A bill to scrap Connecticut’s religious exemption to school vaccination requirements cleared another legislative hurdle Thursday as the Appropriations Committee approved the proposal despite bipartisan complaints about a report on its fiscal impact.
The fiscal note generated by the legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis was based on the assumption there were 1,536 Connecticut students using the religious exemption to the state’s vaccination requirements in 2020. The number was a departure from a Public Health Department estimate this year that there were around 8,300 students using the exemption.
Some lawmakers on the committee questioned the director of the fiscal office who said the estimate was based on numbers from the department as of Wednesday.
“We can certainly reach out to DPH. As I said, we based this on … the number of children that DPH thought were directly impacted by this bill, the definitions in this bill. This is a number we got from them, I think around 3 or 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon,” Neil Ayers, director of the Office of Fiscal Analysis, said.
The report predicted the change could result in up to $1.4 million in lost revenue at state higher education institutions if potential college students decline to enroll in schools rather than comply with the vaccination requirements. It also estimated a $91,000 annual cost to the Public Health Department to purchase additional vaccines.
Several Republicans said the fiscal note failed to capture a true accounting of the bill’s financial impact because it was based on an incorrect number of exemptions. They also said it failed to account for the ancillary costs of educating students who may no longer be allowed to attend school. Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, estimated the change could displace as many as 30,000 students who do not have documentation for their vaccinations.
“I’m really struggling in the fact that I don’t believe DPH is recognizing the impact of this bill, not only for the DPH side but this has a direct and deleterious effect on our education side. So the education costs have to be included in this bill, in my opinion, because it’s not just one, it’s both,” Somers said.
Somers attempted to amend the bill to create a $350 million fund to cover the cost of educating potentially displaced students. Sen. Cathy Osten, a Sprague Democrat who co-chairs the committee, ruled the amendment out of order. She said the change was outside the cognizance of the committee because it attempted to add a new program to the bill. The amendment failed when the committee upheld Osten’s ruling.
Somers proposed another amendment to change the number of religious exemptions factored by the bill, the committee voted this down as well.
Some Democrats also expressed concerns for varying reasons.
“I just wanted to state for the record because of my concerns as well regarding the fiscal note on this bill that I will be voting ‘no’ today,” Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven said.
Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, said if the committee was going to broaden the scope of the proposal’s fiscal analysis, it should also include the potential financial impact of outbreaks of disease caused by low vaccination rates if the exemption were allowed to stay in place.
“Many of my colleagues are looking at the indirect costs and on the same token, I’m trying to look at the indirect cost of a case or outbreak of measles alone,” Anwar said.
Throughout the meeting, Osten tried to focus the conversation.
“As I told everybody before, we are talking about the fiscal note of this bill,” she said to Anwar. “This is the fiscal note that we have. We are not going to talk about measles. We are not going to talk about the cost of measles or the costs of polio or the cost of mumps. We’re not doing that today.”