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State lawmakers target local COVID rules from all angles

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | March 30, 2021 7:00 AM

Since the start of Montana's legislative session, Republican state lawmakers have considered a variety of novel ways to limit how local governments can respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those approaches include nullifying local mask requirements that pertain to businesses, checking the autonomy of local health boards and restricting federal relief funding to cities, counties and schools that adopt more stringent regulations than the state's.

Proponents say the measures would prevent local officials from overreaching, hurting businesses and infringing on individual liberties with burdensome mandates. Opponents say some of the proposals constitute a dangerous effort to reinvent Montana's public health system while the coronavirus continues to circulate and the vaccination rate remains far too low to achieve herd immunity.

The city of Whitefish and a number of Montana counties — including Lake, Missoula, Gallatin, Butte-Silver Bow and Lewis and Clark — are among the jurisdictions that have kept mask requirements in place after Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte rescinded a statewide mandate in February over objections from public health experts. Gianforte says masks are a necessary tool for slowing the spread of the virus, but wearing them is a matter of "personal responsibility."

The legislative session has now passed the halfway mark, and many surviving bills are being heard in the chambers opposite where they originated.

ON MONDAY, the Senate Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on House Bill 257, which would prohibit cities, counties and local health boards from compelling businesses to turn away customers who don't comply with health requirements, including those who refuse to wear face coverings.

Sponsored by Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, the bill also would prohibit local governments from taking any "retributive action" against businesses that don't enforce mask rules among their patrons, including fines, civil lawsuits and criminal charges.

During a recent meeting, members of the Whitefish City Council responded angrily to the proposal, saying state lawmakers should butt out of local decision-making.

During testimony in the House, one opponent of HB 257 — Jim Murphy, of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services — raised concern the measure would preclude not only the kinds of sweeping mandates seen during the pandemic but also the routine duties of local health inspectors.

In the Senate on Monday, Hinkle said he had amended the bill to address that concern, but some opponents were not assuaged.

"This law — as amended — still makes it impossible for a health board to adopt a rule that informs restaurants who may have to close because of unsafe or unsanitary conditions," said Shannon Therriault, speaking on behalf of Montana public health officials and the Montana Environmental Health Association. "A health officer couldn't close a restaurant if sewage was backing up in the kitchen, or if they were serving raw fish that hadn't gone through a freeze-kill cycle to make sure that there were no tapeworm parasites."

Kelly Lynch, of the Montana League of Cities and Towns, said the bill "goes way beyond what is necessary to provide accountability at the local level."

"When the pandemic is over, we can assess the framework we've had in place and how well it worked or didn't work to address this global disaster that none of us have ever dealt with before," Lynch said. "Now is not the time to reinvent our public health system and local response protocol. Right now, our focus needs to be on getting through this with the least amount of impact on our economy, on our health system and on our people."

LYNCH SAID the league can support House Bill 121, sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, which would give elected officials the power to change or shoot down emergency rules adopted by local health boards.

Like Hinkle's bill, HB 121 passed the House on a near-party-line vote early this month. The Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee approved it on a 7-4 vote Monday. Unless it's referred to another committee, the bill now could go to a vote on the Senate floor.

Although members of health boards are appointed by elected officials, proponents of HB 121 say those unelected officials should not have the final say on public health edicts. The bill would give city councils and county commissioners the power to amend or rescind those rules.

Opponents say the measure would further politicize efforts to mitigate disease and allow elected officials to stall or override efforts by scientists and public health experts.

Flathead County Commissioners Randy Brodehl and Brad Abell have said they support the measure, while the county health officer, Joe Russell, has called the legislation unnecessary and warned it could damage officials' ability to work together during crises like the pandemic.

AND ACCORDING to a report from NBC Montana, Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, plans to introduce a piece of legislation that would preclude cities, counties and schools from receiving some assistance from the American Rescue Plan that President Joe Biden signed this month.

The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package is expected to send about $2.7 billion into Montana, of which the Legislature will control about $910 million, according to a state analysis.

Flathead County is projected to receive about $20.1 million in direct assistance, according to the National Association of Counties, and the cities of Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls will receive smaller amounts. The Treasury Department will determine the exact amounts using formulas based on population and unemployment, among other factors.

Regier didn't respond to messages seeking comment Tuesday but told NBC Montana on Monday, "The whole idea is that if you're going to have further restrictions on your local, say county, and then require more dollars to keep things running or fill in that hole, that doesn't seem right to me."

Susan Fox, executive director of Montana's Legislative Services Division, confirmed Tuesday lawmakers are working on a bill that would reduce the amount of any relief grants appropriated from the state to local governments that have stricter COVID-19 regulations. Lawmakers are considering reductions of up to 20%, Fox said.

"The bill is still being drafted," she said.