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Lawmakers Hear Bills Aimed At Restraining Government Powers During Health Emergencies

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Montana Public Affairs Network
Montana Rep. Jedidiah Hinkle introduces House Bill 257 to the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 22, 2021.

Montana lawmakers Monday heard public testimony on a pair of bills that would curb the power of governments during health emergencies.

Belgrade Republican Rep. Jedidiah Hinkle said businesses have been pushed into acting as the enforcement arm for public health mandates during the coronavirus pandemic.

“House Bill 257 releases businesses to make their own decision, to enforce or not enforce. To turn away customers or not turn away customers,” Hinkle says.

Under the bill, cities, counties, local health boards and state emergency plans wouldn’t be able to enact public health orders, like capacity limits, that compel businesses to deny customers.

Monday’s hearing drew lengthy public testimony from nearly two dozen supporters, including a handful of private citizens and business owners.

Opponents included representatives for medical and public health advocacy groups, and Kelly Lynch with the Montana League of Cities and Towns.

“This bill goes way beyond what is necessary to provide accountability at the local level,” Lynch said.

She said another bill under consideration that would require elected official approval of health orders already addresses potential government overreach during emergencies.

Many of the same people testified on House Bill 501, which was also heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday. It would bar vaccination status or failure to wear medical devices, like a face mask, from being grounds for criminal trespass in public places paid for at least partially with taxpayer money.

Both bills fit into this session’s GOP-led trend to limit the power of health officials and government bodies amid public health emergencies over concerns of overreach during the pandemic..

Those policies already cleared the House and now face a committee vote before the Senate can consider them.

Kevin Trevellyan is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America statehouse reporter.