A bill tightening Oregon vaccination laws will move on to a vote in the state’s House of Representatives, despite a deluge of opposing calls and e-mails to lawmakers in recent days.
In a vote that largely stuck to party lines, the Legislature's budget committee on Friday voted 13-7 to move House Bill 3063 to the full House. The vote came at the tail end of a week when hundreds of parents who opposed the bill flocked repeatedly to the Capitol, holding a raucous rally on the front steps on Tuesday and testifying for hours against the measure on Wednesday.
“This issue has been one of the most emotional issues I’ve seen in all of my years in the Legislature,” said state Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, at a hearing of the Joint Ways and Means Committee.
Beyer voted to send the bill to the full House, saying it should be heard by the House and Senate. But he also said he’d be a “no” vote if the bill makes it to his chamber.
“I think it goes too far,” Beyer said.
Proposed in response to a measles outbreak centered in Southwest Washington this year, HB 3063 would eliminate the religious or philosophical exemptions parents have long been able to claim in order to avoid otherwise required vaccines and still send their kids to school.
Under the bill, parents could still obtain exemptions for valid medical reasons — and the process for those exemptions would be more permissive. That has not been enough to quell the concerns of some parents, who believe vaccines pose a risk to their children and are being irresponsibly pushed by pharmaceutical companies.
On the other side of the debate, a wide array of doctors and health officials support the bill, saying it will curb the spread of preventable diseases that endanger children or people with compromised immune systems. The overwhelming majority of scientific study has found vaccines are safe and effective.
That the bill was before the Legislature’s budget committee was something of a technicality. It contains $100,000 to the Oregon Health Authority, which would be used to mount an education campaign ahead of the August 2020 deadline for immunizing school children.
But the Ways and Means Committee also includes a co-chair, Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, who has championed legislation to eliminate non-medical exemptions in the past. And the fact that the committee is comprised of both senators and representatives means HB 3063 does not necessarily have to go before a Senate committee if it passes a full floor vote in the House. The bill already passed the House Health Care Committee.
At Friday’s brief work session, lawmakers who are skeptical of the legislation largely dominated the discussion.
State Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, spoke of his phone being “jammed this morning with emails and messages, almost all in opposition.”
“Ironically, about three-quarters of them are in the opposite party than me,” said Girod, a retired dentist. “I am a health provider, and I believe that people have the right to say ‘no.'”
Rep. David Gomberg, D-Central Coast, said he’d received more than 2,000 emails and calls about the bill the day before. “The great majority of them were not from my district,” said Gomberg, who voted for the bill out of worry for the health of children and the elderly.
Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, who’d made an emotional speech on the bill at a subcommittee hearing on the bill two days earlier, called his vote “the strongest no I have ever been on any bill.”
Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, pointed out that the legislation had scrambled the usual political lines, with anti-abortion types advocating for medical choice, and people who support abortion backing required vaccinations.
“I find it extremely ironic, those that are pro-life now are advocating for choice, and those that are pro-choice now are advocating for a mandate,” said Smith, who voted against the bill in committee but said he did not know how he would vote when the full House considers it. “That’s ironic, and we need to keep that in mind in the future.”
The 13-7 vote was ultimately not close, and included one Republican, Sen. Chuck Thomsen, for the measure and one Democrat, Sen. Betsy Johnson, against.
Friday's vote for tougher vaccine requirements isn't necessarily an indication of what's in store for HB 3063 on the floor. Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers. Still, two Democratic lawmakers, Beyer and Rep. Susan McLain voted for the bill as a “courtesy” but made clear they would vote no in their full chamber.