Bill giving lawmakers health order oversight clears Senate

CHEYENNE – The Wyoming Senate gave its final approval Wednesday to a bill that would give lawmakers and locally elected bodies more authority over public health orders issued in the state, moving the proposal to the House of Representatives for further consideration.

Wyoming senators approved Senate File 80 by 21-9 vote. Prior to the vote, the bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, brought an amendment to address some of the concerns raised by his colleagues during previous discussions.

Under the amendment, the 48-hour wait period to allow for public comment before statewide health orders could initially take effect would no longer apply if the delay “will result in immediate and life-threatening physical harm, exposure or transmission beyond the existing affected area.”

Additionally, while the original legislation would require the Wyoming Legislature to convene and ratify any extensions of a statewide closure order beyond 30 days, McKeown’s amendment would instead require an extension by lawmakers after 60 days of an order being in effect, with an added provision that lawmakers could meet virtually or in another location, as necessary.

The amendment also limits the lifespan of any local health orders to 30 days – up from 15 days in the initial proposal – unless the corresponding elected body votes to extend it by another 30 days.

While many senators viewed the amendment as an improvement to the bill, several concerns, such as the constitutionality of the Legislature potentially calling itself into multiple special sessions, remained among some within the body. Some lawmakers questioned whether the legislative branch should be involved in a process that they have little expertise in.

“We’re going to get all 30 of us together, and I look around the room, and I love you guys, but there’s only about one senator that I would trust to tell me what the heck is going on with a public health order, a pandemic, a serious situation where we’ve got people in jeopardy for their lives and whatever,” Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, said.

“That’s the piece that I’m really struggling to get over.”

His point was echoed by Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, who was the long-time chairman of the Senate committee focused on health until this year.

He described the bill as “dangerous.”

“Frankly, I think our executive branch did a pretty good, pretty responsible job, especially early on, given the uncertainties that there were as to how bad this really was, how contagious it was,” Scott said. “I think if this bill had been in effect, we would have removed some of the necessary public health orders way earlier than we should have, and we’d have killed a bunch more people – not a tremendous percent, but a significant number. In a much more deadly outbreak, you could kill a lot.”

However, other senators noted that the Legislature frequently considers bills on topics that aren’t areas of expertise for its members. Senate Vice President Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, warned his colleagues against “throwing out the good for the pursuit of the perfect.”

“We come down here every year, and we write laws that the majority of this body is not the experts in, but we rely on experts, we take public testimony, we go through that process,” Hicks said. “That’s how we end up legislating.”

Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, who was Senate president during the height of the pandemic last year, largely agreed.

“When we come down here, it’s not to second-guess the medical experts. It’s to balance policy considerations,” Perkins said.

Before the chamber’s vote, McKeown said his bill remains a work in progress, but he added that something needed to be done or else “history will repeat itself.”

“I’m not saying we’re smarter than health officers, but what I am saying is we’re responsible for their decisions,” McKeown said. “We gave them the authority to make the decisions, but we can’t delegate the responsibility of the outcome of that.”

SF 80 will now head to the House of Representatives for further consideration. Meanwhile, a House bill that would require additional approval for certain public health orders to last longer than 10 days was advanced by a committee earlier this week. Unlike McKeown’s proposal, the bill would not require the Legislature to meet to extend any of the orders included in the bill.

Senate File 30, a proposal to establish a pandemic review task force that has the backing of the governor’s office and the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, has been placed on general file in the Senate, meaning it could be discussed in coming days.