By Mitchell Ferman and James Barragán, The Texas Tribune
Bills intended to block any Texas entity, including hospitals and private businesses, from mandating COVID-19 vaccines for employees failed to pass the Texas Legislature before lawmakers adjourned the third special legislative session early Tuesday morning.
Signs that the legislation was in trouble came early as business groups spoke out against the proposals. Even though the issue had been added to the session agenda as a late priority by Gov. Greg Abbott, the House’s version of the bill was unable to muster enough support to be voted out of committee. The Senate’s proposal pushed by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, was quickly pushed out of committee but did not have the votes for approval by the whole chamber.
On Monday, hours before lawmakers ended the session, state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said he opposed the bill, which makes entities requiring the vaccines vulnerable to discrimination lawsuits. Seliger was the first lawmaker to acknowledge publicly that the bill did not have the votes to pass in the upper chamber.
“At the moment it’s not too well developed,” Seliger said of Senate Bill 51, which he called “anti-business.”
“I’ve got some real reservations because I think it’s another example of big government,” Seliger said. “And we don’t do that.”
SB 51 had been on the Senate’s calendar since Thursday, but the chamber had not taken action, even as it passed other priority legislation.
The offices of Hughes and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, did not respond to requests for comment.
Patrick, a Republican, is also the GOP majority’s de facto leader in the upper chamber. During his two-term tenure, he’s exerted power by rewarding senators who support his priorities and punishing those who don’t by stripping them of powerful positions. This session, he was able to push all five of his priorities through the chamber.
More than two dozen medical and business advocacy groups quickly criticized SB 51, pushing back against the legislation in the days after it was introduced last week. Hughes filed the bill after Abbott asked lawmakers last week to take up this issue to ensure Texans aren’t required to get vaccinated, saying that vaccines are “safe, effective, and our best defense against the virus, but should remain voluntary and never forced.”
Abbott called for the legislation as he took executive action to ban private companies from requiring employees or customers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, which will be in effect statewide even though lawmakers didn’t act. His order came four weeks after President Joe Biden, a Democrat, announced that federal contractors must have all employees vaccinated against COVID-19 and that businesses with more than 100 employees must mandate vaccination against the virus or require regular testing.
The organizations opposing the bill, including several chambers of commerce, the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Hospital Association, the Texas Association of Manufacturers, the Texas Hotel & Lodging Association and the Texas Trucking Association, have warned lawmakers of the legislation’s risks to small businesses, workplaces that rely on federal funding and immunocompromised Texans.
The warnings were notable in a state where business interests work closely with pro-business Republicans to influence legislation.
“We’re getting tremendous amount of communications from the business community saying this is their job,” Seliger said. “They set the rules and working conditions in their places of business.”
Abbott is in several legal fights with cities, counties and school districts over local mask orders that defy his ban on such orders. Texas’ ban on mask mandates in schools has drawn a federal investigation for possibly violating the rights of students with disabilities.
Advocates from medical facilities like hospitals and nursing homes say they are worried about losing Medicare and Medicaid funds if the state law goes into effect, preventing them from following pending federal rules that will mandate vaccines.
“The state shouldn’t be mandating a one-size-fits-all approach to hospitals,” Steve Wohleb, senior vice president and general counsel for the Texas Hospital Association, told a Senate panel Thursday. “It should leave those decisions to the hospitals, who are in the best position to know what’s best for their patients.”
While a prohibition on vaccine requirements has been a top issue for Abbott, the subject never rose to the top of Patrick’s list.
At the beginning of this 30-day special session, Patrick announced that his top priority was to use federal COVID-19 relief funds to help Texas homeowners reduce their property tax burden for the year.
Patrick’s other priorities included restoring money paid out of the state’s unemployment insurance fund during the pandemic, preventing transgender student athletes from playing on sports teams based on the gender they identify with rather than the gender on their original birth certificate, drawing new political maps and legislation to protect dogs from being tethered during extreme weather.
Patrick also succeeded in getting Abbott to add tuition revenue bonds, which were approved by the Legislature, to the special session.
House Bill 155, a prohibition on vaccine mandates by state Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, also stalled in the House.