never before has the federal government forced Kansans to choose between their personal beliefs and their livelihoods.”

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration published rules last week that require workers at large companies be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested for the virus weekly, starting Jan. 4.

A slew of states, including Kansas, responded with lawsuits over the OSHA mandate and separate requirements that federal employees and health care workers be vaccinated. 

Session to focus on unemployment, religious and health exemptions

Support for a special session has quickly built in recent days, with a legislative committee charged with probing the federal COVID-19 mandates recommending such an action earlier this week.

Two bills are expected to be considered. One would require residents who lose their job over the federal mandates be granted unemployment benefits. The Kansas Chamber has raised concerns about the provision, arguing it would bankrupt the state's unemployment trust fund, forcing employers to pay higher taxes.

Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, acknowledged that risk but said it was worth considering such a measure anyway.

"I definitely think it is going to hit the trust fund in a big way," Olson said. "But I think what people don't realize is what this executive order is going to do to our economy."

His counterpart, Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, signed onto the special session, noting it has resulted in more emails from constituents than any other issue in his nine years in the Legislature.

But he said expanding the number of people eligible for unemployment was a marked departure from past conservative efforts to restrict access to the benefits.

"I find it completely ironic," he said.

The second measure is more sweeping in scope and would clarify what an individual would need to do to seek a medical or religious vaccine exemption.

Most importantly, employers wouldn't be able to inquire about whether an individual's religious views are "sincerely held" and a worker could bring a lawsuit against their company if they feel their rights have been aggrieved.

"We're not going to let the Biden Administration force businesses to play God or doctor and determine whether a religious or medical exemption is valid or not," Masterson said in a statement Thursday. "We're going to trust individual Kansans."

Kelly has remained mum on whether she supports the idea of a special session and her office said Wednesday it was reviewing the two proposed pieces of legislation. Kelly came out against the federal mandates last week, saying she doesn't believe "this directive is the correct, or the most effective, solution for Kansas."

There is nothing to limit legislators from straying from the proposed bills if a special session were called and members could even suggest legislation on topics other than COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Past special sessions have cost tens of thousands of dollars per day. And while Doll went along with the idea this time around, he said he believed it was a steep price to pay to resolve an issue he believes the courts will ultimately decide.

"I'm certainly a fiscal conservative and, to me, you're just putting a match under your dollar bills and lighting it," Doll said. "What are we going to accomplish with it that is constitutional? We can be as mad as we want to be and scream and shout and holler but we have a system in place."

Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at abahl@gannett.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.