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Bill giving local governments oversight of health department rules passes Senate

Photo courtesy/WV Legislative Photography EXPLANATION — Senate Health Committee Chair Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, explains Senate Bill 12, which would give county and city governments final say over rules developed by local boards of health.

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Senate approved a bill Tuesday giving county and city governments final say over rules developed by boards of health, while an attempt to give those local governments say over past decisions failed.

Senate Bill 12, relating to local health department accountability, passed 21-13 with two Republicans — Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, and David Stover, R-Wyoming — crossing the aisle to vote against the bill.

SB 12 would give county commissioners and city leaders veto power over rules or amendments to rules created by local boards of health except instances of health emergencies. In those instances, county and city governments would have 30 days to approve or reject those emergency rules once issued.

The bill also puts all local health departments under the authority of the state health officer in the event of a declared statewide health emergency. The bill applies to individual county and city health departments as well as joint health departments between more than one county or county and city joint health departments.

Senate Health Committee Chairman Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, said the bill is no different than what the Legislature already does in approving rules issued by state agencies.

“It’s not a new concept,” Maroney said. “We pass bills all the time, they become law, and it gives departments within state government rule-making authority. They make rules — some of those are public health rules — but they’re non-elected officials. What happened to their rules? They have to be ratified and we have to vote on them. It’s the same process we’re instituting here at the local level.”

Maroney, a radiologist from Glen Dale, is the lead sponsor of the bill, though he tried to shrug off responsibility for the bill under questioning from members of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

“As a former county commissioner, I want to make sure you want to give me the power to override your decision as a physician,” said Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison. “I was low man on the totem pole on those boards with the least amount of knowledge, but it would come back to me and two other county commissioners to make the final decision on a rule by that expert board?”

“I wish I didn’t have to vote on this bill, but I do,” Maroney answered. “But I was voted in. I think that’s what they have to do. They were voted in and ran for office. I don’t have a problem with them having that responsibility.”

State Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, is the former chairman of the Senate Health Committee and a physician based in Madison. He opposed the bill, accusing Republican senators of politicizing public health and trying to erode rules prohibiting indoor smoking.

“This bill basically pokes a finger in their eye right during this (COVID-19) pandemic,” Stollings said, speaking about the negative impact to local health departments. “This is a bad bill. It’s an anti-public health bill.”

Opponents point out that county commissions and city governments already appoint members to the boards of public health, with local officials getting a seat on those boards. Supporters said that despite those checks, the public doesn’t have enough say in decisions.

“I think one of the big problems we have in this country writ large is the enormous growth and power of the administrative state,” said state Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan. “The people who are elected by the citizens should have the final say and should be responsible to the citizens … if not, then the people cannot be truly sovereign.”

The bill is opposed by several groups, including the American Cancer Society, the Association of Local Health Departments, and the County Commissioners Association of West Virginia.

An attempt to amend the bill by state Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Randolph, to remove grandfather provisions to allow local governments to repeal board of health rules going back 10 years was rejected by voice vote. Both Stollings and Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha — a pulmonologist in Charleston — spoke against the amendment.

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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