Senators reject disaster bill change that’d bar employers from requiring vaccines, approve ban on abortion funding

The Senate Finance Committee hears amendments to House Bill 76 during its April 14, 2021 meeting.

The Senate Finance Committee took up a series of amendments on legislation aimed at extending the state’s covid-19 disaster declaration today, approving language that would bar any federal relief dollars from going to abortions but rejecting a change that would have barred employers from requiring vaccines.

The changes to House Bill 76 come as the Senate is preparing to advance the legislation ahead of an end-of-month deadline to secure boosted food stamp funding from the federal government. The Senate Finance Committee rolled out a substitute on Monday that would extend the disaster declaration through the end of the year but bars the governor from limiting travel or issuing new hunker down mandates, powers opposed by most Republicans as well as Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Anti-abortion amendment

The committee spent a bulk of today’s meeting debating an amendment from Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, that would ban the use of any federal relief dollars from funding abortions. The language was included in the version passed by the House but was stripped out of the version introduced on Monday.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said he was concerned about the constitutionality of the language, noting that other attempts to limit funding for abortions have resulted in costly lawsuits to the state. The Legislature’s legal analysts agreed that it would likely be struck down as unconstitutional but noted that it would likely not tie up any funding if challenged.

“I believe this is unconstitutional and is likely to cost the state hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars,” he said, noting that while the anti-abortion Hyde Amendment was not attached to the latest round of federal relief funding it’s still under the Trump-era Protect Life Rule.

It’s not clear whether the amendment would prohibit funding of abortions in cases of rape, incest and the health of the mother, which are typically the only permissible cases for Medicaid funds. Legislative budget analysts said they were not aware of any federal funding that has been or would be used for abortions.

He was the lone no vote against the amendment. Wilson was joined by Sens. Donny Olson, Lyman Hoffman, Click Bishop, Bert Stedman and Natasha von Imhof in supporting it.

Anti-vaccine mandate amendment

Wilson had less support for an amendment that would bar public and private employers from mandating the covid-19 vaccine until it receives full approval from the FDA. All vaccines are currently under an emergency use order. He said it’s an issue of discrimination.

“By no means or methods am I against any type of vaccines. I belong to a wonderful organization, Rotary, that wants to eradicate polio,” he said. “The government walks a fine line between emergency and respecting individual rights and protecting the safety of the community. If we allow entities to mandate vaccines that have not been FDA fully vetted or cleared, we’re not striking that proper balance. … For me personally, this is more about discrimination of use of vaccines. If one has health issues or may not want to fully disclose their conditions as to why they can’t be vaccinated, they should have that right to do so.”

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, said he opposed the amendment because it would tie the hands of health providers and said the covid-19 pandemic is serious. During last year’s session, Olson announced he would delay his family’s return to Golovin out of concerns that they may bring the virus back to the village.

“We have an emergency pandemic throughout the world where 550,000 Americans have died over,” he said. “We’re dealing with something that’s far more serious and the public needs to be protected from it. I’m not going to be supporting this amendment.”

The measure also faced pushback from Republicans on the committee.

“I have some concerns about telling a private business what they can and cannot do,” Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage, said. “I don’t think that’s a value I subscribe to.”

She added that she cannot support treating vaccination status as a federally protected class is right.

The amendment failed on a 5-2 vote with both Sens. Wilson and Wielchowski casting the lone “yes” votes. Sens. von Imhof, Olson, Hoffman, Bishop and Stedman voted against it.

Other changes and the path ahead

The committee also approved several less-controversial amendments. One cleans up language that would box in the governor’s power to spend federal relief dollars without legislative approval, another would give the Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner broad powers when it comes to procurement during a public health emergency and a third would extend the date for schools to continue to carry forward funding through 2025, a measure aimed at allowing districts flexibility to stretch out federal relief dollars as long as possible.

The committee set aside the bill at the end of the meeting in order to draft a new version incorporating the amendments. It will be taken up at a later meeting. The state needs some form of the legislation in place before the end of the month or else it will lose out on roughly $8 million in boosted federal support for the state’s food stamp program.

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