Ohio GOP’s anti-vaccine mandate bill on hold again

Another attempt to bring a comprehensive bill on COVID-19 vaccination mandate rules to the Ohio Statehouse floor for a vote failed Wednesday, after Rules & Reference Committee members – and the House Republican Caucus – couldn’t reach agreement on changes in time for the scheduled House session.

House Republican leadership framed HB 435, dubbed the “Ohio COVID-19 Vaccine Fairness Act,” as a comprehensive replacement for several competing bills on requirements related to COVID-19. The bill’s main sponsors are Reps. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, and Rick Carfagna, R-Genoa Twp.

Business and public health leaders said it would undermine employers’ ability to manage their workplaces and efforts to stop the pandemic.

The bill would limit the ability of businesses to require COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment.

To be exempt, the proposed bill allows employees to show proof of antibodies, show potential risk of medical reaction or say they don’t want it for reasons of conscience.

It passed the House Health Committee on an 11-3 party-line vote Sept. 28, and was brought before the full House for a vote the next day – but there it stalled. Legislators expressed enough doubts to instead send the bill back to committee for more work.

The House Commerce & Labor Committee heard two days of testimony during “informal hearings” in early October. Legislative leaders continued closed-door negotiations and brought the bill back to the Rules & Reference Committee on Tuesday.

But in that same committee the next day, trouble was apparent from the start. The committee convened more than an hour late. Then its chair, House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, recessed it after two minutes to “consider some other issues.”

As legislators filed out to resume negotiations, Seitz said “13 or 14” amendments were under consideration.

Carfagna said he believed all matters under consideration had already been discussed many times during the bill’s public hearings.

“We’ll see how conference goes,” he said. “It was overwhelmingly positive yesterday, but then all the members weren’t there.”

That discussion continued until eight minutes after the House was scheduled to convene. At that point Cupp’s spokesman emailed a statement.

“This is an important and personal issue for all Ohioans and those who represent them,” the statement read. “Just as there are widely differing views among Ohioans on this issue, it’s certainly not a surprise that there are varying perspectives among their legislative representatives as well. It is important to have consensus within our caucus on how best to move forward. After countless hours of hearings and deliberation on this topic, there is still no consensus on how or whether to move forward. Consequently, the House at this time will pause additional hearings on this matter. We are continuing our work on other legislative matters that are important to Ohio and its people.”

The Ohio Chamber of Commerce issued a statement of appreciation for the pause.

“The Ohio Chamber of Commerce remains concerned that HB 435, and other similar bills, infringe on employers’ rights,” state chamber President and CEO Steve Stivers said. “Furthermore, legislative action on vaccine mandates is unnecessary because we believe that market forces will more appropriately reward or punish companies based on their vaccine-related decisions.”

Meanwhile, the Ohio Democratic Party called on Republicans to drop the bill altogether, saying it was a waste of time that could be spent productively on other issues and would prevent businesses from keeping employees safe.

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