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Indiana lawmakers delay bill restricting COVID-19 mandates

November 24, 2021 GMT
Indiana state Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, center, speaks during a state legislative hearing as Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, left, watches Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. Numerous Indiana medical and business groups argued against a Republican proposal aimed at ending the statewide COVID-19 public health emergency and forcing broad exemptions from workplace vaccination requirements. (AP Photo/Tom Davies)
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Indiana state Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, center, speaks during a state legislative hearing as Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, left, watches Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. Numerous Indiana medical and business groups argued against a Republican proposal aimed at ending the statewide COVID-19 public health emergency and forcing broad exemptions from workplace vaccination requirements. (AP Photo/Tom Davies)
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Indiana state Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, center, speaks during a state legislative hearing as Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, left, watches Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. Numerous Indiana medical and business groups argued against a Republican proposal aimed at ending the statewide COVID-19 public health emergency and forcing broad exemptions from workplace vaccination requirements. (AP Photo/Tom Davies)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana’s governor announced Wednesday he would extend the state’s public health emergency for another month amid a stalled legislative proposal that would force businesses to grant COVID-19 vaccination requirement exemptions without any questions and block similar immunization rules set by state universities.

Lawmakers were scheduled to meet in a special session next week to vote on the fast-track bill. But leaders called the plan off following a joint meeting between committees in the House and Senate Tuesday that included nearly seven hours of heated public testimony after which lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on the bill.

The proposal, first released Saturday by leaders of the Republican-dominated Legislature, would reject an appeal from the state’s largest business organization to leave such decisions up to employers and strike against Indiana University’s student vaccine mandate that a U.S. Supreme Court justice let go into effect.

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The bill was set on an extraordinary fast track for approval, with a single public hearing Tuesday at the Statehouse. The House and Senate were then scheduled to vote on final approval six days later on Nov. 29.

Republican House Speaker Todd Huston and Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray said in statements Wednesday that they now plan to address concerns about vaccine mandates and the necessary Indiana law changes needed to end the state emergency when lawmakers reconvene for the regular session in January.

Bray noted that the logistics of moving legislation to the floor during a time when the General Assembly is not typically in session and the “need for the public and members of the General Assembly to fully vet the legislation” necessitated holding the bill for further consideration until legislators meet again on Jan. 4.

Huston has said he believed “we need to move forward” after so much time under the public health emergency, which was set to expire Dec. 1.

“To be clear, House Republicans remain resolved to take quick action this session to help end the state of emergency and protect Hoosiers against the federal government’s unprecedented overreach,” Huston said in a statement Wednesday. “While most Indiana companies are acting in good faith, it’s unacceptable that some employers are blatantly disregarding well-established vaccine exemptions, and we’ll address these issues through legislation.”

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Lawmakers heard contentious testimony Tuesday from employees with medical or religious objections who maintained they’re wrongly being asked to choose between complying with a COVID-19 vaccine mandate and losing their jobs. Employer testimony included concerns over who would be responsible for COVID testing for workers, and whether changes to state law would conflict with federal regulations.

Numerous Indiana medical and business groups have also argued that the proposal wrongly sends a message that the coronavirus pandemic is over at a time when Indiana’s infections and hospitalizations are rising again.

The hearing followed a request from Gov. Eric Holcomb last week for lawmakers to approve three administrative actions that he said would allow him to end the statewide COVID-19 public health emergency order that’s been in place since March 2020, even amid a recent rise in COVID cases and hospitalizations in Indiana and other Midwestern states.

His proposal also included provisions that would give workers broad exemptions from employer vaccine mandates amid a national conservative pushback against President Joe Biden’s mandates.

“Last week I made clear what would be necessary to responsibly allow the state public health emergency to expire,” the Republican governor said in a statement Wednesday. “I will continue to work closely with Speaker Huston and Senator Bray as we move into next legislative session.”

Holcomb has criticized Biden’s vaccine requirements for businesses, saying he supports the rights of businesses to make their own decisions. The governor didn’t directly comment Tuesday on whether he had discussed the vaccine requirement limits in the bill before legislative leaders released the draft and said he wanted time to talk with them about it.

Senate Democratic Leader Greg Taylor said in a statement Wednesday he was “glad” that the Republican caucus halted the bill, noting that the issue “should be discussed and considered before our full Legislature … instead of unnecessarily being pushed through.”

“We are legislators, not doctors, and we should not be legislating medicine,” Taylor said. “This delay will allow us the necessary time to hear from the full medical community about the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine and how it is saving lives.”

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Associated Press writer Tom Davies contributed to this report.

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Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.