It’s 2021, and lawmakers are called back to Austin for a third special legislative session after months of bickering and gridlock, primarily over redistricting and bills targeting transgender student athletes. The Legislature has finally passed a bill making it tougher to vote, but Republican governor Greg Abbott is ticked off that bills addressing several of his other pet issues haven’t yet reached his desk for his signature. He adds to the special call a seeming slam dunk for the overwhelmingly Republican-dominated chambers: pass a measure that would ban certain entities—including private businesses—from mandating COVID-19 vaccines.
It’s 2023, and lawmakers are called back to Austin for a third special legislative session after months of bickering and gridlock, primarily over the issue of private school vouchers. The Legislature has finally passed a bill alleviating property taxes, but Abbott is ticked off that bills addressing several of his other pet issues haven’t yet reached his desk for his signature. He adds to the special call—stop us if you’ve heard this before—a seeming slam dunk for the overwhelmingly Republican-dominated chambers: pass a measure that would ban private businesses from mandating COVID-19 vaccines.
The more things change . . . Vaccine mandate votes have become a well for the Texas GOP to tap repeatedly. In 2021, besieged by his right flank and facing two primary challengers critical of his COVID-related policies, Abbott issued an executive order banning vaccine mandates for private employers (that order expired in June). The Lege took up the issue in 2021, too, but Republican lawmakers couldn’t find common ground on a vaccine bill: a House proposal failed to get a committee vote, while a similar Senate bill lacked the votes to pass the full chamber.
This year the Lege is giving it another go. During the regular session, lawmakers passed a bill banning local governments from requiring masks, vaccines, or business shutdowns to mitigate the spread of a pandemic. But private businesses were allowed to keep issuing vaccine mandates if they chose. So last week, the Senate passed a bill sponsored by state senator Mayes Middleton, of Galveston, that would ban private Texas businesses from mandating COVID-19 vaccines for employees (medical facilities would be allowed to require unvaccinated employees to mask up to help lower the risks for vulnerable patients). The bill was recently voted out of a key House committee. State representative Jeff Leach, of Plano, is carrying a similar bill in the House as well.
In 2023, however, COVID-19 is no longer top of mind for most Texans—a survey from the Texas Politics Project found that less than one quarter of self-identified Texas voters in December 2022 believed COVID-19 was “a significant crisis,” down from 43 percent who said the same in February 2022. Nor are mandates. This week a representative for the Texas Workforce Commission testified during a House committee hearing that the agency received just fourteen complaints about mandates in the last quarter. (There are an estimated 15.1 million Texans in the civilian labor force.) So why is the GOP going all in on the issue again?
The hope of the state’s Republicans, it seems, is to get at least one guaranteed legislative win and have GOP members find common ground after months of intraparty bickering. Abbott’s signature issue this year, an effort to pass a bill to create “education savings accounts,” the wonky name for the crux of a program that would offer taxpayer dollars to parents who enroll their kids in private schools, has stalled in the House because some Republicans remain opposed to it. Should a ban on mandates pass, there will be almost no room for Abbottt’s far-right detractors to say that he’s weak on the issue (as they did in 2020), as he’ll be able to say he’s taking the same hard-line positions as GOP gubernatorial darlings like Florida governor Ron DeSantis.
There’s ample reason why a bill should pass both the House and Senate this time without much quibbling. First—and arguably most important—while it’s not a top concern, the Republican base overwhelmingly despises coronavirus vaccine mandates. Next year’s primaries are inching closer, and Republican lawmakers—especially those who played an active role in impeaching Attorney General Ken Paxton—want a win to bring back to their voters.
This year’s bill is also less stringent than the measure business groups and some Republican lawmakers rallied against in 2021. That year, one of the main bills moving through the Capitol would’ve made entities requiring the vaccine vulnerable to discrimination lawsuits. This year’s version doesn’t create a new private right of action and instead charges the Texas Workforce Commission with investigating complaints made by employees.
“This is something they can agree upon, which is something that’s in short supply these days,” said Bill Miller, the cofounder of HillCo Partners, an Austin lobbying and public relations firm. “And it’s something that the base wants. Lawmakers don’t want to finish another special session and have nothing to show for it. Check the box in the win column. That’s what this is.”
Some Texas Republicans often get stuck in a recurring loop. They might believe that their bills will make a positive difference—but they are also satisfied even if they don’t, so long as they score political points with donors and primary voters. Over the phone, Leach argued that the bill addresses a major state concern and said there are many more Texans not captured by the TWC data who stand to benefit from the law. He recounted a tale from a constituent who told him that he got the vaccine not because he wanted to, but because “he needed to keep his job.” Another constituent, he said, was a health-care technician in a hospital who didn’t want to get the vaccine, so she switched to a different job.
But just because this bill seems to be an issue for the Lege and the 3 percent of Texans who determine who leads our state doesn’t mean it’s without its critics. Industry groups remain in opposition to the measure. In a letter obtained by Texas Monthly, a coalition of influential business groups pressed the Texas Senate’s Committee on Health & Human Services to not put any additional regulations on private businesses. “We urge you to continue to foster a common-sense, low-regulation environment that allows Texas employers to succeed,” read the letter, signed by the National Federation of Independent Business, the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Hospital Association, and others.
There’s an irony in self-proclaimed business-friendly Republicans now trying to tell Texas businesses what they can and can’t do. “It’s no secret that Texas and Governor Abbott have done a great job of making this a very business-friendly state. The regulatory environment is generally very friendly to the business community,” said Annie Spilman, a business analyst and the former Texas director for the National Federation of Independent Business. “But in an effort to protect the freedoms of one, the Legislature is taking freedoms away from another.”
Nearly absent from discussion on the bills has been consideration of some of the long-term consequences of removing bans. As state representative Rafael Anchía, of Dallas, noted during a House committee hearing, under this bill, private businesses might not be able to sufficiently protect their immunocompromised employees from colleagues who refuse to get the vaccine. There’s also the question of what happens, for instance, if another, more powerful coronavirus variant emerges for which the vaccine is a necessary precaution and businesses can no longer protect their employees. During a second, more brief phone call, Leach acknowledged this could happen, but he said it didn’t change his opinion that people shouldn’t be fired for choosing whether to get a vaccine.
“It’s certainly clear that those who do not like that COVID-19 vaccine or oppose the vaccination are getting the upper hand in this conversation and dictating the policy,” said Carrie Kroll, the vice president of advocacy, public policy, and political strategy at the Texas Hospital Association. “Keeping patients safe has been pushed to the back of this conversation.”
Of course, that might not matter if the end goal is to win over the grassroots base. That’s the bill in a nutshell: legislating for the few, explicitly, and for show. “The audience are conservatives that are on X,” Miller told me. “Those are the people that pay attention. Whether they interpret results accurately and carefully is a debatable point, but they do watch and do talk and they’re loud. That’s the audience that this whole legislative session is playing for right now.” Pandering to the far right remains a legislative priority.