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Speaker of the House Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, speaks during the 66th Wyoming Legislature’s general session Wednesday, March 31, 2021, inside the House chamber of the state Capitol. The session is scheduled to run through Wednesday, April 7. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – The Wyoming Legislature gave its final approval Wednesday to a bill that would slightly alter the state’s public health order process, after the House and the Senate reached a compromise to not involve lawmakers in the process.

As amended and agreed upon by both chambers, House Bill 127 would apply only 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.

During the session, the bill’s main sponsor, House Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, repeatedly described his proposal as aiming to bifurcate health-based decisions for people who have contracted a disease from political decisions that affect a broader portion of the population.

After the legislation was amended in the House, then the Senate, the biggest difference between the chambers’ proposals was how those orders would be dealt with at the statewide level. While the House’s initial proposal would only allow the governor, in consultation with the state health officer, to extend an order beyond the initial 10-day period, the Senate amended HB 127 to include the Legislature in the process, requiring lawmakers to ratify any extension of a statewide order for longer than 60 days.

With the two chambers in disagreement, a joint conference committee was appointed and met Tuesday and Wednesday, the final two days of the Legislature’s general session, to sort out their differences.

Ultimately, lawmakers agreed to a compromise that would keep the initial 10-day limit for local orders that impact non-quarantined individuals, while leaving the governor to decide decisions on similar statewide orders. After a statewide order’s initial 10-day lifespan, any subsequent orders from the governor could only be issued for an additional 60 days under the bill.

Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, who chairs the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, told her colleagues on the House floor Wednesday that her committee cohort did not want to involve the Legislature in the process due to concerns about whether the body was agile enough to respond to a rapid public health emergency.

“I feel that we found a good place here where we have brought input of the people through their elected officials into the picture, while at the same time enabling the health officers locally and at the state level to use their expertise and try to find a balance, not just for the particular situation that we experienced, but in unforeseeable ones in the future,” Wilson said.

A handful of representatives in the House spoke in opposition to the compromise struck by the conference committee, arguing elected lawmakers have the best understanding of their constituents. Rep. Tim Hallinan, R-Gillette, said many matters related to the COVID-19 pandemic have been “botched” by the experts, including the CDC.

“We are ‘The People’s House,’ and we should represent the people in these issues, and I don’t think that the people are going to call for anything outlandish in response to this pandemic,” Hallinan said. “I think that their thoughts on it have been equally good to those of the CDC, and I think we need to look at what the people have to say … We have to have a role in these decisions that are going to take place.”

In the conference committee, the House did agree to one change made by the Senate: a requirement for a 48-hour public comment period before those non-quarantine-related orders can take effect, “except when the delay will result in immediate and life-threatening physical harm, exposure or transmission beyond the existing affected area.”

Ultimately, the House agreed to adopt the joint conference committee’s report by a 35-18 vote, with seven lawmakers excused.

In the Senate, lawmakers were also agreeable to the compromise, holding no debate over it. Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, who brought his own bill and amended HB 127 to include legislative oversight in the process, told his colleagues to adopt the proposal, even without the provision.

“We still have the ability as a Legislature to call ourself in session and take action, if need be,” McKeown said. “One other thing I would add is it really does give power back down to the counties and the cities.”

The Senate approved the compromise proposal by a 23-6 vote, with one lawmaker excused. After gaining final approval from both chambers, House Bill 127 will head to Gov. Mark Gordon for further consideration.

Throughout the session, the only bill related to public health orders that had the explicit backing of the governor’s office was Senate File 30, which would have created a pandemic review task force consisting of lawmakers and various stakeholders. After passing the Senate, that proposal failed on its final reading in the House by a 35-25 vote.

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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