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Montana Legislative Subcommittee Briefed On Options For 2021 Session Amid Pandemic

A screenshot from a virtual meeting shows 12 lawmakers, half with faces showing and half as black squares, all members of the 2019 Legislative Council Rules Subcommittee.
Montana Public Affairs Network
Members of Montana's Legislative Council Rules Subcommittee hold a virtual meeting Oct. 9, 2020.

Montana lawmakers Friday were briefed on potential options to work remotely or at the Capitol during the 2021 legislative session amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Staff presented the Legislative Council Rules Subcommittee with two potential scenarios to bolster lawmaker, staff and public safety during the upcoming session, scheduled to begin in January.

The first option calls for lawmakers and the public to conduct the session remotely, while the second also allows in-person work at the state Capitol in Helena.

Generally, proposed rule amendments would ensure remote members have the same duties, responsibilities and privileges as in-person members, including the ability to vote.

Code Commissioner Todd Everts said it may be difficult to accommodate the number of bills drafted in a typical year during a hybrid session.

“Scheduling the hearings of that many proposals would be a challenge," Everts said.

Everts says extra staff may be needed. One proposed rule would alleviate staff workload by limiting the amount of bills individual lawmakers can introduce.

Staff also presented several options to make sure the public can participate in the legislative process, as required by the state constitution. All proposed options would allow the public to follow proceedings and comment remotely.

If the session is held remotely and at the Capitol, lawmakers could also form a legislative leadership panel to adjust how much in-person public participation is allowed depending on the state of the pandemic. Or, lawmakers could agree to public health protocols ahead of the session dictating workplace protections and how to respond to symptomatic individuals.

“When you go over to number two where we say there will be both a combination of in-person and hybrid public participation, you’ll see the difficulties," said Code Commissioner Everts.

Legislative staff will continue working on the proposals leading up to the start of the session. The full Legislative Council will consider potential rule changes on Thursday.