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State lawmakers considered a bill Wednesday that would remove penalties for law enforcement officers who decline to assist local health officers in carrying out local health rules, a direct response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, introduced Senate Bill 67, saying law enforcement takes its job to uphold the law and protect public safety seriously. He told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that there there might be times when officers are busy responding to a crime and cannot enforce a health rule, so there is no reason to charge them with a misdemeanor or remove them from office for that decision.

Law enforcement officials said they support the bill.

The Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, Association of Montana Troopers and Cascade County Sheriff said the existing penalties create an adversarial relationship between health officers and law enforcement.

Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said the penalty has never been enforced.

The Montana Human Rights Network, a Helena-based nonprofit, opposes the bill.

Travis McAdam, with the group, said the bill feeds into the beliefs of anti-government groups that have been promoting the idea that sheriffs are the ultimate authority. He added that removing the penalties undermines public health officials.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

The tension between health officers and law enforcement has played out in Gallatin County.

In July, the Gallatin City-County Health Board held a meeting to discuss whether to enact a countywide mask mandate. Protesters showed up, which led the board to postpone the meeting. At the time, then-Sheriff Brian Gootkin said if the health board were to approve a mask mandate, his office wouldn’t issue criminal citations to violators.

Even so, Gallatin County law enforcement and the Gallatin City-County Health Department have said they have a good relationship and have worked together to enforce local health rules.

A bill nearly identical to Senate Bill 67 has been introduced in the House. Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, is set to present House Bill 144 to the House Judiciary Committee on Friday.

The state Legislature is considering several other bills related to Montana’s COVID-19 response.

On Tuesday, Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, presented House Bill 122 to the House State Administration Committee. The bill would restrict a governor’s power to declare a state of emergency and transfer authority to state lawmakers during emergencies.

The bill is a response to former Gov. Steve Bullock’s emergency declaration, which has been in effect since March and which gave him the ability to enact rules like the statewide mask mandate.

Bedey also plans to speak to the House Local Government Committee on Thursday about House Bill 121, which would limit the powers of local health boards to approve rules during emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.