Dems fail to block public-records language in DeSantis’ vaccine-mandate legislation

Overall package easily clears FL House; action shifts to the Senate

By: - November 17, 2021 4:32 pm

House Speaker Chris Sprowls briefs reporters following floor action on Nov. 17, 2021. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

The only drama during Florida House debate on Day 3 of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ special session on COVID vaccine policy was whether Democrats would hang together to block a public-records exemption attached to the package.

They did not. That measure, HB 3B, which would shield personal information about medical histories and religious views of workers challenging workplace vaccine mandates, passed on a vote of 85-32, with Democrats including Michael Grieco of Miami-Dade County voting with the Republican majority.

“I don’t like most of this bill. I don’t. I consider it to be somewhat of a trap bill for political purposes,” Greico said in explaining himself.

“But, at the same time, there’s one issue there that I know would be important to my constituents and to most of our constituents, and that’s our ability to protect the health information of employees,” he said.

On Tuesday, all 42 House Democrats voted to amend that provision, sparking hopes they could block it during Wednesday’s vote on final passage — that’s because public-records exemptions require two-thirds votes in the 120-member chamber.

But sponsors insisted fears raised by the Florida’s First Amendment Foundation that it would block access to legitimate public information about the way the state attorney general’s office investigates businesses were overwrought.

On Wednesday, party whip Ramone Alexander said: “We allowed caucus members to make the decision that they feel they need to make on behalf of their districts.”

Democrats voted with Republicans on other elements of the package, as well, including the 78-39 vote to approve the main bill, HB 1B — which, among other steps, bans public employers from requiring workers to take vaccines; requires private employers to grant religious, medical, and other exemptions to vaccine requirements; and gives parents the final say in whether public school children will wear masks in classrooms and take COVID-19 vaccines. (Florida’s school districts currently do not require schoolchildren to take COVID-19 vaccines.)

The legislation allows parents to sue school districts that try to impose mask or COVID-19 vaccine mandates and recover their litigation costs.

The House stood down following the votes, as action shifted to the state Senate. House Speaker Chris Sprowls said he didn’t plan to call his members back into session unless for some reason the package ran into trouble across the Capitol rotunda — which, given GOP unity, seemed unlikely,

Sprowls told reporters following the floor session that the package would “give sanity and guidance to businesses and employees throughout the state in the wake of sweeping government mandates from the Biden administration.”

For public workers facing firing if they refuse vaccines, the rescue would be immediate, he told reporters.

“They’re not losing their job under this bill. That’s not happening because we specifically said, as it relates to government, they are not allowed to be terminated for the vaccine,” Sprowls said.

Sprowls had relinquished the chair for much of the morning; a reporter asked what it cost him to persuade Democrats to vote for the public-records exemption.

“No cost, unless cost is good policy,” Sprowls said.

“Without that bill, there would have been people’s private, religious, medical information that would be posted on Facebook, potentially, if there was a public-records request,” he said.

During floor debate, Republicans conceded the package doesn’t ban vaccine mandates for private employers, notwithstanding the rhetoric; it only insists that bosses allow the designated opt outs. Additional exemptions apply to workers who agree to undergo regular testing or wear personal protective equipment.

An additional element of the package gives the governor $1 million to study how to create a state bureaucracy to replace the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, one of the federal agencies issuing the vaccine mandate that DeSantis finds so objectionable. Other mandates would apply to federal contractors and health care providers taking Medicare and Medicaid money.

This even though, under federal law, the state couldn’t provide less protection to workers and the federal government would have to approve any state regulations.

Sprowls noted that the OSHA rule is not in effect because of an injunction issued by a federal appeals court.

“So, if Gov. DeSantis gets the opportunity to sign the bill that we’ve sent him this week, it will be the law in Florida for all businesses,” he said.

“We will continue to have to litigate OSHA to its entirety. I believe, as I have told you before, that we’re going to be successful. It’s a sweeping, unprecedented use of OSHA; I believe it is totally unconstitutional.”

The state also will litigate against mandates for federal contractors and medical providers, Sprowls said. The legislation gives Attorney General Ashley Moody $5 million to pay for those lawsuits.

Another element repeals the state surgeon general’s authority to order widespread vaccinations in public health emergencies, in line with the governor’s position that vaccinations should be left to individuals.

Democrats argued the package really represents DeSantis’ effort to score political points with his GOP base heading into next year’s gubernatorial election and a potential presidential run in 2024.

Democrat Dan Daley of Broward County reminded the House of the conspiracy theories voiced during committee testimony by anti-vax activists.

“Y’all know this is legislating from the fringe of one political party,” he said. “Y’all know that the fringe, especially on this issue is wrong and dangerous.”

Republicans insisted they were not anti-vax.

“We’re here this week to save people’s jobs from a one-size-fits-all, ham-fisted vaccine mandate. This should not be something we’re divided on, on party lines, said Republican Alex Andrade, representing parts of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties

“You can disagree with us on policy all day long but stop telling me I have blood on my hands because I disagree with you,” he said.

That brought a rebuttal from Democrat Omari Hardy.

“You’re putting other people’s lives in your hands because you want the freedom to not have a vaccination. You want to put cancer patients at risk; you want to put people with diabetes at risk; you want to put young babies who are not yet able to get vaccinated at risk,” Hardy said.

“This isn’t about freedom; this is about responsibility.”

During a post-debate news conference, House Democratic co-leader Evan Jenne conceded the governor would win a political victory — at least, from DeSantis’ point of view, because it pleases “that percentage of his base that is very worked up right now” about COVID, he said.

“Look, if Donald Trump doesn’t decide to run for president, at this point, if we were doing the primary tomorrow, I would have to imagine that Ron DeSantis is the next choice. He’s positioning himself for that and just waiting on the president to make a decision,” Jenne said.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.