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Efforts to ban public employers from mandating COVID-19 vaccines defeated in SC House

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South Carolina Budget

South Carolina Rep.Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, right, reacts as House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, left, promises to give a raise or bonus to state employees once revenues are a little more clear during a debate on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Columbia, S.C. The House was debating the state's $9.8 billion budget for the next fiscal year. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

COLUMBIA — The South Carolina House refused March 23 to prohibit public employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations, after the chamber's GOP leader warned his colleagues they could ultimately end up killing their own family members.

During debate on a $10 billion state budget proposal, GOP Rep. Steven Long tried to insert clauses banning schools, colleges, agencies and local governments from crafting any policy making COVID-19 vaccination a condition of employment or services.

"It's one thing to recommend and encourage. It’s another thing to require," the Inman Republican said. We go down a dangerous road when we mandate vaccines." 

He argued putting the bans in the state's one-year budget law would give people who are hesitant to get the vaccine time to see how it affects others before deciding whether to get a shot themselves.

Those agreeing included Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, who said the decision on whether to get vaccinated should be a personal choice.

"Do you believe in personal liberty? How about government control in our lives?" he asked rhetorically, noting he's a co-sponsor of similar legislation backed by 20 other Republicans.

It was their caucus leader who put the skids on the idea. 

House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, countered the budget is no place to put a ban that could have deadly unintended consequences. 

There's no reason for it, anyway, since no such policy exists, he said.

Long argued he wanted the ban enacted before any policies pop up. 

That may make a good political sound bite, Simrill said, but there are consequences of passing "feel-good pieces of sound and fury."

He asked his colleagues whether they really wanted to make it tough for health agencies, such as veterans' nursing homes, to protect the state's most vulnerable by telling the people who take care of them they don't have to get a shot.

"Nobody's telling you you've got to take the vaccine, unless you work in an area with vulnerable people with co-morbidities," Simrill said, adding that while he stands for liberty, "I love South Carolina, and I love her people."

The person who may end up dying could be your own grandfather, niece, or nephew, Simrill said in wrapping up his second plea from the podium.

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It seemed to change minds. Long's first proposal was killed 66-44. His last was defeated 81-35.

The votes could be a preview of what happens to separate bills in the House and Senate barring mandates on COVID-19 vaccinations — if they ever advance to either chamber's floor. 

The state's supply of COVID-19 vaccines still falls far short of demand, more than three months after the rollout began.

But public health officials expect that to change in the not-so-distant future, when the vaccines become widely available and the main obstacle to getting back to full pre-pandemic normalcy will become people being hesitant or downright refusing to roll up their sleeve. 

About 3.7 million South Carolinians are currently eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine shot, representing the vast majority of adults. 

As of March 21, nearly 1.1 million South Carolinians had started the vaccination process, and 54 percent of them had completed it.

Less than 60 percent of employees in South Carolina's long-term care facilities have gotten a shot from pharmacists that come to the homes through a federal program, according to data from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The hours-long budget debate ultimately changed none of the spending in the plan advanced earlier this month by the House Ways and Means Committee.

The House voted 112-6 to approve the $10 billion package for the fiscal year starting July 1. 

The proposal puts an additional $500 million into reserves and sends $50 million to a new fund for disaster relief and flood-control efforts. Spending includes pay raises for officers in state law enforcement agencies, $27 million for the state's share of building two new nursing homes for veterans, and $30 million to continue efforts to expand high-speed internet across the state.

Perfunctory votes on March 24 will officially send the package to the state Senate.  

It's more of a rough draft of the state budget than what the House normally passes. Legislative leaders are awaiting updated revenue forecasts from the state's fiscal experts and details on the windfall coming from the federal COVID-19 relief law and how it can be spent. 

House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, promised "we're going to start over" with an entirely different proposal later this year, no matter what the Senate's budget proposal looks like. 

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

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