HELENA — Montana lawmakers are considering options for how the 2021 legislative session will be run.
The Legislature’s rules committees met on Monday for the first of an expected two days of meetings. They are considering recommendations for the rules that will govern the 2021 session – and by extension, what that session will look like during COVID-19.
The Joint Rules Committee began by reintroducing last session’s rules, then proposing amendments for this year.
Republican Sen. Jason Ellsworth of Hamilton, the Senate’s president pro tempore, proposed an amendment creating a COVID-19 panel, including six leaders from the Republican majority and two from the Democratic minority. The panel would be empowered to “exercise authority over all aspects of legislative business that are impacted by the COVID-19 health emergency, including but not limited to public access […] and a member's physical presence.”
The amendment would also allow legislators who don’t feel comfortable coming to the Capitol to participate remotely, with the permission of their party leader.
Ellsworth said the COVID situation in Montana has been “fluid,” and the Legislature should have flexibility in how it responds.
“What we can do is be responsible, and that’s what this rule does, is allow us to take responsibility, enact different things that are necessary at the time,” he said. “Certainly, what’s happening today with COVID will, in my opinion, look differently in three weeks from now.”
Democrats argued that proposal was too reactive, and that the Legislature should take more specific actions to limit the chance of the coronavirus spreading at the Capitol.
“When can the people of Montana – our small business owners, our frontline workers, the people who are out there depending on having their voices heard at the Legislature – going to know the firm rules of how this Capitol will be safe for them to participate in?” asked Sen. Bryce Bennett, a Democrat from Missoula.
Democratic members suggested several other possible options, bringing up amendments to require masks in the Capitol, to delay legislative action until a vaccine is more available or to hold the entire session virtually. However, most Republican members did not appear interested in those changes.
Whatever the Legislature eventually decides to do will have a big impact on the Helena community.
Last month, the Lewis and Clark City-County Board of Health sent a letter to legislative leaders, urging them to hold the session remotely or allow most people to participate virtually, as a way to limit virus transmission. They noted that Helena-area health care resources have already been under strain.
The board also asked the Legislature to hire its own contact tracers if the session goes forward in person. They said Lewis and Clark Public Health would not have enough capacity to handle contact tracing if someone tests positive after participating in the session.
Lewis and Clark County commissioners, Helena city commissioners and the mayors of Helena and East Helena echoed those concerns in a letter to Republican Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte last week.
County commissioner Susan Good Geise, herself a former legislator, told MTN she was concerned after seeing a number of legislators chose not to wear masks on the House floor during a caucus last month. She said an in-person session would inevitably bring large numbers of people together in enclosed spaces.
“Every session, the flu just runs rampant, but we’re not talking about the flu, we’re talking about COVID, which is a whole other ball of wax,” Geise said. “This is not the time for us to have the legislature come in person.”
However, if lawmakers don’t come to Helena, that could mean a major negative impact on area businesses – which often expect a boost during a legislative session. On Monday, Cathy Burwell, president and CEO of the Helena Area Chamber of Commerce, brought a box full of masks and hand sanitizer to the Rules Committee meeting. She urged legislators to take safety precautions so the session can go forward.
“Being safe and respecting others who have medical issues will ensure that the session can be held safely and without interruption, and that the virus doesn’t spread amongst you, your colleagues and staff, and even our community,” said Burwell.
Sen. Cary Smith, a Republican from Billings, chairs the Joint Rules Committee. He said during Monday’s meeting that the committee would take a week to consider the proposed amendments, then vote on them at an online meeting Wednesday, Dec. 16.
“We know it’s unusual, but we want to make sure that there’s just as much time as we could possibly need to take and discusss all of these rules thoroughly,” he said.