Committee advances bill giving Legislature some authority in health order process
CHEYENNE – A proposal to give the Wyoming Legislature more oversight in the process through which statewide public health orders are issued was advanced by a legislative committee Wednesday morning.
If passed, Senate File 80 would limit any statewide health order from being in effect for longer than 30 days, unless the Wyoming Legislature ratifies an extension of 30 additional days.
The proposal would also require a 48-hour wait period to allow for public comment before any statewide health order could initially take effect, and counties could choose to opt out of the statewide orders.
Bill sponsor Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, presented the proposal to the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee on Wednesday, stating its main focus is to remove some power from the executive branch and place it in the legislative branch, as well as counties and towns, as needed.
The proposal, which was the first of several bills aiming to rein in Wyoming’s public health officer to receive a committee hearing, drew mixed responses from those who testified.
Renny MacKay, policy director for Gov. Mark Gordon, told the committee that the governor’s office was supportive of Senate File 30, which would establish a pandemic review task force, as the best option moving forward.
“We think that once we can move through this crisis, there is a time to look back and make changes as needed across the board,” MacKay said, adding the governor’s office and the Wyoming Department of Health both have post-pandemic reviews scheduled.
MacKay also noted there could be “second-order” effects of the legislation that may not be foreseeable, as the public health order statute can also apply in non-pandemic situations.
If approved, the bill would also limit the lifespan of any local health orders to 15 days, unless the corresponding elected body – a county commission for a county health order, for example – votes to extend it by another 15 days.
In Wyoming’s counties, more than half of which authorized local mask mandates prior to the statewide order issued in early December, attitudes toward Senate File 80 were mixed, said Jerimiah Rieman, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association.
“Some of my members want some of these powers represented in this bill, and perhaps some of the other bills that are before you,” Rieman said. “Others don’t want those powers, because they don’t consider themselves public health officers. … It’s not uniform across the state.”
Rieman’s association did not take an official position on Senate File 80, instead opting to monitor it and similar bills throughout the process. The association was supportive of the legislation setting up a pandemic review task force, Rieman said, as a way to consider all potential changes to the process.
However, the majority of committee members viewed McKeown’s proposal as the best step forward to rein in health officers. Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, said his focus has been on early treatment of COVID-19 with high levels of vitamin D, questioning why public health officials have not promoted any such treatment options.
“I think I’m just like the general public for health – I don’t trust the experts anymore,” Bouchard said. “I talked to the state health officer, and all I got was the standard CNN answer, that the drugs don’t work and we’ve got to listen to what the CDC says. That’s kind of the direction I’m seeing is that people at the top just look at the people above them, so I mean, we need thinkers in here. And if we don’t have thinkers, then we got to have limitations.”
Other lawmakers questioned whether the public health orders have been effective at all.
“I think we’re making an assumption that what we did actually contained the virus,” McKeown said. “I don’t think we defined that. I don’t think we know about that.”
McKeown also argued the health orders have been unconstitutional, citing Article 1, Section 38 of the Wyoming Constitution, which states each person “shall have the right to make his or her own health care decisions.”
“We have to do something to get back to the Constitution and find some legislation that works,” McKeown said. “And don’t assume that in the Senate, we just sit around and think we’re doctors. We talk to people just like everybody else does.”
Other lawmakers on the five-member committee had hesitations over the legislation’s potential unintended consequences. Sen. Dan Furphy, R-Laramie, said he was in favor of some legislative oversight after 30 days of a statewide health order, but he questioned whether the bill could hamper the state’s response to other crises, such as a flood.
“My concern in this bill is we’re restricting the state health officer and the county health officers from taking immediate action when they need to, so I’m going to vote no on this bill because of that,” Furphy said. “Once again, I’m particularly concerned when the state shuts down businesses, et cetera, without legislative oversight, and I want to see that happen, but I don’t think this bill gets to that.”
Committee chair Sen. Fred Baldwin, R-Kemmerer, also voted against the proposal, though he said the conversation about public health orders needs to continue, regardless of what happens with SF 80.
Ultimately, the committee advanced the bill by a 3-2 vote, setting it up for further consideration on the Senate floor in the coming days.
After gaining approval from the Senate Labor, Health and Social Service Committee by a 3-2 vote Wednesday, Senate File 80 will head to the Senate floor, where it will need to win three votes of approval, for further discussion in the coming days.