Opponents testified that the measure would insert politics into science-based decision making and potentially slow public health responses during an emergency.
Supporters of the measure said the bill would ensure that overzealous health officers and health boards can be kept in check by voters via elected officials. For example, they said, health orders implemented by some county health boards and health officers that were stricter than statewide mandates were made without citizen input and have harmed small businesses.
“Our elected officials bear the responsibility of taking all factors into account when setting policy. Now, I will grant that at times, elected officials make judgments that are not universally accepted, or that they might even make mistakes. It’s part of living in a free society,” said Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, the proposal’s sponsor. “Under House Bill 121, there are no restrictions on the ability of our public health officials to provide elected officials sound advice, which I cannot help but think would most often be persuasive.”
Under the bill’s provisions, health officers and health boards could still issue health orders during public health emergencies, but elected officials, like county commissioners, could amend or rescind those orders. In non-emergency situations, the bill would remove the power of local health boards to issue orders and require them to instead propose actions, which the elected governing body overseeing them could approve or deny.
Bedey has also sponsored another measure he said is in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That measure, House Bill 122, would limit how long emergency and disaster declarations issued by the governor can remain in effect without legislative approval, as well as streamline the convening of a special session of the Legislature so lawmakers can vote to overturn a governor’s emergency orders. Another bill, House Bill 145, sponsored by Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, would strip local health boards of the power to enforce health mandates and issue orders, instead limiting them to making recommendations to elected officials.
While Bedey said he understands concerns from opponents that public health decisions could become politicized, he said that in an extended health crisis like the current one, local public health orders more strict than statewide directives need to be weighed against economic and business impacts.
“Real-world situations and crises often have many more than one, or even two, dimensions that need to be considered,” he said.
Opponents, on the other hand, said the measure would unintentionally lead to politics leaking into decisions about public health, which they said should be made based strictly on science.
“House Bill 121 throws public health squarely into the political arena,” said Jane Webber, a Cascade County commissioner and member of the county’s Board of Health in testimony on Thursday. “Do not place the decisions of our health and your family’s health in the hands of politicians. I am a politician, and I openly acknowledge there are some in politics who are easily swayed … possibly by a phone call, sometimes by a campaign contributor.”