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Gov. Mark Gordon signs House Bill 33 Tuesday, March 30, 2021, inside the Ceremonial Conference Room of the state Capitol. House Bill 33 prohibits interfering with public contracting. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – Gov. Mark Gordon allowed a bill that slightly alters the state’s public health order process to become law without his signature Thursday night, calling the legislation “premature” and stating it “corrects for perceptions that are raw because of recent experience,” but ultimately declining to veto the measure.

The legislation, House Bill 127, applies to orders that restrict the movements of non-quarantined individuals, such as those that close businesses or limit gathering sizes. Under the bill, such orders issued at a local level would initially be limited to a lifespan of no more than 10 days, with any extension having to be approved by a corresponding elected body, such as a county commission.

Lawmakers agreed to pass HB 127 after having a slew of public health-focused bills before them during their general session, including a few that would have granted oversight to the Legislature in the health order process. The chambers ultimately decided on a compromise that would not include state lawmakers in the process.

In a letter explaining his decision to let the bill become law without his signature, Gordon wrote that he was “mindful that good policy takes perspective, and the proximity to our experience with COVID-19 certainly influences the perspective on the policies related to public health orders.”

“I believe enacting HB 127 before the pandemic has come to an end and before we are able to do an after-action review of the public health response to COVID-19 is premature,” Gordon stated. “I did support, and continue to support, the establishment of a task force to complete a review of the state’s pandemic response.”

“The impact of HB 127 will be far reaching for the safety and wellbeing of Wyoming residents beyond just the current pandemic,” he added.

His point echoed a concern raised by a few lawmakers in discussions during the session, with some worried about how the changes could impact a different area of public health, such as a water supply emergency.

Another portion of the bill, which was sponsored by House Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, specifically addresses who appoints the state’s public health officer, after serious criticism was levied by some conservative lawmakers and residents about State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist’s response to the pandemic. Previously, the director of the Wyoming Department of Health was tasked with selecting the state health officer, and the bill changes the process so that the governor is responsible for appointing an official to the position.

In his letter, Gordon said this portion of the bill “solves a problem the Governor never had.”

“I believe the Governor already could relieve the State Health Officer of his/her duties, because, as Governor, I can relieve the Director of the Wyoming Department of Health should he/she refuse to remove the State Health Officer at my request,” Gordon wrote. “Thus, there always has been an elected official at the end of the chain of command who was ultimately responsible for any state health orders.”

Gordon’s support for establishing a post-pandemic task force went nowhere during the Legislature’s general session. Although the governor’s office and Wyoming Department of Health still plan to carry out their own post-pandemic reviews, a bill that would have included lawmakers and other stakeholders on a task force was defeated in the House.

In his letter, Gordon also emphasized some points that “Wyoming can be proud of” in its COVID-19 response: the highest percentage of in-person learning in the country, unemployment rates below the national average, and fewer total deaths than most other states.

“We did that, for the most part, by remaining open, albeit with some limitations when others just closed down,” said Gordon, who frequently emphasized residents’ need to take personal responsibility during the pandemic.

“Despite a reasoned and thoughtful response to the pandemic, the few restrictions we put in place, coupled with our better-than-peers experience called into question the authority of both the State Health Officer and the Governor,” he continued. “These are political times, and politics have certainly affected perspectives and attitudes.”

Also without a signature

Gordon also allowed one other bill to become law without his signature Thursday night. Senate File 130, a lengthy bill that alters the process for approval and renewal of charter school applications in Wyoming by placing some responsibility with the State Loan and Investment Board, gained solid support from both chambers of the Legislature.

In a letter explaining his lack of signature on it, Gordon noted technical issues with the bill, along with “a willingness by many legislators to work hard to correct this imperfect bill to make it workable, and more than just a political document before it takes effect next year.”

“I recognize the concern of the many school board members and others about this bill, but I also know it is limited to three new charter schools,” Gordon wrote. “Even though I am not a fan of passing legislation that is not well understood, unfinished and poorly drafted, on the strength of a mutual commitment to bettering education in Wyoming between the Executive and Legislative branches, and out of respect for the Legislature’s effort in working this bill, I am willing to let it pass into law without the benefit of my signature.”

Tom Coulter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at tcoulter@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @tomcoulter_.

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