Gov. Gavin Newsom’s effort to change legislation that would tighten immunization rules for California schoolchildren could prompt a rush for new vaccine exemptions, revisions that go far beyond what his advisors have insisted would be nothing more than a “technical” tweaking of the proposal.
The governor’s 11th hour demands — which could reduce or eliminate the number of existing vaccine exemptions that would be scrutinized by state officials — were made just days before the Legislature adjourns for the year, creating confusion and new conflict at the state Capitol. And they have done little to temper passions on both sides of the debate: Vaccine critics are now more hopeful that Newsom will reject any effort to crack down on exemptions, while supporters of the bill are concerned that the governor is sending mixed messages about the state’s commitment to ensuring the vast majority of children are vaccinated before attending public schools.
Dorit Reiss, a law professor at the UC Hastings College of Law who studies vaccine policies, said the fact that Newsom earlier pledged to sign the legislation has only added to uncertainty over the bill.
“I am concerned [the proposed revisions] will lead to a temporary rise in exemptions and will mean schools and children will remain vulnerable for several more years,” she said. “It’s all just very strange. He said he would sign it, and it’s not clear what the goal is with these changes. It doesn’t even address the concerns of opponents.”
So far, the governor has yet to make public key details about the revisions he is seeking. His office instead offered a broad overview of a proposed overhaul of Senate Bill 276 by state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) that surpasses technical touch-ups. The potential changes would delay when the California Department of Public Health could review and potentially reject medical exemptions written by doctors who have granted five or more in a year. Newsom is also asking that the tally apply only to medical exemptions written after Jan. 1, a move that would grandfather in older orders and protect them from scrutiny.
Newsom has also proposed eliminating a requirement that doctors certify a medical exemption they sign is accurate, under penalty of perjury. The potential changes would be made in a separate bill that would override parts of SB 276, which has already cleared the Legislature and is headed to Newsom’s desk.
Last week, in what would mark a significant weakening of the bill, sources said the governor’s office floated draft language that called for all existing medical exemptions to remain in effect, instead having the state scrutinize new orders written after Jan. 1. His office refused to say whether that option is still being considered.
“We continue to work with the Legislature on the issues that our office has laid out,” Newsom spokesman Nathan Click said in a statement Wednesday. “Any amendments will be shared once final.”
Making changes to SB 276 in a separate piece of legislation could be difficult at this late date, due to legislative procedure and the political implications of reigniting the debate over the contentious topic of vaccines.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) said many in his caucus were surprised to learn that Newsom wanted a second set of changes before he would sign the bill. The governor’s office tweeted his position moments after the bill passed the Assembly on Tuesday.
“I think it’s hard to get anything done so late in the year, particularly when members feel blindsided,” Rendon said.
The leader of the state Senate said legislators in her house were also surprised to hear of the requested amendments so late in the process. Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) said it’s up to Pan to decide whether to bring the governor’s changes up for a vote.
“It’s hard enough to have bills pulled back, but when you have to do it on an issue that’s this contentious, that’s really hard,” Atkins said. “I’m going to leave it in his hands to decide how he wants to proceed with the governor.”
The governor’s public statements on the bill have been difficult to follow.
Newsom raised concerns in June that SB 276 would create an immunization bureaucracy that could interfere with doctor-patient relationships. His office negotiated changes with the author to water down the legislation, narrowing its focus to doctors who write five or more medical exemptions in a year and school or day cares with immunization rates of less than 95%.
Newsom told reporters in June that he would “absolutely” sign the bill if the Legislature approved it with those earlier amendments, a promise bill supporters reminded him of this week.
“All those amendments, if they’re made — stamp of approval,” Newsom previously said.
But the governor backtracked on his support this week by asking for a second set of amendments to soften the bill.
With the bill’s fate now in question, opponents of the bill have flooded the Capitol hallways this week.
On Thursday, protesters and children, holding American flags, stood outside Newsom’s office chanting, “Veto the bill, amendments aren’t enough!” Groups protested for hours all week, demanding to speak with someone about their concerns. Newsom’s staff, including senior advisor Daniel Zingale, invited a handful of the protesters inside for a meeting.
“It feels like [Newsom] is trying to do the right thing by trying to find a solution, but I would have to see the final language of what he is proposing to see if it is substantial enough,” said Melissa Floyd of the Immunity Education Group, which opposes laws requiring vaccines for school.
And online, parents have targeted their pleas at First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom.
Attorney Leigh Dundas of the opposition group Advocates for Physicians’ Rights met with Siebel Newsom’s chief of staff last week, said the group’s spokeswoman Debra Schaefer. Siebel Newsom’s office declined to confirm any meetings with opponents of the bill.
“I feel she has a soft heart for us,” said Jenny Hensley, a mother from El Dorado Hills who opposes the bill and was at that meeting. “She does documentaries, and she’s used to listening to the underdog. She has been receptive to people who don’t have voices.”
California has some of the nation’s tightest childhood immunization laws, requiring vaccinations to attend public or private schools or day care. A doctor can excuse a child, either temporarily or permanently, from some or all vaccinations if there is a medical reason. But the bill’s supporters have alleged that some doctors are peddling unnecessary exemptions. The Medical Board of California said its investigations into those doctors have been stymied by uncooperative parents and doctors. SB 276 would require that parents and doctors agree to release records related to medical exemptions to the state.
Outside of the fierce battle over SB 276, there remains strong support for vaccinating California children. A statewide survey in May by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found 73% of adults believe parents should be required to vaccinate their children. Support was weakest among African Americans as well as those who described themselves as politically conservative or who live in Inland Empire communities. However, 80% of those surveyed told pollsters that outbreaks of measles will become more widespread.
Leah Russin of Vaccinate California said she plans to keep pushing the governor to sign the bill without changes. However, after meeting with his Chief of Staff Ann O’Leary on Thursday, Russin said she is concerned the governor’s office plans to move forward with amending SB 276.
“I’m worried they are going to weaken or delay it so that children today will not see the benefit of the bill,” Russin said.
Times staff writer John Myers contributed to this report.