By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily
A bill designed in part to give the governor more oversight over public health orders may have been prepared and approved too quickly after the worst of the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Mark Gordon said.
Gordon on Thursday allowed House Bill 127 to become law without his signature, saying it may not have been completely thought through.
“I still cannot sign this legislation because I think it responds to a particular set of circumstances in a particular time and corrects for perceptions that are raw because of recent experience,” he wrote in a letter to legislative leaders explaining his action. “This bill will continue into law, but with my fervent hope that careful consideration will be given to any future changes to public health authority, and that will occur only after a thorough review of Wyoming’s overall response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The bill was introduced in response to the public health orders issued in 2020 to slow the spread of coronavirus. Among those were orders closing certain businesses and restricting certain activities.
The closures and restrictions resulted in opposition among some lawmakers, who said the state public health officer, as an appointed official, had too much authority over activities affecting the state’s economy.
The bill would limit the duration of public health orders to 10 days, with approval from the governor required for any extensions.
But Gordon argued a thorough review of the state’s response to the coronavirus should have been completed before such a bill was adopted.
“I did support, and continue to support, the establishment of a task force to complete a review of the state’s pandemic response,” he said. “I maintain this view because any statutory change to the public health authority will impact all subsequent public health responses, not just those specific to COVID-19. The impact of HB 127 will be far reaching for the safety and wellbeing of Wyoming residents beyond just the current pandemic.”
In addition, the perceptions of legislators may have been affected by the fact coronavirus is still affecting the state, he said.
“I appreciate the Legislature’s attention to this matter but am mindful that good policy takes perspective and the proximity to our experience with COVID-19 certainly influences the perspective on policies related to public health orders,” he wrote.
The bill also specifies that the state’s public health officer can be removed from his or her position by the governor and the director of the state Health Department, but Gordon said the issue really did not need to be addressed.
“I submit a portion of this bill solves a problem the governor never had,” his letter said. “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. 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 said he thought the state handled the pandemic well.
“Wyoming has stood strong, weathering declining employment better than the nation as a whole, and with fewer deaths than most of our peers,” he wrote. “We also enjoy a reputation of being relatively free of the virus. We did that, for the most part, by remaining open, albeit with some limitations, when others just closed down.
“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,” the letter continued. “These are political times, and politics have certainly affected perspectives and attitudes.”