Public health officials call vaccines a powerful tool to fight disease. In Sacramento, they have proved to be an equally potent weapon for political combat.
Rather than playing out as a straightforward public health issue, a bill requiring California schoolchildren to be fully vaccinated is extraordinarily contentious. The measure has galvanized citizen opponents, following a pattern that helped bury similar bills in Oregon and Washington, divided Sacramento’s Democratic majority and left proponents scrambling to salvage the legislation.
On Wednesday, lawmakers struggled with a basic question: Does protecting people from disease justify keeping children out of school?
Unable to resolve that question, lawmakers on the Senate Education Committee compelled Senate Bill 277’s authors to delay a vote. If the senators carrying SB 277 cannot find a solution by next week, the bill could face an early demise.
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The setback underscored the uncertainty among many legislators, including Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, who have yet to take a stance. Of the 14 lawmakers representing the Sacramento region, four support the proposal, two oppose it, and the rest either are undecided or their offices did not respond to inquiries by The Sacramento Bee.
Mandatory vaccination is an issue in which party affiliation does not determine votes. Democrats casting doubt on the bill have balked despite the support of Senate leadership. Constituents castigating the bill hailed from conservative enclaves like Orange County as well as liberal bastions like Berkeley and west Los Angeles, from major cities and small towns.
Few bills have spurred action on a comparable scale. At a time when political observers bemoan California’s low voter participation rates, critics have flooded lawmakers with calls and surged by the hundreds into the Capitol to express their opposition.
“We’re hearing from a lot of people out there,” said Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge. “They were inundating our phones, etc. I think my staff was overwhelmed.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, proponents of the bill spoke for about seven minutes. Opponents testified for nearly two hours, dressing in matching red shirts, lining up out of the hearing room and convening in stairwells. Many said they would pull their children from school if the bill passed – a possibility that resonated with lawmakers who cast doubt on the bill.
“I think maybe some of the senators were taken aback by the ferocity of passion that they saw there, and that might have been impactful,” said Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, a co-author of SB 277 who said he was “a little surprised” by Wednesday’s outcome.
It was a similar story in Oregon and Washington, where state lawmakers pulled bills tightening vaccine exemptions after facing massive pushback.
In Washington, the bill cleared one committee, but its author pulled it before a floor vote.
“Members just received a lot of calls and emails from the public – some were their constituents and some were from all over the state and the country – just very adamant that they didn’t like it,” said Washington state Rep. June Robinson, a Democrat. “I think it changed the vote, quite frankly, for some members who thought they would vote for it and changed their mind. I think people were swayed by the constant barrage of communication.”
Oregon state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward told the Salem Statesman Journal that her colleagues there changed their minds because of pressure from “a very small minority of people.”
Supporters of the California bill worry they are being drowned out.
“We’re the majority, and we’re not being heard or spoken to or anything,” said Ed Bailey, a Lincoln resident and grandfather of 37 who said he was alarmed by Wednesday’s result. “I don’t want my grandchildren infected by this small minority of people.”
If the passion of the bill’s opponents has made an impression on some lawmakers, it also has given pause to others concerned that emotional appeals are dominating the debate.
“This is a movement that has taken off, and you have people who feel so deeply about it that it doesn’t matter what information they get,” said J. Theodore Anagnoson, aprofessor emeritus of political science at California State University, Los Angeles, who specialized in health policy. “I feel very sympathetic with” Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, one of SB 277’s authors, Anagnoson added. “He has a very tough gig here.”
Wednesday’s debate pivoted on parents’ ability to send their children to school.
“It stirred up that hornet’s nest,” said Liu, who chairs the committee and urged the bill’s authors to try again next week. She said she initially intended to let the bill advance but “many questions were raised in the committee and I thought some of my committee members were not quite there.”
“We’re not debating whether or not vaccines are good or bad,” Liu added. “We’re just taking the education piece out of it. So how does it affect going to school, not going to school, that kind of thing.”
Support for the bill from a wide range of educational groups was not enough to break the impasse. While the formidable California Teachers Association is holding off taking a position, other school organizations have lined up behind the premise that children must be able to attend school without fear of disease.
That argument failed to convince a majority of lawmakers on the Education Committee, including Democrats.“I’m looking for the compelling state interest here in doing something as draconian,” said Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, because “as I read this bill, there’s nothing you can do if you choose not to vaccinate your child except personally home-school them.”
But Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, said parents who are unwilling to vaccinate their kids should be prepared to forfeit public school and home-school their children.
“Quite frankly, if you want to live ... as a productive member of society, there are obligations and requirements,” Gonzalez said. “I am comfortable with the home-school option.”
Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543. Alexei Koseff and Jim Miller of the Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.
What to do on vaccine bill
Here are the positions of Sacramento-area lawmakers on Senate Bill 277
Richard Pan, D-Sacramento (author), Support
Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, Undecided
Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, No response
Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, Oppose
Lois Wolk, D-Davis (co-author), Support
Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals, Undecided
Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, No response
Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove (co-author), Support
Brian Dahle, R-Nubieber, No response
Bill Dodd, D-Napa, Undecided
Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, Undecided
Beth Gaines, R-Roseville, Oppose
James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, Undecided
Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento (co-author), Support