HELENA — As leaders of the 2021 Montana Legislature are chosen this week, their first task may be one of their toughest: Figuring how to run a session in the midst of a burgeoning pandemic.
“I hope that conversations start very quickly after leadership is settled,” says Democratic Rep. Kim Abbott of Helena, who is expected to become House minority leader. “I don’t want to create an environment where people feel like they need to be in a dangerous place to do their job.”
During a typical session, hundreds of lawmakers, lobbyists, staffers, and members of the public crowd the Capitol during the four-month Legislature every two years.
Public-health officials say with Covid-19, business-as-usual at a session is a massive health risk. “Our legislative session for 2021 cannot look the same,” said Drenda Niemann, public health officer for Lewis & Clark County in Helena. “We have legislators traveling in from all parts of the state into one location and going back from Helena to their communities. So with that, comes risk.”
Yet Niemann says her office can make only recommendations, because it doesn’t have jurisdiction to restrict legislative activity at the Capitol. It’s basically up to legislative leaders, individual lawmakers, and Governor-elect Greg Gianforte to call the shots, she told MTN News.
Gianforte’s transition team said he’ll meet with legislators this week and that he’d like to see a session that makes “smart and safe decisions to protect the health and well-being of lawmakers, staff and others.” But he offered no details on what that statement actually means.
Gianforte is the first Republican governor in 16 years and campaigned on relying more on “personal responsibility” to stop the spread of Covid-19, rather than government mandates. Republicans also control big majorities at the Legislature: 67-33 in the House and 31-19 in the Senate.
In the past few weeks, new cases of Covid-19 have exploded in the state, increasing about 50 percent for the year just in November.
Lawmakers are scheduled to meet Wednesday to choose their 2021 leaders and then attend orientation meetings Thursday, at the Capitol.
Niemann, however, told lawmakers Monday they should avoid attending those meetings in-person and instead opt to do it virtually, via the Internet.
Democratic leaders said Tuesday they’re encouraging their colleagues to follow Niemann’s recommendation, and that they expect very few Democrats to attend this week’s meetings in-person.
Republican House Majority Leader Brad Tschida of Missoula said Niemann’s guidance is a recommendation, and that it’s up to individual lawmakers to decide what to do. He said he plans to attend the meetings in-person.
He also said it’s inevitable that at least some people will contract Covid-19 at the 2021 session, and the Legislature needs a plan to deal with that possibility.
Sen. Mark Blasdel of Kalispell, who’ll likely be the next Senate president, said most Republicans he knows intend to come to Helena during the regular session, which starts Jan. 4, and be there in-person.
However, he acknowledged that some lawmakers won’t want to do that, and that accommodations will be made to allow them to represent their constituents and still protect their health.
“Obviously we’re going to have to respect each and every person, because some are going to have more concerns than others,” Blasdel said. “Just like you see in Montana, we have a very diverse feeling on the whole Covid issue. We’re going to have to be respectful of those on all sides.”
Some of the options include remote voting, limiting the amount of people at committee meetings, or holding hearings in different, larger rooms in state buildings outside the Capitol.
Requiring lawmakers to wear masks, however, will run into resistance from some.
“I know there are members of my caucus who will not wear a mask and haven’t, as well as on the other side there are some who are adamant that everybody does wear them,” Blasdel said. “So that’s a real challenge.”
Legislative leaders on both sides also said they want to preserve public access to the Legislature, while still ensuring the safety of people in the building.
“Obviously we’re going to need to limit numbers, and how we do that in a fair way for everyone who has an interest in participating in legislative business is a question we need to answer,” Abbott said. “Those are questions our caucus will go into conservations asking: `Is this fair, to the public, to the press, to the lobbyists, to our staff?’”
Sen. J.P. Pomnichowski, D-Bozeman, said she’s confident that staff and lawmakers can conduct a lot of the work remotely, through video streaming and other technology.
“There is no reason to endanger someone’s health or very life, in order to participate,” she told MTN News. “We dedicate our lives for this work. No one has to give their lives for this work.”