Montana Governor Signs Bill Limiting Power of Health Boards

Legislature passed the measure largely along party lines

By Iris Samuels, Associated Press/Report for America
The Flathead City-County Health Department on March 11, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

HELENA — Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte has signed a bill limiting the power of local public health boards to issue mandates in response to emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic.

Local elected officials such as county commissioners can change or rescind health mandates following Gianforte’s signature Friday. GOP Rep. David Bedey sponsored the bill in response to what some Republicans have said is unelected health officers overstepping their authority.

Before the law, appointed local health boards could enact rules such as mask mandates without consulting elected officials.

The law explicitly prohibits health mandates from interfering with religious services. It also limits the allowable penalty for businesses that violate health regulations to $250.

The Legislature passed the measure largely along party lines. Most Democrats opposed it, saying it could allow politics to overpower science when making decisions during a health crisis.

It comes after months of anger from some residents and lawmakers over what they have called arbitrary and unfair health orders, including mask mandates, business restrictions and limits on gatherings. Some local health officials in Montana have resigned after encountering a lack of support from elected officials for their efforts to curb the spread of the virus.

Gianforte also signed a bill Friday limiting the governor’s ability to spend federal funding received during emergencies. Republicans criticized former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock last year for allocating $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding without consulting the GOP-controlled Legislature.

When the funds are received, the law requires the governor to submit a spending plan to the Legislature for approval if it is not in session. Montana’s Legislature meets for about four months every other year and was not in session when a coronavirus emergency was declared last year.

The legislation passed with bipartisan support.

The measures are among several that Republicans proposed this year to limit the power of local health officials and the governor to respond swiftly to the pandemic. Several other states have proposed similar legislation.

Supporters of such measures say that emergency response decisions should be made in consultation with a broad swath of elected officials to increase public trust. But health experts have warned that the legislation could make the state less nimble in its response to future emergencies.