Less than a week after the Senate rejected a push to limit the authority and scope of local health orders during states of emergency, a Senate committee revived the issue Wednesday.
House Bill 75, sponsored by Rep. Jim Murphy, R-St. Louis, was passed out of the Senate Health and Pensions Committee the same day it was heard Wednesday.
The bill would restrict the length of local health orders and require approval by the local governing authority for extensions. The bill is more narrow in scope than the Senate proposal sponsored by Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, that died on the floor last week.
Under the bill, a health order could only be enacted for 15 days. From there, with approval, it could be extended for an additional 15 days. After the first 30 days, an order could be extended for three additional 10-day periods if approved each time by a two-thirds vote of the local governing body. Any subsequent 10-day extensions would require a unanimous vote.
“House Bill 75 does a simple thing,” Murphy said. “It says that health departments need to protect our health. Legislators need to protect our liberties, and they can’t work independent of each other. There needs to be oversight.”
Supporters of the bill and similar proposals argue that local officials need to take into account the broader economic impacts of long lasting health orders, while opponents worry such measures may be too restrictive come the next pandemic.
Larry Jones, the executive director of the Missouri Center for Public Health Excellence, said that the understanding of how best to protect people from the coronavirus changed as the world learned more about the science behind its spread. And that with contagious diseases having incubation periods of two to three weeks, restrictions of 10 to 15 days would not be enough time to understand if new mitigation measures are working effectively, Jones said.
“You’re going to be asking your boards to make approvals quicker than you can see whether you’ve had any results from what it is you’ve done,” Jones said.
At the heart of the debate on restricting local health authorities’ powers has been the issue of local control. Amid the pandemic, Gov. Mike Parson often leaned on the concept of local control to avoid statewide restrictions, such as a mask mandate.
Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, said that while some local health orders went too far, the bill is taking a stance of “we’re really big for local government until we aren’t.”
White, who was one of nine Republicans that joined every Democratic senator to vote against Senate Bill 12 last week, said he prefers to have local entities retain local control, and allow local residents to choose not to re-elect officials they have issues with.
White said he would also like to allow local governing entities to set the time periods by which orders can be extended — rather than having to prescribe to the 10 and 15-day windows outlined in the bill.
“That is my concern, that you’re going to make my people do a lot of hoops for something that doesn’t impact them,” White said. “Let them have the control to say how long this is.”
Meanwhile, supporters of similar measures have argued that the bill would restore local control to residents by giving the officials they elected the power of oversight. Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, said it’s “a nonsensical argument” to allow local bodies to have “unlimited power” and pass policies simply because the majority of a local governing body supports it.
“Sure they’re local, but it doesn’t give them the authority to do whatever they want. They shouldn’t have that authority,” Koenig said. “Local control resides with you as an individual in a free society.”
Supporters of the bill once again focused their ire on St. Louis County and health orders enacted under County Executive Sam Page, with local officials like St. Louis County Councilman Tim Fitch testifying in support of the bill.
The county has hired a team of lobbyists to fight back on bills like Murphy’s and Onder and Koenig both noted none had testified during Wednesday’s hearing.
“They hired four lobbyists,” Koenig said, “but they’re afraid to come to the committee and answer questions.”
This story was republished with permission from the Missouri Independent, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering state government, politics and policy.