Capitol Alert

California Senate sends mandatory vaccines bill to governor

California state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, co-authored SB 277, which was sent to Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday.
California state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, co-authored SB 277, which was sent to Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday. Sacramento Bee file

After months of packed committee hearings and lengthy floor debates, California’s controversial mandatory vaccinations proposal now heads to Gov. Jerry Brown for consideration.

In a 24-14 concurrence vote, the state Senate on Monday accepted Assembly amendments to Senate Bill 277, which would eliminate California’s personal and religious belief exemptions for vaccinating schoolchildren, and sent the measure to Brown’s desk.

While Brown has given little indication of whether he will sign or veto SB 277, the bill’s authors – Democratic Sens. Richard Pan of Sacramento and Ben Allen of Santa Monica – are confident.

“We believe the governor believes in science, believes in public health, and will, at the end of the day, support this bill,” Allen said at a press conference following the vote.

Proponents of SB 277 are buoyed by comments Brown made earlier this year, via spokesman Evan Westrup, that “vaccinations are profoundly important and a major public health benefit.” A senior official in his office also testified in favor of the measure at a hearing earlier this month, though she emphasized that she spoke on her own behalf.

But Brown balked three years ago at a vaccination bill much less sweeping than SB 277, which would make California only the third state in the country without a personal or religious belief exemption.

Assembly Bill 2109, by then-Assemblyman Pan, required parents seeking to opt out of immunizations to first consult with a health professional about the risks and benefits of vaccines. In signing the bill, Brown, once a Jesuit seminarian, directed the Department of Public Health to exempt “people whose religious beliefs preclude vaccinations.”

Opponents, including thousands of California parents who have flooded the Capitol in protest, object to SB 277 as a violation of the right to make their own medical decisions and the right of their children to a public education. Under the bill, students who are not immunized will not be allowed to attend public or private schools in California.

They immediately began lobbying Brown to veto the bill, submitting a petition with tens of thousands of signatures to his office on Monday afternoon and launching a social media campaign, #HearUs.

The group A Voice for Choice set up a vigil outside the Capitol, saying it was inspired by the “Silent Sentinels,” a group of suffragettes who stood at the White House for more than two years asking President Woodrow Wilson for the right to vote.

Organizer Christina Hildebrand of Palo Alto said volunteers would be arriving from all over the state to keep the vigil, which is being streamed online, going 24 hours a day. “We will be here until he does something,” she said.

The concerns about mandating immunizations were echoed during a brief Senate floor debate on Monday, which centered on amendments exempting independent study students from the vaccine requirement, grandfathering in children who already have personal belief exemptions on file, and allowing doctors to consider family history in granting medical exemptions for vaccinations.

“The amendments seem designed mostly to get criticism from existing parents with school-age children off their backs,” Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff said. “It’s an overreach of government, and I still urge a no vote.”

Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, called it “a direct attack on our liberty and a violation of personal rights.”

The vote mostly followed party lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed. Democratic Sens. Richard Roth of Riverside and Connie Leyva of Chino broke with their caucus to vote against the bill, while Republicans Andy Vidak of Hanford and Jeff Stone of Temecula voted yes.

Outside the chamber, Jude Tovatt of Roseville tried to approach Allen to dispute the merits of the bill. In tow was her 8-year-old son, Jackson, who she said has not been fully vaccinated according to schedule.

“One-size-fits-all medicine fits no one,” she said. “This is just a pharmaceutical giveaway, and Dr. Pan knows that.”

Tovatt said that if Brown signs SB 277, she will challenge the law in court rather than pull her son from school. “I will take this as far it goes,” she said.

Pan is anticipating the legal challenge. Opponents have already mounted a recall drive against him and may soon be able to begin collecting signatures.

“This bill has been very thoroughly vetted,” Pan said. “It’s a strong bill – a bill that will withstand legal scrutiny.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff