Somers: “If this bill is passed, these students will be displaced.”

April 16, 2021

(From CT Post)

A bill to eliminate Connecticut’s religious exemption for vaccines for schoolchildren took another step forward Thursday when a key legislative committee endorsed the controversial measure.

The Democratic-controlled appropriations committee approved the bill by a 31-16 vote along party lines, which follows previous approval by the public health committee.

The bill requires vaccinations for students in both public and private schools, along with commercial day care centers and day care in homes. Under a “grandfather” provision, all students in seventh grade and above could continue to remain in school without the vaccinations if they have already received a religious exemption.

The measure has been among the most emotional issues at the state Capitol over the past three years for an exemption that has been allowed under state law since 1959. Parents who are strongly opposed to mandatory vaccinations have testified by the hundreds, leading to a 24-hour hearing earlier this year.

The measure still requires approval by the state House of Representatives, Senate and Gov. Ned Lamont, who has voiced his support.

Only a small percentage of children in Connecticut have not been vaccinated, but those numbers have been growing in recent years.

Officials said 8,328 children across all grades had claimed the religious exemption in the 2019-2020 school year. That represents an increase from 7,782 in 2018-2019, and 7,042 in 2017-2018, according to the most recent state data available.

Republicans raised objections Thursday to those numbers, saying that 30,000 children in Connecticut schools are undervaccinated.

Fiscal analysts, however, said they made their projections based on the latest information provided by the state health department.

Sen. Heather Somers, a Groton Republican, said the state might eventually need to spend $350 million to educate 30,000 students who would not be allowed to be enrolled in school if they did not receive their vaccinations.

The problem, lawmakers said, is that the state constitution guarantees a public education to students that must be provided.

The impact is so much greater than what is accounted for,” Somers said. “If this bill is passed, these students will be displaced. … There’s a cost to that.”

She offered an amendment for the additional money, but the committee’s Democratic co-chair, Sen. Cathy Osten of Sprague, said that it was out of order under the rules and not germane to the issue because it was outside the cognizance of the committee. The amendment had not been vetted by the legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal office, which makes official estimates on costs.

The Republican amendment was rejected by a 30-16 vote along party lines by the Democratic-controlled committee.

Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, a Newtown Republican, predicted that the bill could be costly to the state for legal expenses in the future if the bill is passed and signed into law.

“It will be years in the courts, and potentially there could be 30,000 plaintiffs,” Bolinsky told his colleagues.

But Osten said the analysis by nonpartisan fiscal analysts did not delve into potential future legal concerns and costs.

“Those concerns are relative to the floor debate that we will have, should this bill get that far,” she said. “That’s not relative to this particular debate.’’

Rep. Robyn Porter, a New Haven Democrat, said she would be opposing the bill because of similar concerns about the fiscal projections. Porter, though, was not present when the vote was taken.

The budget-writing committee focused narrowly on the fiscal aspects of the bill, rather than the broad policy implications. Fiscal analysts said the bill would cost the state health department less than $91,000 per year to purchase vaccines for students who have private insurance and refused to pay for their own vaccines.

The average cost of the vaccine will be $126 annually for children from birth through the age of 18 years old and approximately $2,400 for the full 18 years, officials said.

Lamont favors eliminating the exemption and has said he would sign the bill. He previously said that he thought the issue had been long settled over vaccines.