Newsom Defends Actions on Controversial Vaccine Exemption Bill

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Protesters hang a banner over the floor of the state Senate opposing a bill that would tighten the rules on vaccine medical exemptions for schoolchildren in California. (Katie Orr/KQED)

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday defended his request for last-minute changes to SB 276, a bill that gives the state more oversight of vaccine medical exemptions for schoolkids.

After initially asking for and receiving earlier amendments, Newsom said he would sign the measure. But in the final weeks of the legislative session, he said he wanted more changes to the bill. 

"I worked with the administration to figure out the details of the implementation and felt that we need to clarify some additional points to help with the implementation," Newsom said.

In response, lawmakers passed a companion measure to SB 276 making the changes Newsom called for. He then signed both bills.

But critics said Newsom bungled his handling of the situation and emboldened anti-vaccine protesters.

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"I’ve never seen a governor give his word and change his mind twice," said Republican consultant Mike Madrid, referring to Newsom twice asking for amendments to the bill. "No question it created confusion for the advocates, emboldened the protesters and left legislators scratching their heads. This was an unforced error. The real damage was done because this was a vaccine bill. A no-brainer."

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In the final week of the Legislature, protesters shut down Senate and Assembly sessions with their shouting. During the last session of the year, a woman threw a menstrual cup filled with what appeared to be blood onto the floor of the Senate during a vote.

Newsom bristled at the suggestion that his request for late changes to the bill or the fact that his office took meetings with vaccine opponents contributed to the protests. He noted he took meetings with people on all sides of the issue.

"I think that's appropriate," he said.

The governor wouldn’t comment on whether his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, was involved in the request for changes to SB 276. Protesters had seen her as a potential ally, tagging her in messages on social media.

“Everyone has opinions. I’ll leave it at that," Newsom said. "I did what I needed to do to make (SB 276) more successful and to make sure we implement it in an effective way. And I’m proud that I signed the bill. I support vaccines.”

Newsom said he wasn't aware of anyone in his leadership team being opposed to vaccines, and said no one in his family has requested a medical exemption.

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