Alerts & Actions

County Supremacy – Why MHRN opposes bills weakening county health boards

Several bills are coming through the legislature in reaction to COVID-19. At first glance, many of them seem like backlash against mask wearing, quarantine orders, and restrictions on businesses. We’re all frustrated that life can’t just go back to normal just yet, but these bills express more than resentment. 

MHRN opposes these bills (see bill numbers below) because they attempt to give more authority to certain officials, generally county commissioners and county sheriffs, who may be more easily influenced by militia and so-called “Patriot” group supporters. We need to reject them in order to keep militia ideology from creeping into Montana law.

These bills fall into two categories:
1. Taking authority away from local county health boards/officers and giving it to county commissioners
2. Allowing county sheriffs to decide which laws they want to enforce

County health boards

As we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, we need nonpartisan public health professionals who follow evidence-based science making the decisions that keep people safe.

The bills designed to weaken the authority of county health boards and officers would give boards the authority to make recommendations for public health measures, but only county commissions would be given final approval. That means crucial health care decisions would be taken away from people with specialized knowledge and expertise and given to politicians. This will only further politicize and polarize decisions around public health.

Anti-government groups have routinely pushed for exactly this type of shift to give more power to the county commission, which they view as the highest legitimate level of government. The legislation we’re watching would help prop up their notion of county supremacy. 

Bills introduced to shift power form health boards to county commissions are HB 121, HB 236, and SB 108.



These bills will lend a sense of legitimacy to militia ideas about sheriff supremacy, which posits that sheriffs can decide which laws they want to enforce. 

Militia activists like Ammon Bundy and his People’s Rights group have been trying to recruit sheriffs to their cause during the pandemic by encouraging them to refuse to enforce public health measures like masks and social distancing.

Gary Marbut of the Montana Shooting Sports Association has made repeated attempts to get Montana sheriffs to endorse this anti-government notion that sheriffs can decide which laws they enforce. Militias like the Oath Keepers constantly try to recruit sheriffs with the
 same idea. You can read more about Gary Marbut’s connections to militias and other extremists in MHRN’s report Shooting for Respectability and in an issue brief about Marbut’s attempts to rally sheriffs’ support for militia ideology.

Bills introduced to shift power from health boards to sheriffs are SB 67 and HB 144.

For more information about which legislators you need to contact to about these bills, please see the most recent email from MHRN or check our Facebook posts. Information changes daily, so we’ll try to keep you updated there.

Action items February 13-19

  • HB 316 had a hearing in the House Business and Labor Committee this week. Please contact the committee and your House member and say NO to HB 316.

  • HB 121 and HB 236 have been referred to the House Business and Labor Committee, so contact that committee and say NO to HB 121 and HB 236.

  • SB 108 is scheduled for hearing in the House Business and Labor Committee later this month.

  • SB 67 is headed to the House floor, so contact your representative and say NO.

  • HB 144 passed unanimously out of the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, so please contact your Senator and say NO.