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More than a dozen COVID-related bills filed ahead of lawmakers’ return to Columbia next week

Published: Jan. 7, 2022 at 7:31 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 8, 2022 at 5:21 AM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - State lawmakers will tackle a stacked to-do list when they return to Columbia next week for their regular legislative session, starting Tuesday.

Priorities include passing a budget, allocating billions of federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act, and wrapping up redistricting.

But they also face a situation with the pandemic much different than when they adjourned last summer, as South Carolina continues to deal with its highest spike in cases so far because of the highly contagious omicron variant.

Just in the last two months, nearly 20 bills relating to the pandemic have been pre-filed or introduced ahead of lawmakers’ return, mainly sponsored by Republicans, who hold majorities in both the state Senate and House of Representatives.

Some of these bills are more expansive, while others are more narrowly focused.

A dozen bills relate to vaccine mandates, most of them banning or putting stipulations on vaccine requirements at various workplaces. Other vaccine mandate-related bills would give workers more rights for refusing to comply with a requirement, such as unemployment benefits, or make it illegal for a person to be discriminated against based on their vaccination status.

Four bills would outlaw mask mandates or prohibit state money from being spent to enforce them.

Six would affect schools, both K-through-12 and higher education, by prohibiting vaccination status as a requirement for attendance or employment or by barring public schools from partnering with government agencies to administer vaccines.

One bill would give people infected with COVID and other pandemic and epidemic diseases the ability to undergo experimental treatments or drugs.

On Friday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in legal challenges, including those brought by states including South Carolina, to two of the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates, one affecting healthcare workers and the other a vaccination-or-testing requirement for workers of companies with 100 or more employees.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R – Edgefield, said what Republicans pursue in regards to COVID-19 legislation will likely depend on how the Supreme Court rules in those cases.

“They understand the significance of the public interest on this. I would expect them to make a decision pretty quickly, and we’re going to have to figure out what, if anything, we can do in response to that,” he said, adding regarding mandates on private companies, “My preference would be that the legislature not get involved in that, but my preference would also be that the business industry not make us get involved in that. Don’t force our hand.”

Most recently, in a December special session, the House passed a wide vaccine mandate ban bill largely along party lines. The bill initially was much more sweeping, also including a ban on private employers from firing or suspending unvaccinated workers, but that was cut from the text during hours of debate before the pared-down version was passed.

The final version bill approved by the House bans state and local governments, including school districts, from imposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates on employees, contractors, and students as a condition of employment or attendance. It also prohibits these entities from firing unvaccinated first responders paid with public funds — defined as law enforcement officers, firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics — and guarantees exemptions for private-employer requirements.

That bill will be introduced in the Senate next Tuesday and, like any other bill, would have to be approved three more times, by a subcommittee, committee, and the full Senate, before it could reach the governor’s desk to be signed into law.

Massey said a lot of COVID legislation that is passed is reactionary, and it’s hard to anticipate what lawmakers will be reacting to in the coming months.

“I do think there is a real sense in the legislature, because there’s a real sense in the public, that we want people to be able to work, and there’s a demand for workers all across the state,” Massey said. “We want to make sure that people can continue to work, and so I think there’s going to be interest in addressing any attempts to limit or restrict that.”

During the December debate in the House over the anti-vaccine mandate bill, more than a dozen Democrats spoke against the proposal.

In a statement, the Senate Democratic Caucus said, “Our caucus is committed to keeping South Carolinians safe and healthy, as well as putting an end to this ongoing pandemic. As we return to session next week, we will be working on ways to improve the health, wellbeing, and economic interests of people across our state through legislation.”

Tuesday starts the second year of a two-year legislative session, so lawmakers can essentially pick up where they left off several months ago without having to reintroduce legislation. For example, if a bill has already passed the House, it can immediately be introduced in the Senate without having to be passed again through the House.

Massey said he believes most of their COVID-related priorities from last year were dealt with at the time, including getting students back in the classroom and ensuring vaccine access for those who wanted it.

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