Fourteen hours and $65,000 taxpayer dollars later, Kansas Republicans created election-year fodder for their campaign mailers and provided a venue for an anti-vaxxer rally during an historic special session in Topeka this week.

Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, summed up it up best: “Apparently we don’t want to avoid the plague anymore,” referring to the litany of provisions in HB 2001 that will allow Kansans to claim religious, moral, and health-related objections to getting vaccinated against COVID-19 as part of the Biden Administration’s federal vaccine mandate for private employers.

While Kansas teachers were safely educating our children as this pandemic rages on, Senate and House Republicans spent Monday championing state and individual rights while also trying to assert they support workers’ rights over employers’ rights. Oh, the irony: The script from the 2021 legislative session was literally flipped. Republicans claimed earlier this year that mask mandates and shutdowns were hurting our economy and taking business owners’ rights away to run their businesses as they saw fit. They later complained, when adults were able to get vaccinated, Kansans weren’t getting back to work fast enough – especially those in low-paying, no benefits service jobs – and didn’t deserve unemployment insurance any longer.

On Monday, those same Republicans passed legislation that fines employers $10,000 with fewer than 100 employees and $50,000 with more than 100 employees, if they question the vaccination exemption an employee claims or take any kind of retaliatory action. Proceeds from those fines will be put into the state’s unemployment fund. The legislation also requires the Kansas Department of Labor to investigate any violations of the employee-claimed exemptions in 60 days. Gov. Laura Kelly signed the legislation on Tuesday that passed in the Senate 24 to 11 and in the House 77 to 34.

Senate President Ty Masterson

GOP in Kansas prohibits business owners from running their own shop as they wish

The action of Senate President Ty Masterson, House Speaker Ron Ryckman, and their anti-science colleagues prohibits restaurant owners from ensuring to the best of their ability that those who cook and serve your meals are free from COVID. Businesses are being forced to retain workers who refuse vaccination – the very individuals who are filling our hospitals today – and then those employers will watch as their health care premiums skyrocket due to the high costs of those employees. 

Why won’t the GOP leadership let business owners decide how to run their own businesses? If a business owner seeks to protect both employees and customers by ensuring that all the employees are vaccinated, the GOP says, “NO! The rights of science-denying anti-vaxxers are superior to those of business owners just trying to stay open and stay safe.” 

Under this Masterson-Ryckman mandate against mandates, if a business owner fires an employee who refuses to get a vaccine, the business faces fines of up to $50,000 or is forced to compromise the health and safety of other employees and customers. Alternatively, he or she can pay the fine and the employee who refuses to comply with the policy set forth by the company can sit at home collecting unemployment. 

When did the GOP turn anti-business and seek to provide unemployment benefits to people who don’t want to work? It has been said that at the surrender at Yorktown, the British fifers played a tune called “The World Turned Upside Down.” We can almost hear the fifes now!

Unvaccinated Kansans aren’t protected after all

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said HB 2001 is a “lie” because it won’t actually save jobs and Kansas lawmakers can’t change federal regulations.

“You’re placing Kansas employers on the horns of a dilemma,” he said. “They lose their (federal) contracts, they lay their employees off because there is no work to be done.”

“I understand the frustration with the federal mandates,” added Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, “but we cannot affect federal law. The courts will decide that issue. We’re trying to solve a problem we can’t solve. We’re just adding regulations on our businesses and putting them in a tough spot.”

Several Democrats in the House and the Senate also reminded their colleagues that Kansas is an “at will” employment state, meaning a person can be fired for any reason at any time. HB 2001 will do nothing to protect an unvaccinated worker if he or she isn’t fulfilling their job duties and their employer determines he or she should be fired.

But those arguments didn’t deter the Kansas GOP who are intent on trying to crush the Biden Administration’s efforts to end what is arguably the most devastating pandemic in a century, whip up false grievances, make references to rounding up unvaccinated Kansans in cattle cars and score points with the most ardent ultra-conservatives.

“Make no mistake,” proclaimed Masterson, “this chamber will stand up for individual rights. The government needs to stay the heck out.”

In the famous words of Ronald Reagan: “There he goes again.” Republicans denounce government for political gain but then hypocritically use it to take away local control and individuals’ rights when it suits their agenda.

We can’t help but wonder: Where are the rights of Kansans who want to stay healthy and at work, keep their children healthy and in school and turn the page on this pandemic? They’re apparently trumped by those who want to stay in a reality they’ve created for themselves out of fear and purposeful misinformation.

A preview of things to come

Speaking of keeping children healthy and in school, the special session allowed four of the most radical conservatives in the Kansas Senate to preview legislation coming in 2022 that would do away with all vaccinations, especially those required to attend public K-12 school in Kansas.

Senate Bill 2 is courtesy of Senators Caryn Tyson, Mark Steffen, Alicia Straub and Mike Thompson. In addition to nixing all school vaccination requirements, it would take away the authority for government and health officials to respond to contagious diseases and prohibit “certain public health orders related to isolation and quarantine, stay-at-home orders, curfews and face masks.”

The cliché, “we’re in for a bumpy ride,” doesn’t even come close to describing what the 2022 legislative session is going to bring us, given the election year that will decide whether the U.S. Congress returns to the grip of the GOP, the Kansas Legislature remains in control of the most radical conservatives and whether Laura Kelly will be a two-term Democratic governor in Kansas.