Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte on Friday signed a major piece of legislation revising how local public health officials can respond to the pandemic or a future public health emergency.
House Bill 121 was carried by Hamilton Rep. David Bedey, a Republican. It came out of several proposals that all aimed to limit the power of public health officers, and was ultimately refined by a legislative committee as a compromise measure.
"Gov. Gianforte appreciates the tireless work of our public health officials over the last year to slow the spread of COVID-19 and save lives. This new law offers a balanced approach to ensuring appropriate elected official oversight of Montana's public health system, while safeguarding the discretion of local public health officials," a Gianforte spokesperson said in a statement Friday evening.
The new law requires that either county commissioners or the city council, whichever entity oversees a local health board, approve of that board or officer's regulations put in place. It also removes the power of health boards to hire local health officers. While it still allows health boards and officers to issue mandates in a state of emergency, they are subject to modification or revocation by local elected officials.
The bill cleared the Legislature largely along party lines and has an immediate effective date.
Supporters of the bill argued it makes health boards and officials accountable to voters and the public, who at times objected to measures put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 over the last year.
Opponents said it limited the ability to enact measures to keep people safe in the face of events like the pandemic that's killed more than 1,500 Montanans since last March.
Public health officers have faced intense scrutiny and harassment around the state over health measures, leading some to quit.
In February, Gianforte lifted the statewide mask mandate but left counties the ability to retain their own, more restrictive local measures, which will now need the approval of elected officials under the new law.
The Legislature has advanced several other measures this session, including a bill to also pull back the governor's emergency powers in a pandemic.
Earlier this week, House Bill 257, from Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, cleared the Senate and moved back to the House to take up amendments made in the upper chamber.
Hinkle's bill would prohibit local governments or health officials and boards from making businesses follow mandates dictating closures, capacity limits or mask use and other measures designed to slow the spread of COVID-19. The bill also removes local governments' ability to issue fines for not following orders.