Amended public health order bill approved by the Wyoming Senate

CHEYENNE – The Wyoming Senate gave its final approval Friday to a bill that would alter how public health orders are issued in the state, after adopting an amendment to give state lawmakers some oversight in the process.

House Bill 127, which sailed through the House on its final vote, would limit the initial lifespan of any order issued by a local or state health officer that restricts non-quarantined individuals’ movements to 10 days without further approval from a corresponding elected body. As passed in the House, the bill would leave the decision on whether to extend a statewide health order to the governor, rather than the Wyoming Legislature.

However, the Senate adopted an amendment to HB 127 that would limit the governor from issuing subsequent orders for longer than 60 additional days without ratification by state lawmakers. Under the amendment, the Wyoming Legislature would have to meet, either virtually or in person, to ratify that order for any further extension.

The Senate amendment was proposed by Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, who sponsored a separate bill that would have required a similar extension of statewide health orders by state lawmakers. That legislation, Senate File 80, gained approval from the Senate, but was never considered by a House committee during the general session, which ends Wednesday.

During floor debate Thursday and Friday, McKeown said the amendment, much like his own bill, was aiming to give residents more of a say in the public health process by giving their elected representatives some oversight, following their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are taking local control away from our constituents, who are actually on the ground there and know what’s going on,” McKeown said of the current process. “This is not an attack on the executive branch. This is trying to fix policy in a manner that will allow us to help our constituents out, so I would ask for your positive support.”

Without his amendment, McKeown said the House bill would “almost change nothing, other than make it set in concrete that (residents) don’t have a voice and their local governments don’t have a voice.” 

His amendment would also require a 48-hour waiting period to allow for public comment before any state or local order could take effect, “except when the delay will result in immediate and life-threatening physical harm, exposure or transmission beyond the existing affected area.”

Ultimately, McKeown’s amendment was adopted with solid support from the Senate, with two-thirds of the 30-member chamber supporting his proposal. 

Senate President Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, stood in favor of his amendment during floor debate Thursday, noting the Legislature can convene more quickly than in the past, thanks to technological developments.

“I think it’s important to keep the Legislature involved in something like this, because we saw great concerns over the last year of maybe not being able to have some input into the process that affected so many lives,” Dockstader said. “I’m not as concerned as everybody else, but I’ll support the amendment.”

Despite its backing from the chamber’s top leader, some senators had concerns over the amendment, particularly with possible unintended effects outside of a pandemic. Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, used the example of a town’s public water supply becoming unsafe, noting those public health efforts can sometimes take months to remedy.

“Do you really want to have to call the Legislature in session to deal with a health order of that nature?” Scott asked his colleagues. “And that can happen at any time.”

Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said the legislation was “unwieldy” and raised issues over the separation of powers.

“We don’t get involved in the day-to-day operations of government,” Case said during floor debate Thursday. “We write a broad framework and work that. We are not the executive branch.”

After approving McKeown’s amendment to the bill on its first reading Thursday, the Senate approved the legislation twice more Friday, after amending its legislative rules to allow for two readings of the bill on the same day. On the bill’s final vote, the Senate approved it by a 19-10 vote, with one lawmaker excused.

After gaining final support from the Senate on Friday, House Bill 127 will now return to its chamber of origin for a concurrence vote. If the House rejects the changes to the bill made in the Senate, legislative leadership will appoint a joint conference committee consisting of members from both chambers to hash out their differences. If they strike a deal, the bill will then head to Gov. Mark Gordon for further consideration.