By Morgan Hughes
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CASPER — At least four bills that would specifically regulate public health orders have been introduced in the Wyoming Legislature this session.
The tenor of the proposals ranges from broad legislative oversight of public health orders to more minor specifications regarding timing and executive approval.
Several of the bills are similar but propose different degrees of oversight.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, would require the Wyoming Legislature to ratify any public health order that would be active for more than 10 days. It also would require local elected officials to approve health orders instituted at the county or municipal level.
That bill would further require the state health officer’s appointment to be approved by the Senate, and give the governor broad authority to remove the officer at their discretion.
Gray introduced his proposal, House Bill 98 on Wednesday.
“Overnight, the state health officer became the most powerful person in the state without any oversight from the citizens of Wyoming,” Gray said in an emailed statement. “The state health officer is not an elected office, and there is no oversight in statute over an appointed position. This is inconsistent with the values of our Constitutional republic and inconsistent with the Constitution.
“In current state statutes, there are no checks and balances over the state health officer’s powers. This bill would place oversight over the state health officer.”
The following day, Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, introduced similar legislation. McKeown’s proposal, Senate File 80, would require legislative approval of a public health order if that order was active for more than 30 days.
The bill has a few additional clauses to what Gray had proposed, including a clause that would allow any county to opt-out of statewide public health mandates if a majority of county commissioners in that jurisdiction voted to do so. The bill also establishes a requirement to notify residents 48 hours before a public health order is enacted.
McKeown told the Star-Tribune he would respond to questions regarding their proposals, but his responses were not received by press time.
Friday, Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, introduced another bill (House Bill 113) limiting the authority of the state health officer. That bill does not require legislative approval of public health orders, but it does require the governor sign all health orders, and that a public health emergency be declared in order for an order to be passed.
None of the three bills have yet been acted on.
Another similar proposal, House Bill 56, introduced Jan. 12 by Dan Laursen, R-Powell, would impose limitations on public health orders only if the orders sought to close public or private facilities for more than 15 days. In that situation, the Legislature would need to ratify the mandate, and local elected officials would need to ratify county or municipal actions to that effect.
Currently, the state health officer has the authority to impose public health orders without approval from the Legislature or the governor, though Gov. Mark Gordon and Wyoming health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist have said decisions made during the pandemic have been made collaboratively.
The chain of legislation follows a nationwide trend. Similar bills have been introduced in statehouses across the U.S., including in Ohio, New Mexico, New York, Idaho and Montana.
The legislation being introduced nationwide varies in scope, but predominantly focuses on executive power over public health mandates.
When asked if there was any concern at the Wyoming Department of Health that these bills, if passed into law, would hinder the department’s flexibility in responding to public health emergencies, spokesperson Kim Deti said, “Flexibility and the ability to react quickly are important when it comes to protecting public health, especially during rapidly evolving pandemic events. It is also important for orders to be based on scientific data and to be informed by public health and medical experts.”
She did not directly comment on the pieces of legislation, but did say the health department would participate in a thorough review of the state’s COVID-19 response.
There is a bill currently being considered by the Senate Corporations Committee to establish a review task force to that effect.
“After major public health events it is important to look back and analyze what went well, what presented challenges and what changes can be made to improve the response,” Deti said.
The Wyoming Legislature concluded an eight-day virtual legislative session Friday, and will reconvene in-person March 1.
The various proposals dealing with public health actions may be considered at that time, though there is no guarantee a bill will get a hearing.