Mont. governor signs bill giving elected officials power over health boards

The new law allows city councils and county commissioners to amend or rescind emergency orders by local health boards and health officers

Chad Sokol
Daily Inter Lake, Kalispell, Mont.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte has signed a bill that subjects emergency decisions by local health boards and health officers to approval by elected officials.

House Bill 121, sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, passed both chambers of the Republican-controlled Legislature with mostly GOP support. Gianforte’s office announced he had signed the bill, along with dozens of others, on Friday afternoon.

The new law allows city councils and county commissioners to amend or rescind emergency orders by local health boards and health officers, such as the mask requirements and crowd-size restrictions many have imposed to fight COVID-19.

It also prohibits local health officials from placing any emergency rules on places of worship; lowers the punishment for violating emergency rules from a misdemeanor to a civil citation; and gives local governing bodies, usually counties, the authority to hire and set salaries for health officers.

Previously, state law had long allowed local health boards to independently create and enforce public health rules in times of emergency, such as the pandemic.

All three Flathead County commissioners have voiced support for HB 121, suggesting it could foster more communication among local leaders tasked with responding to emergencies. Opponents have called the new law unnecessary and argued it threatens to further politicize public health decisions.

Another measure affecting local health boards, House Bill 257, would prohibit cities, counties and health boards from compelling businesses to turn away customers who don’t comply with health requirements, including those who refuse to wear face coverings. It also would prohibit local governments from taking any “retributive action” against businesses that don’t enforce emergency rules among their patrons, including fines, civil lawsuits and criminal charges.

HB 257 passed the Senate on a 30-20 vote last week, with all of the chamber’s Democrats and one Republican voting in opposition. The bill was returned to the House for concurrence on several amendments.

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