JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A big discussion in the Missouri Legislature this session is local control as some lawmakers are trying to lessen the power local health officials have during a health emergency.
Earlier this month, the House passed House Bill 75, requiring local health officials to receive approval of their restrictions and orders from the local governing body after a certain number of days. St. Louis-area Republican Rep. Jim Murphy is sponsoring the legislation.
Murphy’s measure was heard in a Senate committee Thursday after passing out of the House 114-44.
“Health departments need to protect our health, legislatures need to protect our liberties,” Murphy said to the committee.
He believes local health officials had too much power during the pandemic, now, moving forward, he wants to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“It’s had a devastating effect on our citizens,” Murphy said.
HB 75 would allow local health officials to issue order or restrictions for up to 15 days, after that, local government would have to get involved.
“After 15 days, the legislative body in the county needs to be able to look at what they are doing and say yes, continue on,” Murphy said.
Local government would have to vote every 10 days to keep the order or restriction in place. Not all senators are onboard with the measure.
“I think my commissioners, which are elected, have the ability to say we want to do this for two months, we want to do this for 10 days, again, this is local control,” Sen. Bill White (R-Joplin) said. “They don’t need every 10 days, they don’t need 15 (days), to come back in special session after special session for them to say ‘yes we agree with what you’re doing.'”
Democratic Sen. Barbara Washington from Kansas City asked Murphy if he needed dental work done, would he call a dentist.
“So should we not take the advice of a public health official that is trained to be in public health?,” Washington asked Murphy.
Larry Jones, Executive Director for the Missouri Center for Public Health Excellence, said in his 50 years of working in public health, he’s never seen anything like what the world went through in the past year. He said limiting health officials is the wrong move.
“The makeup of local health departments is very different across the state,” Jones said.
Some lawmakers have previously said the legislation is aimed at St. Louis County and County Executive Dr. Sam Page.
“Four-hundred-eighty pages of rules and regulations that affect everyone’s lives in the county and these are law,” Murphy said, showing the thick packet to the committee.
St. Louis County Councilman Tim Fitch testified to lawmakers in favor of the legislation, saying the council was never asked about the county’s restrictions.
“We on the St. Louis Council believe all along we had the authority and the right to oversee these health orders,” Finch said. “I would think most of the member on the county council would agree with a lot of public health orders that have been issues. We’ve never been given that opportunity to even discuss it or ask questions.”
White said his district in southwest Missouri didn’t have shutdowns and problems like St. Louis.
“We had things that happened differently, we did not have the shutdowns that you had,” White said. “There’s a lot of counties that didn’t have a problem with their health departments.”
St. Louis County restaurant owner Ben Brown, who owns Satchmo’s, also testified in favor of the bill, saying the restrictions hurt their business after they were forced to close.
“We opened two to three weeks after being shut down and we regained our permit for only curbside and delivery and at the end of the month, our sales were equivalent to one day on a normal weekend under normal circumstances, one day of the entire month,” Brown said.
Last week, Sen. Bob Onder (R-Lake St. Louis), the chairman of the committee, tried to pass similar legislation requiring any restriction or order in place after 15 days in a 180-day period would have to be approved by a two-thirds vote of local governing bodies. After nearly eight hours of debate, the bill failed.
Gov. Mike Parson has previously said some local officials abused their power and the state should, “revisit those issues of how we conduct ourselves and how we do that.”
The bill was heard and voted out of the committee on the same day with a 5-1 vote and will now be heard in front of the full Senate.