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Merged Bills Affecting Emergency Powers Of Governor, Health Boards Advance In House

Rachel Cramer
Yellowstone Public Radio
Big Fork Republican Rep. Mark Noland and chair of the House Business and Labor Committee tells members they are tasked with merging legislation related to declared states of emergencies or disasters on Feb. 22, 2021.

Montana lawmakers Thursday merged several House bills that would create more oversight for a governor and county health boards during a declared state of emergency.

The House Business and Labor Committee this week combined bills from Republican Representatives Matt Regier of Kalispell, David Bedey of Hamilton and Bill Mercer of Billings, all aimed at giving lawmakers more say over declared emergencies.

Regier laid out the updated House Bill 230 for the committee Monday.

“We took the best of all three bills, and here it is,” Regier said.

Regier says the combined legislation would extend the governor’s declaration of an emergency or disaster from 30 days to 45 but give the legislative body the authority to amend or end the declaration early through a majority vote in both chambers.

To do that when not in session, ten legislators would request the Secretary of State to poll members on whether to call a special session. The poll can use “any reasonable and reliable means, including electronic delivery."

The proposed legislation would also require the governor to get approval from the legislative body to extend the 45 day emergency or disaster declaration. Regier says legislators would be polled if not in session.

Several representatives, including Republican Rep. Steven Galloway of Great Falls, had questions about what would happen if legislators were unable to answer a poll or drive to Helena during a natural disaster.

“What if we’re deaf, dumb and blind? We have no internet, we can’t connect up with each other?” Galloway said.

Regier says there are other ways the poll could be delivered, including physical mail and in person. He says a poll that is not returned by deadline would be counted automatically as a vote against extending the governor’s declared emergency or disaster.

Rep. Katie Sullivan of Missoula was one of several Democratic members who unsuccessfully attempted to change the language so that only responses that are received are counted in a vote.

“Because maybe they’re gone or unaware or there’s a problem,” Sullivan says.

The merged legislation pulls in a section of House Bill 316, which would prevent officials from interfering with places of worship during declared emergencies and disasters.

The Business and Labor Committee Thursday also merged Rep. Regier’s House Bill 236 and Rep. Bedey’s House Bill 121. The combined legislation would allow elected officials to roll back or amend health orders issued by health boards or a health officer during an emergency.

The new versions of House Bill 230 and 121 will go to the full House of Representatives for a vote.