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A 2017 Vaccine Mandate Easily Became Law In Indiana. What Happened To The GOP Support?

Hundreds gathered on the south lawn of the Indiana Statehouse during a medical choice rally last weekend. (Brock E.W. Turner, WFIU/WTIU News)

In 2017, Indiana’s top Republicans supported a meningitis vaccine mandate for college students. Today, that support is not there for COVID-19 vaccinations.  

The shift is significant within the state’s GOP establishment, which says its support of a mandate hinges on the government process by which it is passed. 

Signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb (R-IN) in 2017, HB 1069 required all residential college students be vaccinated against meningitis. 

In a statement, Holcomb walked a fine line reiterating his calls Hoosiers receive the COVID-19 vaccine, but stopped short of supporting a requirement. 

“We’re not in a place where it can be added to the list of required immunizations. Vaccines that are mandated by state law have gone through the appropriate legislative process,” he wrote. “It was not an executive order issued by me or by the federal government.” 

Both the Meningococcal and COVID-19 vaccines are included on the Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) list of recommended inoculations. 

A cadre of now-prominent state Republicans were among those who voted in favor of the 2017 mandate for all students attending an Indiana college. 

Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston (R-Fishers), who voted for the 2017 bill, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

US Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN)—who was a state representative at the time—voted in favor of HB 1069 but, like Holcomb, is also against the federal vaccine mandate. 

HB1069.05.ENRS by Indiana Public Media News on Scribd

A Braun spokesperson recently said the 2017 bill ensured out-of-state and international students were held to the same standards as Hoosier students. 

The senator echoed claims from fellow Republicans and opposes Biden’s policy. 

“President Biden has zero authority to issue vaccine mandates for employees of private businesses, and he should let these decisions be made by individuals, state governments, and local officials,” he wrote. 

Neither Huston nor Braun were swing voters in 2017. HB 1069 easily passed the state’s House of Representatives 87-2. Ten members were excused.   

While it faced more opposition from Senate Republicans, it still passed convincingly. 

Senate President Pro Temp Rodric Bray (R-Martinsville)—who also voted for the 2017 bill—was not available for an interview.  He wrote “[the COVID-19 vaccine] is very different than the meningitis vaccine, which, when the bill was being considered and passed, had been available for over a decade.”

Author Says POTUS Mandate Is ‘For The Same Reason’ As 2017

Former State Representative Ron Bacon (R-Boonville) spent a decade in the state legislature. A respiratory therapist by trade and former business owner, he says he supports vaccine requirements in the business community. 

“If I was still in business, I would mandate now that my employees get the COVID vaccine,” he said. “Not only am I trying to protect my employees so that they don’t get it, but I’ve got to protect my clientele.”

But Bacon admits there’s a line that must balance the rights of the individual with the good of the community.

“If you don’t want to get the vaccine, fine, don’t get the vaccine. But that doesn’t leave you the ability to go over and spread it to everybody else,” Bacon said. 

While there are core differences between Bacon’s 2017 bill mandating the meningitis vaccine for college students and the sweeping requirements Biden has announced, Bacon admitted each originate from a similar place.

“I understand, and he’s doing it for the same reason,” Bacon said. “We have an obligation and a job to do to protect those less fortunate and those who are at most risk, those who are vulnerable.”

That said, Bacon believes the president’s vaccine policy “goes a little bit too far.”

Vaccine Policy Strife Could Reveal Deeper Party Divisions

The GOP’s different position on vaccine mandates comes amid an internal rift. 

Holcomb sued the Indiana General Assembly in April over a bill limiting the governor’s emergency powers. 

While the state’s Supreme Court denied an appeal from Republican Attorney General Todd Rokita that would’ve halted the case, court proceedings continue. 

Yet, perhaps the most visible display of the party’s differences appears among voters. 

During a “Hoosiers for Medical Freedom” rally at the Indiana Statehouse on Sunday, cheers from the hundreds gathered were loudest when speakers railed against President Joe Biden and the establishment Republicans. 

“I think that the Indiana GOP continues to be asleep at the wheel,” said Robyn Duncan. She is against mandates and the state’s public health emergency declaration. “Anyone over 18 should be able to make their own decision.” 

Duncan is a member of Indiana Patriots Alliance, a conservative group whose website openly criticizes the state’s GOP supermajority for not ending the COVID-19 public health emergency. 

Rep. Curt Nisly (R-Milford) agrees. He and other conservative members of the GOP have called for the state’s legislature to end Holcomb’s executive order—a position that has been durable. He was one of the two representatives opposed to the 2017 vaccine mandate. 

Although his proposal faces opposition from Democrats and more moderate Republicans, he garnered some of the loudest applause at the rally.

“The people of Indiana are well educated to make their own decisions,” he said before being interrupted by applause. “The state of emergency must end.”  

A majority of current GOP lawmakers still disagree with that. 

Yet, there has been a shift on vaccine mandates to more closely align with Nisly’s conservative views.

Several statehouse insiders say they are watching closely how these disagreements will affect future Republican primaries.

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