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Montana Lawmakers Consider Remote Legislative Session

Montana Lawmakers meet during an online video chat.
Montana Public Affairs Network
Members of the Montana Legislative Council met via Zoom on June 9, 2020.

Montana lawmakers on June 9 formed a bipartisan working group to consider the possibility of a remote 2021 legislative session. Legislators also sparred over the importance of wearing face masks during physical meetings amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

During a remote meeting, Democratic Rep. Casey Schreiner, chairman of the Legislative Council, solicited volunteers to work with state staff on possible contingencies leading up to the Legislature’s start date.

Code Commissioner Todd Everts said state statute already allows for remote voting, which two hospitalized lawmakers have done in previous sessions.

“So there is precedent for fulfilling that constitutional obligation to vote and be present by electronic means," Everts said.

Legislators hope to have something in place before the session begins in January.

Lawmakers also discussed how to conduct future interim meetings, which they’ll be able to attend at the capitol or digitally. The Legislative Council ultimately decided it lacked authority to mandate specific guidelines, like physical distancing, but the discussion revealed partisan differences over preferred coronavirus precautions.

Republican state Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas said he won’t wear a mask when meetings resume in the state capitol building.

“My experience in watching mask wearing is it’s a hoax to push government compliance more than it is anything effective with preventing a disease. Just my opinion," Thomas said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend wearing face masks to prevent spreading the coronavirus where social distancing is difficult to maintain.

Speaker of the House Greg Hertz and Senate President Scott Sales, both Republicans, also support voluntary use of face coverings. Sales said “a good dose of personal responsibility” is sufficient to operate in person during the pandemic, considering Montana’s low documented infection rate.

Democratic Sen. JP Pomnichowski questioned whether such discretion could place lawmakers at risk of spreading the coronavirus.

“If someone is sick after meeting at the capitol, say seven to 10 days, and contact tracing puts it back to a Legislative Audit meeting or whatever it is, I just wonder about our liability. Socially and I guess legally,” Pomnichowski said.

Democratic Sen. Margie MacDonald said she won’t attend meetings without mandatory face masks. Rep. Kim Abbott and Sen. Jon Sesso, both Democrats, also said they’ll continue to meet by Zoom until later this year.

Schreiner, who is running for lieutenant governor, wondered why lawmakers should meet in person at all under present circumstances.

“It doesn’t really make sense to me personally why we’re even opening the can of worms,” Schreiner said.

The Legislative Audit Committee is expected to hold the first hybrid meeting at the capitol and digitally on June 9.