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Montana lawmakers discuss bill to limit governor's powers in extended emergencies

Montana Governor's Office
Posted at 1:14 PM, Jan 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-12 20:15:21-05

HELENA — Montana lawmakers heard testimony Tuesday on a bill that would put limits on the governor’s powers during an extended emergency – a response to the orders the previous governor put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The House State Administration Committee held a hearing on House Bill 122, sponsored by Republican Rep. David Bedey of Hamilton. Bedey said the bill is intended to “restore balance” between the executive and legislative branches.

“House Bill 122 leaves intact the governor’s power to take immediate action when time is of essence,” he said.” At the same time, it enables the Legislature to fulfill its constitutional role even in times of crises.”

The bill would limit a governor’s initial declaration of emergency to 30 days. After that, the governor could declare a disaster if the state is still experiencing “widespread or severe damage, injury, or loss of life or property.” That declaration would expire after 60 days, unless the Legislature agreed to extend it.

Once a disaster declaration is in place, the Legislative Council – a committee of the legislative leaders from both parties – would have the option to take a poll of lawmakers, to see whether they should come into special session. A majority of all lawmakers would have to agree.

HB 122 would also give the Legislature the authority to terminate a state of emergency or disaster, put conditions or limits on the governor’s executive orders during an emergency, and take over apportionment of emergency funding from the federal government.

Bedey said his bill would still give governors the flexibility they need at the start of an emergency, but that the Legislature should have a say when the situation lasts much longer.

“The authors of Title X of the Montana Code rightly provided the governor extraordinary power to deal with time-sensitive, immediate crises,” he said. “But they surely did not foresee the governor retaining such extraordinary powers and the legislative branch being sidelined over an extended period, such has been the case for the pandemic we are currently undergoing.”

Former Gov. Steve Bullock first declared a state of emergency over COVID in March. That order has remained in effect for 10 months, based on the fact that President Donald Trump declared a national emergency. HB 122 would remove a provision in Montana law that says a state of disaster can continue based on a declaration from the president.

During Tuesday’s hearing, lawmakers heard from several members of the public who felt the executive directives during the pandemic had gone too far and wanted more input on those actions.

“I like this bill because it gives us, the people, an opportunity to speak with our legislators, so that they can get a feel for how the emergency in place is affecting us,” said Robyn Mohs, of East Helena.

No opponents of HB 122 testified. The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

MTN contacted Gov. Greg Gianforte's office Tuesday for comment on HB 122.

“We are very early in the lengthy legislative process, and the governor will carefully review any bill the legislature sends to his desk," press secretary Brooke Stroyke said in a statement.

Bedey has also introduced another bill dealing with emergency orders. House Bill 121 would give county commissions and city governing bodies the ability to amend or undo a local health officer’s order in response to a state of emergency, and it would require those bodies to approve stricter rules proposed by local boards of health.

HB 121 is set for a hearing in the House Local Government Committee Thursday afternoon.