Mask Downtown

A woman pauses to put on a mask before walking down Main Street on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in downtown Bozeman.

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State lawmakers considered two bills Thursday that are among a slew of legislative initiatives put forward in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The House Judiciary Committee heard one bill that would modify laws related to states of emergency and another that would shift the authority of local health boards to elected officials.

House Bill 230, introduced by Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, would limit the length of time a governor’s emergency declaration could last without legislative authorization, create a system for state lawmakers to hold a special session where they could overturn the governor’s declaration and differentiate between Montana’s emergency declarations and federal ones.

The bill also clarifies that an emergency declaration cannot infringe on religious freedom and alters the definition of quarantine to exclude people who are suspected but not confirmed to have an infectious disease. In the case of COVID-19, the change would mean close contacts of confirmed cases could no longer be required to stay home.

Those who spoke in support of House Bill 230 said legislative oversight was essential to avoid overreach from the governor.

Charlotte Snyder, with the Montana Family Rights Alliance and the Freedom Protection Project, two groups that formed in response to recent health orders, said state and local rules are often unconstitutional. Given the impacts of the rules, she said there must be a way to check the governor’s power.

Kody Van Dyke, a Gallatin County resident, said the governor’s orders have curtailed “basic freedoms,” adversely impacted mental health and provoked “anger, despair and vitriol.”

However, Tim Burton, with the Montana League of Cities and Towns, said consideration of the bill was premature given that Montana remains in a state of emergency due to the pandemic. He suggested lawmakers conduct a comprehensive review of the relevant laws once the pandemic ends to better address the next one.

Regier’s bill is similar to House Bill 122, which was set for a vote on the House floor Thursday but which was temporarily pulled, said Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, the sponsor. House Bill 122 will likely return to the floor.

Regier also introduced a bill that would shift authority from local health boards and officers to local elected officials. Like House Bill 230, the bill — House Bill 236 — would limit the number of people who could be placed in quarantine to slow the spread of an infectious disease.

The bill also removes penalties for law enforcement officers who decline to assist local health officers in carrying out local health rules, a change also proposed in a few other bills.

Henry Kriegel, of Americans for Prosperity, said his support for House Bill 236 stemmed, in part, from a July meeting of the Gallatin City-County Health Board on a proposed mask mandate. The board postponed the meeting when protesters failed to comply with statewide limits on large gatherings.

“We do acknowledge that there is a proper role that health boards play in our communities, but I think everyone needs to be mindful of the fact that these folks are unelected officials, largely, and, therefore, they’re not directly accountable to the citizens,” Kriegel said.

Those against the bill were largely health care and public health professionals who said health boards are composed of experts who have the knowledge to make public health decisions. They also said revising the definition of quarantine would be detrimental to the public health response to infectious diseases.

“House Bill 236 is taking a hatchet to a situation that there are other bills that might be a little bit more laser focused in terms of ... balancing some of the economic interest of our communities but also the public health officials who are doing really tough and important work,” said Stacy Anderson, of the Montana Primary Care Association.

Shannon Therriault, with the Montana Environmental Health Association, said even though some health board members aren’t elected, they do listen to public comment, adhere to state and local regulations and justify their decisions.

The House Judiciary Committee didn’t immediately take action on the two bills.

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