Utah Republican leaders rage about proposed federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Senate President Stuart Adams says lawmakers plan to call themselves into special session to respond to any vaccine requirement.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton talks about rejecting mandatory vaccines at the Utah Republican Party's Central Committee meeting, Sept. 18, 2021 at Layton High School.

Anger over vaccine mandates and overreach from the federal government was top of mind among a sparse group of Utah Republican leaders who met at Layton High School on Saturday morning.

Utah Republicans have been in a tizzy since President Joe Biden announced new rules requiring private businesses with more than 100 employees to either require vaccinations for workers or mandatory testing, with fines for noncompliance.

Earlier this week the House and Senate Republican caucuses took a position in opposition to Biden’s actions. Attorney General Sean Reyes joined two dozen other states in a letter to the Biden administration threatening legal action if they move forward with the plan. Gov. Spencer Cox went on the record Friday opposing Biden’s actions.

“I’ve never seen a president do something so onerous as this mandate,” said Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Larry Meyers of St. George attends the Utah Republican Party's Central Committee meeting, Sept. 18, 2021 at Layton High School.

Adams said lawmakers are planning to call themselves into a special session to offer a legislative response to the vaccine mandate for private businesses once it’s made public. They’re also planning on a special Business and Labor Committee meeting on Oct. 4 to allow business owners and employees to give public input on mandates.

There’s a hope that whatever rule emerges from the Biden administration will be blocked in the courts.

“We are hoping this gets stopped in its tracks before it’s implemented. We have to wait for the actual rule to come out, and we’re expecting it in the next couple of weeks,” Melissa Holyoak, Utah Solicitor General, said.

The 96 members of the Utah GOP’s governing body who attended the meeting also overwhelmingly approved a resolution opposing any vaccine mandates.

“President Biden said he was running out of patience. He’s not the only one. The people of the United States are running out of patience and are very angry with the executive overreach that’s happening not only at the federal level, but here in Utah, too,” Volney Morin, Iron County GOP chair, said.

The resolution attempts to walk a very fine rhetorical line given the hypercharged politics around the COVID-19 vaccine.

“The Utah Republican party recognizes the historical efficacy of proven vaccines in public health, but rejects policies of mandatory vaccination, regardless of FDA approval, and rejects proposals for statewide, nationwide, or global ‘vaccine passports,’ ‘health passes,’ or similar policies,” one section of the resolution reads.

Utah requires school-aged children receive multiple vaccinations before they are allowed to attend class. The resolution’s opposition to mandates of any kind seemingly runs counter to that policy.

Sponsor Brandon Beckham from Utah County said he does not oppose vaccines but says people should have the choice of whether to take them.

“The point of this resolution is not whether we’re for or against vaccinations. The point of this is we stand on the freedom to choose as individuals whether we want to be vaccinated,” Beckham said.

Utah GOP resolution supporting individual freedom over personal vaccination status by The Salt Lake Tribune on Scribd

Utah GOP overwhelmingly opposes Dixie State name change

The committee overwhelmingly endorsed another resolution opposing the effort to change Dixie State University’s name.

The school’s board of trustees voted in June to change the school’s name to Utah Tech University because students said the term “Dixie” conjured up racist associations, which was hurting their job prospects.

Jimi Kestin from Washington County, sponsor of the resolution, said the Utah GOP should reject any name change since he thinks any racist connotations surrounding “Dixie” are overblown.

“Utah’s Dixie is not named after the antebellum south. It is named so because we are the southern part of the state. This name was born from amazing pioneers who built an amazing community out of a desert that was very forbidding when they got there,” Kestin said.

Other supporters worried about the specter of “cancel culture” that they felt was prompting the name change.

“Changing the name of the university is part of that cancel culture prevailing in our country. We want to preserve our history and learn from our history. If we allow this institution to go down in the trash bin of history, then I fear what will happen is people will not vote for a party or a candidate that allows this cancel culture to prevail in this state,” Lowell Nelson from Utah County warned.

Just three months ago, these very same committee members overwhelmingly approved a resolution opposing critical race theory borne from fears about the way history was being presented in Utah’s classrooms.

There was some hand-wringing about whether this was an issue a political party should be addressing at all.

“We should be focusing more on trying to get Republicans elected to office. When we bring a resolution like this, it’s telling other Republicans who may disagree that they need to fall in line. As individuals, we can advocate one way or the other, but when we start beating people over the heads with this as a party, we’re telling people who may disagree that they’re not one of us,” Anthony Loubet from Salt Lake County warned.

Utah GOP resolution to preserve the Dixie State University Name by The Salt Lake Tribune on Scribd

Random notes from Saturday

  • Utah Republicans will hold their state convention next year on April 23, which is the only date that doesn’t conflict with the semi-annual LDS conference or Easter Sunday. This means caucus night takes place on March 8, just three days after the end of the 2022 General Session. Caucus night in 2020 was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • The party approved hiring Maike Jones as the new executive director, replacing Laurel Price, who is stepping down. Jones worked on Jon Huntsman’s 2020 gubernatorial campaign. She also served as the head of Boards and Commissions for Utah during the Huntsman administration.

  • Party Chair Carson Jorgensen said central committee members who raise $1,000 for the party are invited to a private lunch featuring Sen. Mike Lee. “If we want the party to be viable in the future, we have to fundraise,” Jorgensen said.

  • Jorgensen said it has been difficult for the party to find Republicans who want to run and replace Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, who was confirmed as a Utah district court judge this week. “It took an inordinate amount of time to find someone to run for that seat. We have to do a better job talking to people about becoming part of the party,” he said.