House passes bills limiting authority of local health officials and governor

House Bills 121 and 230 would give elected officials more oversight in emergency situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two bills giving the Legislature and other elected officials more oversight of emergency declarations and local health mandates passed the Montana House Monday.

House Bill 121 and House Bill 230 are the products of several related proposals brought by lawmakers in response to local health orders that some have criticized for failing to consider their effects on local economies or failing to include elected officials in the decision-making. Broadly, the two bills would limit the authority of public health officials and the governor. Both passed mostly along party lines.

Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, who sponsored HB 121, said the measure helps ensure factors such as impacts to local businesses and attendance at religious services are considered in public health decisions. If passed, it would require local health boards to propose new health regulations to elected officials and remove their authority to enact them unilaterally. In emergencies, health officials still could enact mandates, but local elected bodies like city councils and county commissions could revise or amend those orders.

While some other public health proposals would have more broadly limited the authority of health officials, Bedey said his proposal “seeks to strike a prudent balance” between public health authorities and oversight by elected officials, adding that he respects the work of local health officials during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Elected officials bear the responsibility for taking all factors into account when setting policy or when emergencies must be managed,” he said Saturday on the House floor.

Bill opponents have said the change could politicize decision-making and complicate or delay responses to health emergencies. Others critics suggested waiting to pass any legislation changing the role of health officials until an interim legislative committee can study the issue further. Still others argued that local health officials are already accountable to voters, since the membership of public health boards typically includes local elected officials.

Under HB 230, the Legislature would similarly gain more power in emergencies declared by the governor. That measure, sponsored by Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, would give the Legislature authority to amend or end an emergency declaration by a majority vote in both chambers after 45 days. To do that when the Legislature is not in session, lawmakers would have to request a poll asking whether to call a special session. The measure would also require the governor to get approval from legislators to extend an emergency declaration beyond 45 days.

“There are some loopholes in our system. Some of our checks were not balanced,” Regier said Saturday during floor debate. “This bill adds balance and power back to the state government scales.”

Both measures would prohibit emergency declarations and local health decisions from limiting attendance at religious services.

Several other House and Senate bills that would limit public health officials’ authority have been tabled or continue to move through the Legislature, including House Bill 257 and Senate Bill 108.

The two measures passed by the House Monday now go to the Senate for consideration.


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