Oklahoma special session won't address COVID-19 vaccine mandates, a divisive issue for GOP

Vaccine mandates won't be a topic of discussion when state lawmakers convene this month for a special legislative session, but it's just a matter of time before the issue comes before the Oklahoma Legislature. 

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said Tuesday he fully expects vaccine legislation will come up in the 2022 legislative session that starts in February. 

"I think we will see legislation and ideas on that in the regular session," he said. 

Oklahoma Republicans appear united in pushing back against President Joe Biden's vaccine requirements, but the issue gets more nuanced closer to home. 

More:Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor launches legal fights against COVID-19 vaccine mandates

For months, a contingent of Republican lawmakers urged Gov. Kevin Stitt, who sets the special session agenda, to take action to block COVID-19 vaccine mandates at private businesses. Stitt has repeatedly said when it comes to vaccine mandates, he will not tell companies how to operate.

The leader of a powerful statewide business group has warned that lawmakers who push bills to block businesses from imposing vaccine mandates could see opposition come next year's election. 

A spokeswoman for the governor said Stitt has no plans to amend the special session agenda, which, as of now, only calls for lawmakers to pass redistricting maps.

More:Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt calls for November special session for redistricting

A divided Oklahoma GOP

The fight over vaccine mandates has divided Oklahoma Republicans.

On one hand, there are traditionally pro-business Republicans that believe in limited government interference in the private sector. On the other, a populist shift within the party has more Republicans embracing the style of former President Donald Trump and suggesting the government must prevent vaccine mandates in order to protect individual liberties.  

Sen. David Bullard, R-Durant, said he's thankful for the split because it means Republicans are thinking deeply about the issue.

"It's a healthy thing for a country to have a lively, yet civil debate," Bullard said. "I think that's where we are in the state of Oklahoma, within the GOP. You're going to have divisions, you're going to have people who don't think exactly the same way and it's important that we sit down and talk these (issues) out and figure out how best to approach this for the people of Oklahoma." 

Bullard

Bullard has been pushing for a legislative discussion on vaccine mandates, and said he is crafting legislation for next year that would prevent employers from asking employees their vaccination status and protect workers from having to disclose whether they've gotten their shots. 

This year, Bullard filed legislation to prevent employers from requiring any vaccinations as a condition of employment, but said he did not advance the bill after he heard concerns in a committee hearing. 

Bullard said vaccines have been a topic of discussion in the Legislature since he first got elected, and he doesn't expect next year will be an different, especially in light of the debate around COVID-19 vaccine mandates imposed by government entities or businesses. 

Chad Warmington, president and CEO of the State Chamber, said he's often wondered what caused this GOP split. 

"I don't really understand this new wave of Republican populism," he said. "It's very opposed to what traditional, free enterprise conservatives believe. They believe in less government intervention, and this is the exact opposite. This is government intervention at a pretty key point.

"I honestly can't get my head around the politics of that, and particularly, you're seeing it pop up all over the country."

Warmington

Warmington praised Stitt's hands-off approach when it comes to COVID-19 mandates at businesses. He said he believes the governor's pandemic approach of limited government intervention at businesses has resulted in Oklahoma's low unemployment rate and thriving economy. 

He pointed to Govs. Greg Abbott, of Texas, and Ron DeSantis, of Florida, as examples of Republicans that have embraced right-wing populism when it comes to vaccine issues. Both governors in the national spotlight have taken steps to block private employers from imposing COVID-19 vaccine requirements. 

Without giving specifics, Warmington said just a few members of the State Chamber have imposed COVID-19 vaccine requirements, and in some cases, it's just a small subset of employees that are required to get the shots. 

Looking ahead to the 2022 elections

The State Chamber may spend money in next year's elections to try and oust sitting lawmakers that support legislation to undo vaccine mandates at private businesses, Warmington said. 

The Chamber won't challenge lawmakers over just one legislative vote, but Republican and Democratic lawmakers who exhibit a trend of opposing pro-business and free enterprise interests could face opposition, he said. 

"I think that's our job to point that out to our members that those people aren't supportive of the principles we thought they were," he said. 

Bullard said he thinks the Legislature can find a happy medium that protects business interests and personal privacy rights. 

"It is a very fine line that you walk between making sure we protect individual liberties, but then, at the same time, do not get government involved in places it does not need to be involved," he said. 

Several large hospital systems in Oklahoma have required their employees to get vaccinated for COVID-19, as have some major companies, like Walmart and Tyson Foods. 

The University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University just recently announced COVID-19 vaccine requirements for all employees in order to stay in compliance with a Biden administration mandate for federal contractors. 

More:OU, OSU announce COVID vaccine mandate for employees

Calling the president's COVID-19 vaccine requirements "a clear abuse of power," Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor sued the Biden administration over rules that require inoculations for workers employed by federal contractors and employees at businesses with 100 or more workers

Businesses should be able to make vaccine decisions based on their specific circumstances, Stitt said in a recent video

"I don’t believe it’s the government’s job to dictate policies to private companies," he said. "Just as I believe Joe Biden can’t tell businesses they have to mandate a vaccine." 

Stitt's opposition to blocking vaccine mandates at businesses has landed him a largely unknown far-right primary challenger in next year's governor's race.

More:Broken Arrow Republican to jump into governor's race, challenge Stitt from the right

Local polling shows a majority of Oklahomans believe the government should not interfere with private business decisions when it comes to vaccinating employees. An October Sooner Survey poll of 500 registered voters shows 60%, up from 57% in July, oppose government interference, compared with 25% of respondents who said the government should require employees to get vaccinated. 

Inaction will 'build the movement'

Liza Greve, executive director of Oklahomans for Health and Parental Rights, said the more companies that implement vaccine requirements and the more Oklahomans affected by those mandates, the less lawmakers will be able to ignore the issue. 

More:Oklahoma voters oppose government mandates on vaccinations, poll shows

The grassroots group that opposes COVID-19 vaccine mandates has been one of the main organizations calling on state lawmakers to act. 

Greve expressed dismay that lawmakers will not address vaccine mandates in the upcoming special legislative session. 

"I am disappointed for those that are going to be losing their jobs, but as an organizer, I think, long-term, this will only build the movement and build the tenacity of those folks that need to show up in February," she said. 

Greve's group is organizing a rally for parental rights to coincide with the first day of the special session. She estimates more than 1,500 Oklahomans will show up to the Capitol where supporters will learn about the legislative process and chat with state lawmakers. 

McCall, the House speaker, praised Oklahoma's attorney general for challenging Biden's new vaccine requirements. He pointed to legislation approved this year that creates a unit within the attorney general's office to combat federal overreach and protect states' rights. 

Lawmakers also appropriated $10 million to the attorney general's office to fund the State Reserved Powers Unit and cover the costs of lawsuits against the federal government. 

"That's the proper place for this issue to be taken up, and I have every confidence that the (attorney general) is going to defend and represent the people of the state of Oklahoma," McCall said.