Montana Bill Seeks to Limit Governor’s Power in Disasters

Legislative approval would be required to extend a state of disaster beyond 60 days

By IRIS SAMUELS Associated Press/Report for America
The Montana State Capitol building in Helena. Beacon File Photo

HELENA — A Montana House committee held a hearing Tuesday on a bill to limit the power of the governor to address declared disasters lasting longer than two months — and instead shift it to state lawmakers for dealing with emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Current law in Montana gives the governor the power during declared emergencies to issue executive orders and spend federal emergency funds received by the state without approval from the state Legislature, which meets every other year.

Under the bill, approval from the Legislature would be required if a governor wants to extend a state of disaster beyond 60 days.

Other elements of the bill include:

— Lawmakers could more easily convene special sessions during declared disasters.

— Legislators would get the ability to end emergency executive orders issued by the governor.

— State lawmakers could also assume the role of allocating federal emergency funds.

“I like this bill because it gives us the people an opportunity to speak with our legislators so they can get a feel for how the emergency in place is affecting us,” said Robyn Mohs, a member of the public from East Helena who addressed the committee.

The bill comes in response to the COVID-19 emergency declaration issued by former Gov. Steve Bullock in March, which is still in place.

It gave the Democrat the ability to issue statewide mandates, including a mask requirement, and to allocate coronavirus relief funds without input from the Republican-controlled state legislature.

The office of current Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the bill.

Bill sponsor Rep. David Bedey, a Republican from Hamilton, tested positive for COVID-19 last week and attended the House State Administration Committee hearing remotely.

Bedey is also sponsoring a bill that would limit the power of local health boards to enact rules to limit the spread of communicable diseases, including COVID-19.

The bill, scheduled for a hearing on Thursday, was drafted in response to what some Republican lawmakers believe was overreach by local health boards during the coronavirus pandemic.

Montana joins at least 17 other states currently considering enacting limits on executive powers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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