California vaccine bill approved by committee on second try

The Sacramento Bee, 4/22/15.

Legislation requiring vaccinations for nearly all California schoolchildren revived Wednesday, winning the approval of a Senate committee that a week earlier looked poised to reject the measure.

Amendments giving non-vaccinated children more educational options beyond traditional schooling generated enough support to push Senate Bill 277 out of the Senate Education Committee on a 7-2 vote.

The bill heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the next step in a potentially long odyssey winding through several committees and floor votes in both the Assembly and Senate. Every Democrat on the Judiciary Committee is either a co-sponsor of the bill or has voted for it.

Still, they will wrestle with issues that could include whether an exemption for parents who object to vaccinations on religious grounds would be legally feasible. Multiple lawmakers said Wednesday that the legislation will require more changes if it is to make it to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk and win his signature.

“There’s a lot of work we still have to do,” Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, said after the hearing.

While proponents frame SB 277 as a public health measure needed to protect Californians who are too young or sick to be immunized against diseases like measles and whooping cough, the bill faltered last week under questions about whether unvaccinated children could still exercise their constitutional right to an education. SB 277 would preserve medical exemptions but nix a broad personal belief exemption, prompting many parents to threaten to pull their children from school.

In the meantime, Allen of Santa Monica and Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, crafted amendments to placate skeptics. The changes expand the home-schooling and independent study options available to children who are not vaccinated and therefore cannot attend conventional public or private schools.

Now, unvaccinated children could get an education through private home-schools that cover multiple families – in the bill’s previous version only those serving a single family or household had qualified. The bill changes also clarified that unvaccinated kids could receive schooling through independent study programs that are overseen by school districts and given access to public school curricula.

“I appreciate your work to try and expand options for those who choose not to vaccinate to pursue the education of their children,” said Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, while ensuring that for families of children with immune-compromising diseases like leukemia, “there are public schools where their children can attend without the risk of being exposed.”

Again and again last week, dissenters returned to that core tension: How to balance students’ ability to attend school without fear of infection against children’s fundamental right to an education.

“The amendments are an attempt to strike that balance,” Allen said. “This is a committee that cares about educational options for families, and they felt that we hadn’t adequately fleshed out certain aspects of the options we may provide for those families who choose not to vaccinate. We got through the committee today because the committee felt as though our amendments addressed the core concerns they had about access.”

The vote tally supported Allen’s contention. The committee’s chair, Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge, backed SB 277 after questioning last week whether public safety merited children leaving school. After expressing similar concerns last week, Sen. Loni Hancock, a Berkeley Democrat whose district houses many non-vaccinating families, voted in favor.

“I supported SB 277 because I strongly believe in the validity and importance of vaccinations,” Hancock said in a statement after the vote. “My concern has always been to ensure that all children have access to educational opportunities. I believe that the current bill, as amended, does a good job of balancing the state’s constitutional requirement to provide access to public education with the public health benefits of vaccinations.”

Still, the amendments did not convince lawmakers who worried that, given the burdens of home-schooling, some children would still struggle to obtain an education should the bill become law.

“I just still have a concern that this will not go far enough to help a two-income family who cannot home-school their child or a single working parent,” said Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino.

The Education Committee carried a different roster from the one that halted the bill last week. Gone was Senate Republican leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar, who had said he could not support SB 277. His replacement, Sen. Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster, voted no. Appointed to fill a vacancy on the panel was Monning, who voted for the bill in its previous committee. He voted in favor again Wednesday.

Legislative leaders described the development as a routine product of the seat-shuffling set off by cascading rounds of elections. A new Democrat will soon fill an empty Senate seat in the 7th District. Runner recently won the seat that now-Rep. Steve Knight, R-Lancaster, vacated after he won a spot in Congress.

“At the beginning of the legislative year, Senate Republicans decided upon which committee posts they would take, with the understanding that two new Republicans would soon be taking office after they won special elections,” Huff spokesman William Bird said in a statement. “The understanding was that committee assignments would shift somewhat, when the two new members took office.”

But SB 277 opponents cried foul. A press release from the California Coalition for Health Choice denounced the change as “outright rigging the results of a vote.”

Wednesday’s vote offered none of the drama of the previous Senate Education Committee hearing, when SB 277’s authors agreed to delay a vote in the face of hours of stinging testimony and pointed questions from fellow legislators.

This time, no public testimony was allowed, though red-clad opponents still filled the hearing room. In numbers and vociferousness they have easily eclipsed proponents at hearings, though unvaccinated children account for a small minority of California youths.

Many of them attended Wednesday’s hearing carrying scarlet flowers, which they then delivered to the offices of Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, and Senate Judiciary Committee chair Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, whose panel will hear the bill Tuesday.

Motivated enough to travel to a hearing where they would not be permitted to speak, critics said they planned to maintain their pressure on lawmakers.

“This is a terrible bill. It’s a ridiculous bill that needs to not pass,” said Joni Martin, who has selectively vaccinated her two children and departed from the Santa Cruz area before 5 a.m. to attend Wednesday’s hearing. “I’m going to come any time I need to come to listen to what they say, and I’m going to continue to work on getting the message out about all the reasons the bill is not justified.”

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