A legislative proposal that would ban nonmedical exemptions for required vaccinations passed out of committee on a party-line vote Thursday, March 14, the committee's seven Democrats voting in favor.
It was a small step. But for some, it was an omen of a foregone conclusion.
Amber Sims had tears running down her face as she left the hearing room following the vote. She moved to Oregon from California in 2015 after a similar bill was passed there. Now, she doesn't know what to do, she said.
House Bill 3063 moves to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means where it will be looked at due to a provision that would require the Oregon Health Authority to launch an outreach campaign on vaccinations. If passed out of that committee, it would still need to survive votes in the House and Senate and be signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown, who supports the proposal.
The bill comes amid a measles outbreak in Clark County, Washington, that has 72 confirmed cases. This week, an unrelated case of the measles was confirmed in Marion County.
Thursday's work session in the House Committee on Health Care reviewed several amendments. Committee members trying to weaken or dissolve the bill were thwarted by party-line votes. One amendment that was approved clarified that unvaccinated children could still attend an online school, though they would not be able to participate in organized school activities, such as field trips. It also added a grace period, giving parents until August 2020 to comply with the law, if it were to pass.
The proposal has been controversial, as more than 100 showed up to oppose the bill. During a late-February public hearing, several hundred people turned out, which prompted contentious interactions with lawmakers after the hearing. People who opposed the bill said they went to committee members' offices to distribute flowers representing injuries they say their children incurred when vaccinated. Some lawmakers' staff declined the flowers, deeply upsetting some citizens.
Others, such as activist Brittany Ruiz, cried foul at some written testimony getting quarantined in spam folders for legislative administrators. As of March 7, 2,049 pieces of written testimony had been received. A committee analyst confirmed to the Oregon Capital Bureau that 30 to 40 pieces of testimony got caught in spam folders, but also said the bill has received a potential record number of written testimony, though he wasn't sure.
When asked if party-line passage could be indicative of the proposal's overall chances, Ruiz said she hoped the amendment barring unvaccinated online school students from school-organized activities was authoritarian enough to get some Democrats to oppose the bill. Democrats hold three-fifths majorities in both chambers.
Overall, Ruiz was deeply troubled by the passage out of the committee. "This bill, as written right now, would be the most restrictive legislation to pass in any state, ever," she said.
In recent weeks, Ruiz has lobbied media to look into the connection with the Democrats' support for the bill and the pharmaceutical industry. But according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, state Rep. Cedric Hayden's $17,500 in combined contributions was more than any committee member or sponsor of the bill. The Roseburg Republican opposed it and introduced amendments that would severely weaken it.
"I find this bill far overreaching," Hayden said during the hearing. "I think it's the wrong path to take, and I'm not proud of Oregon in this moment."
Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River, is a sponsor. He received $17,000 from pharmaceutical companies in 2018.
Several other members of the committee or sponsors of the bill also received money from the industry, which is a big player in campaign contributions, spreading money around to both parties. But the money doesn't seem to have impacted the votes. For example, Rep. Denyc Boles, R-Salem, got $12,000 in 2018, according to the Money in State Politics database. She also voted against the vaccine proposal.
After the amendments were voted on, several committee members took the opportunity to articulate their thinking. Rep. Mitch Greenlick, a chief sponsor of the bill and a man who spent his career in public health, was the last to speak and talked about taking his father-in-law, who was born in 1900, to a doctor's visit. The doctor asked what child diseases the man had had. The usual: diphtheria, smallpox and whooping cough.
Greenlick was surprised by the response. He said the life expectancy then was about two-thirds what it is today because so many children died of disease.
We save millions of lives because of vaccines, he said. "Our children live now. And they live mostly because we work together as a community to do things we can't do alone."
Greenlick said he's spent a lot of time trying to research both sides of the issue, and has found no credible evidence showing vaccines were dangerous in the way some people believe. He said misinformation spreads like wildfire on the internet, causing hysteria.
Greenlick's testimony wasn't welcomed by the crowd, which had realized the committee would approve the proposal. Several started crying, prompting staff to pass out tissues. One woman stormed out of the hearing room.
After the passage, the large group moved to the Capitol rotunda, then took to the stairs leading to the House for a group photo to show solidarity.
Then, in a symbolic act of defiance against what they see as tyranny, they started singing in unison. "Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light," they belted.
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