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Kansas plan on COVID mandates struggles to gain GOP support

Stephen Koranda, File Photo
Kansas Public Radio

Conservative Kansas legislators are fighting to build support among Republicans for a proposal to provide unemployment benefits to workers who lose their jobs for refusing COVID-19 vaccines.

TOPEKA — Conservative Kansas legislators struggled Monday to build support among Republicans for a proposal to provide unemployment benefits to workers who lose their jobs for refusing COVID-19 vaccines.

The GOP-controlled Legislature opened a special session Monday. The measure on unemployment benefits was tied to another that would make it easier for workers to claim religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Both are responses to vaccine mandates from President Joe Biden covering more than 100 million American workers.

The push for unemployment benefits for vaccine-refusing workers comes after GOP lawmakers worried for months that the depletion of funds to pay claims last year during the pandemic would force an increase in the state tax that finances the benefits. There's bipartisan concern that the unemployment proposal before lawmakers now could lead to such a tax increase.

"Most of our employers are small businesses. That increase in taxes, on unemployment, will be difficult," state Sen. Jeff Longbine, of Emporia, told fellow Republicans, during a meeting Monday before the session convened.

GOP leaders in the Senate included the unemployment proposal in a bill with the proposal on religious exemptions and hoped to have a vote on that measure late Monday afternoon.

Top Republicans in the House were unsure enough about support for the unemployment proposal that they left it out of legislation before their chamber. The House approved that bill, 78-40.

The final version of the measure was likely to be drafted later Monday or early Tuesday by House and Senate negotiators.

Kansas' special legislative session comes as Republican governors, state attorneys general and lawmakers are pursuing ways to push back against the Biden mandates. Iowa enacted a law last month extending unemployment benefits to workers who refuse to get vaccinated.

Although vaccine mandates from private companies and local officials have boosted inoculation rates, GOP officials across the U.S. see Biden's mandates as violating personal liberties.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly opposes Biden's mandates but didn't publicly embrace specific proposals ahead of the special session. Her administration is handling questions about whether unvaccinated workers receive unemployment benefits case by case.

Lawmakers have no good estimates of how much the GOP unemployment proposal might cost the state. Business groups have suggested it could be hundreds of millions of dollars, but backers of the measure insist it will be close to zero.

They said that's because of the companion proposal on religious exemptions. It says workers asking for exemptions must get them without having their belief scrutinized — and employers could face tens of thousands of dollars in state fines if exemptions are rejected. Conservative Republicans said workers will seek exemptions knowing they'll be granted and that people won't lose their jobs, so unemployment benefits won't be needed.

Critics predicted abuses. Rabbi Moti Rieber, the executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, said the policy would allow people with political objections to falsely claim religious ones.

“Opposition to the public health is the religion,” he said. “Trumpism is the religion.”

Republicans who drafted the language said it's broad enough to cover beliefs that aren't tied to a belief in God but simply a strong moral objection.

“So it’s basically your belief is akin to a religious belief, right?" Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, told fellow GOP senators. “Whether I believe that this vaccine will damage me as much as I believe Jesus Christ rose from the dead.”

One question is whether such a state law can be enforced because federal law is supreme. A mandate from Biden for workers at companies with 100 or more employees allows workers to opt for regular COVID-19 testing instead, and it permits “reasonable accommodations" for “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

Supporters argue that the Kansas measure on religious exemptions wouldn't conflict with Biden's mandate and would withstand a possible court challenge. They argue that the proposal merely gives more guidance to businesses.

But the influential Kansas Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Business had strong doubts.

They fear businesses would face a choice: Comply with state law and face federal government fines or follow the federal mandate and get sued in state court.

“It certainly is a very tough place to be,” said Chuck Grier, president and CEO of UCI, an industrial construction company.

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