Changes to legislation limiting the ability of local health boards to restrict businesses or the ability of customers to access goods and services were overwhelmingly approved by the Legislature on Thursday, the last day of the session.
The changes were the result of an amendatory veto issued by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte earlier in the day. The bill previously passed on largely party lines earlier in the week.
Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, a Belgrade Republican who sponsored the legislation, said the governor’s proposed amendments “still retain the strength of the language for protecting businesses, but still all health departments to do their [jobs] things like inspecting restaurants for sanitary conditions and potentially having to shut down a business until the problem is resolved.”
Hinkle's bill prohibits 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. It also removes local governments' ability to issue fines for not following those orders.
Gianforte wrote that the bill “has the best intentions to address overreach as we have seen in a few isolated cases, and I want to fully support it.” He referred to the actions of his predecessor, Democrat Steve Bullock, whose administration had sued businesses in Flathead County that were accused of defying local health requirements last year.
“I understand the frustration small business owners have in response to isolated instances like this,” he wrote.
His changes narrow the scope of prohibitions on local health boards. The new language specifies that local health officers and health boards still have the authority to enforce regulations, directives and orders, beyond those prohibited in the bill.
It also strikes the retroactive applicability date in the bill, and instead makes it effective on May 1.
The changes to the bill passed the Senate 33-17 and passed the House 68-31. It must then go back to the governor for his signature before becoming law.