A bill that strips local governments and heath officials from enforcing measures meant to slow the spread of the pandemic is heading to the governor's desk.
House Bill 257, from Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, cleared the Legislature on Monday.
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.
"We all understand how the statewide shutdown last spring affected our business community," Hinkle said on the House floor in support of his bill earlier this session. "If that were not enough to put many businesses out of business, the lengthy continuance of ordinances from that point on served through a death by a thousand cuts, destroying the life of those that remain."
The bill has passed largely along party lines with Republican support and Democratic opposition.
Democrat Rep. Tom France, of Missoula, spoke against the bill on the House floor earlier this session.
"What I fear about this legislation is it locks us into a course of action that may make it incredibly difficult to counter the next pandemic that we can't today imagine," France said in February. "I think we can construct in our minds a pandemic that is worse than what we have experienced, a disease that might strike at children more than it does the elderly, that it might make some of the really hard parts of COVID look mild by comparison."
Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte has already signed one bill this session to peel back local health powers in a pandemic. House Bill 121, from Rep. David Bedey, would require local elected officials like county or city commissions to enact any public health mandates.
The bill is one of several that GOP lawmakers have pushed this session to limit measures that local public health officers and boards can implement. Republicans have argued such measures curtailed economic activity and caused more harm than public health benefit. Democrats have countered that health officers play a critical role in keeping the public safe in the face of something like the COVID-19 pandemic that's killed at least 1,563 Montanans over the last year.
Legislation has also advanced that would restrict the governor’s power during future emergencies. House Bill 230, sponsored by Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, is headed back to the House and Senate for approval, after a conference committee amended it Monday to push the effective date back to July 1.
HB 230 emerged earlier in the session as a compromise between competing visions for how to limit the ability of the executive to declare and sustain a state of emergency. It also restricts the types of actions the governor can take in those instances and makes explicit broad religious freedoms during an emergency.
The bill sets up a process under which the Legislature must approve an extension of any emergency declaration that lasts beyond 45 days.
The legislation has been heavily altered during its journey through the Capitol, and one of the most recent additions is language that invalidates a trio of competing bills brought by Sen. David Howard, R-Park City, to limit executive power and prevent limitations on churches in a pandemic. If passed, HB 230 would void Senate Bill 172, Senate Bill 173 and Senate Bill 185. With SB 173 passing its final legislative vote Monday, all three of those measures are headed to the governor's desk.
— Reporter Sam Wilson contributed to this story.