Kansas Republicans calling Legislature back to fight COVID-19 vaccine mandates

Legislators outside the door to the Kansas House, where a special session is set to reconvene on Nov. 22.

TOPEKA – Republicans in the Kansas Statehouse announced Nov. 11 that they have enough signatures from lawmakers to call the Legislature back into a special session this month to fight federal vaccine rules.

The unprecedented move aims to push back against federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates issued by the Biden administration. Republicans have been fighting those rules even though they have limited ways to block them.

The Republicans said it’s the first time in Kansas history that lawmakers have called themselves into a special session. Typically, special sessions are called by the governor, but the constitution allows lawmakers to force the governor to call a special session if two-thirds of legislators agree.

“This unprecedented action is necessitated by equally unprecedented actions from the Biden administration that enacted these mandates unilaterally,” Republican leaders of the Kansas House said in a joint statement.

The special session will start Nov. 22, just days before Thanksgiving.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly has said she doesn’t support the vaccine mandates, but it seems unlikely she would have called lawmakers back to try to oppose the rules issued by a president of her own party.

Some Democratic lawmakers were quick to oppose the special session.

“Get ready for a taxpayer-funded Republican political stunt,” Rep. Brandon Woodard said on social media.

The cost of a special session wasn’t immediately available, but in recent years the taxpayer expense has topped $40,000 per day, with lawmaker pay and living expenses making up most of that.

Lawmakers are planning to consider at least two bills, although once they return they can pursue whatever legislation they choose.

One bill would require Kansas employers to grant no-questions-asked exemptions to workers who say taking the vaccine would violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

A second would allow people fired for refusing the vaccine to collect unemployment benefits.

The Kansas Chamber of Commerce – an organization usually in sync with Republican leaders – has raised concerns about both bills.

Chamber President Alan Cobb said Kansas businesses should be free to set their own vaccination policies.

In addition, he raised concerns about paying unemployment benefits to people who are fired over vaccine rules because it would be costly and might increase the taxes businesses have to pay. Taxes paid by employers fill the state’s unemployment trust fund.

“Kansas businesses from the beginning of the pandemic have led the way on determining how to keep their facilities and operations safe. They continue to be the best ones to decide,” Cobb said in a statement.