Vaccine Debate Stalls Rules Aimed at Easing Child Care Shortage

Legislative committee’s November vote has temporarily blocked reform effort sought by the Gianforte administration

By Mara Silvers, Montana Free Press
The Montana State Capitol in Helena. Beacon file photo

Last month, Republican and Democratic lawmakers on a legislative interim committee voted to object to a sweeping revision of state rules for child care providers. The move interrupted a significant reform effort backed by the Gianforte administration and business owners who say the state’s current requirements for day care centers are overly burdensome, contributing to Montana’s dire child care shortage

Lawmakers say they didn’t cast their votes lightly. One sticking point cited by legislators in the November meeting was a requirement for many child care providers to accept religious exemptions for standard vaccinations. As the Daily Montanan reported at the time, that portion of the package was opposed by public health advocates, including the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Montana chapter, and created heartburn for Democrats and Republicans for varying reasons: Some critics said the vaccine requirement revisions weren’t far-reaching enough, while others said they could contribute to the spread of infectious illnesses among young children.

Because of the committee’s objection, the draft rules are likely stalled until it meets again in January, lawmakers told MTFP this week. The health department could present an amended version of the package at that time with the portion about vaccine exemptions removed or heavily revised in an effort to get more lawmakers on board. But there’s no guarantee that the Gianforte administration, routinely a backer of religious freedom measures, won’t dig in its heels on the package as currently written. Lawmakers said they sent a letter to the health department in November explaining their objections and had not received a response as of Thursday.

Committee member Sen. Chris Friedel, R-Billings, said in a Friday phone call that the objection vote is one of the only check-and-balance tools lawmakers have over the executive branch during the interim period between legislative sessions. On an issue as complicated as public health and childhood vaccines, he said, it’s worth everyone’s time to come to the table and try to hash out a possible way forward. 

“On the one hand, it protects religion. On the other hand, not everyone is religious,” Friedel said. “… It’s one of those situations where, how do you solve the problem without pissing someone off?”

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.

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