HELENA — The Montana House has endorsed a bill that would let the public ask for an election to change local health boards’ actions. It’s the latest of a series of bills debated this session that would put boundaries around the authority of health boards and officers.
Senate Bill 108, sponsored by Sen. Doug Kary, R-Billings, was heavily amended in the House. In its current form, it would require an election if 5% of voters in a board’s jurisdiction sign a petition seeking to undo or amend the board’s action. If a petition is approved before the order takes effect or within two weeks of the board’s vote, the action will be put on hold until the election is held.
If a majority of voters support removing or amending the action, the change will be made immediately, and the board will not be able to reinstitute the order.
The bill passed 66-33 in a preliminary vote, with nearly all Republicans in favor and all Democrats opposed. If it’s approved, the Senate will have to vote on whether to accept the House’s changes.
SB 108 is one of a number of bills introduced in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Republicans in the Legislature have argued the restrictions health boards put in place over the last year were too stringent and harmful to businesses.
Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, who carried SB 108 on the House floor, said health boards have an important role, but that the public also needs to have a voice.
“The ultimate power needs to reside with the people, and that’s what that bill does,” he said.
Opponents of the bill said health boards are best qualified to make these decisions. Rep. Denise Hayman, D-Bozeman, acknowledged many people had criticisms of the steps boards took during the pandemic, but said they had done the best they could with incomplete information about COVID.
“The health departments were scrambling to keep their residents safe,” she said. “I view this as just another bill to block the health departments from doing the work that they need to do.”
Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth, voted against SB 108, saying a provision requiring the election to be held within 30 days would be too difficult for local election officials to implement. However, Buttrey argued the elections needed to be held quickly, since any delay would have a big impact on businesses. He said he doubted the bill would lead to any actual elections, but it would make a statement.
“I think this bill really sends a very good statutory reminder to the folks that are making these decisions, that, hey, you answer to the public, you answer to the citizens, and they’re looking over your shoulder, and they want to make sure what you’re doing is right – and if they think you’ve stepped out of line or done something not in the best interest of the community, they have a way to object,” he said.
Several of the other bills dealing with emergency health regulations are still making their way through the process. House Bill 121, sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, would give county commissions or city councils the ability to modify or remove a health board’s directive, mandate or order. It has passed the House and Senate and is now going to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk.
House Bill 257, from Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, would prevent local governments and health boards and officers from requiring businesses to enforce any order denying customers access to their services. That could include things like mask mandates and capacity limits. HB 257 passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee and will be on its way to the full Senate.