Gov. Mark Gordon

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon answers questions during the State of the State address in August at the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts amphitheater. The governor on Friday signed the only bill to make it into law from the Wyoming Legislature’s special session.

CHEYENNE — One bill dedicated to fighting the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate emerged Wednesday evening as the Wyoming Legislature ended a seven-day special session.

House Bill 1002 was passed and signed by both chambers. The bill headed to Gov. Mark Gordon’s desk for his signature, and upon approval could go into effect as soon as today.

The legislation appropriates $4 million to the governor’s office for future litigation related to the mandate, and features a resolution to set the stage for Wyoming’s legal standing and right to defy the mandate. At the heart of it, the bill says that unless the “public entity,” as defined in the bill, receives federal funding, it can’t require employees to comply with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Many state government officials view the mandate, which would apply to businesses with 100 or more employees and to health care workers whose employers receive Medicare or Medicaid funding, as a federal overreach.

Gordon said in a press release Thursday that Wyoming plans to join “several other states” in suing the Biden administration over the new rules, which were officially issued Thursday (see story on page 10). This comes after last week’s announcement that Wyoming is part of a 10-state coalition suing to block a separate Biden administration mandate relating to federal contractors and federally contracted employees.

“Thank you for your diligence in looking for ways that the state of Wyoming might counter improper federal intrusions into the affairs of our citizens, businesses and state,” Gordon said in a prepared statement read in each chamber as the session ended Wednesday night.

House Bill 1002 was not a favorite, as expressed by many lawmakers, but it was a compromise far more welcome than House Bill 1001. Although the majority of the representatives and senators agreed the federal vaccine mandate was unwanted, many were unsure whether the state government could legally confront the mandate outright as proposed in HB 1001. Along with questioning the constitutionality of the action, some were concerned with the possible consequences for businesses across Wyoming. Federal funding would be put at risk, including Medicare and Medicaid for hospitals; federal contracts might not be upheld; and there were opportunities for employers to be pitted against their employees in lawsuits.

These concerns were especially present in the final hours of debate in the Senate regarding HB 1001.

“We are meddling and making a mess of the laws of this state, for the businesses and individuals,” said Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne. “I urge you to trust the process of all three branches of government, which are working, and let the courts do their jobs and determine the constitutionality of these actions.”

When it came time for the final vote, HB 1001 was rejected twice in the Senate — 15-13 and then 14-13 on reconsideration — leaving only HB 1002. That bill was initially seen as too extreme and with too many unknown consequences.

“The essence of this is fear,” said Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson.

But the final piece of legislation was received well by the body and seen as the safest option, with no amendments on third reading and an approval vote of 20 to 6. According to its greatest supporters in the Senate, HB 1002 allowed the body to move forward with litigation and to support the governor’s office, but kept businesses out of the line of fire.

The House received HB 1002 by mid-afternoon Wednesday for concurrence and did not seem to agree with its new intention. Not only would the bill, except the portion allocating funds, not go into effect until after litigation was finalized, it would define public entities differently. It was voted down 47 to 11 in the House and sent to a Joint Conference Committee comprised of three senators and three representatives

Throughout the afternoon, and well into the evening, discussions regarding language and the $10 million allocation continued. But compromise was possible in that committee, with $4 million agreed upon and a better refinement of the written resolution.

HB 1002 was passed with the final changes 40 to 17 in the House, and 20 to 7 in the Senate.

As only the second Legislature-called special session in state history ended, lawmakers were told to clear out their desks and prepare to continue the work required to get ready for the budget session, which begins Feb. 14.

Jennifer Dorsey is chief copy editor for the News&Guide and one of the editors for local articles printed in the Jackson Hole Daily.

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