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Montana Lawmakers Deeply Divided On Session Rules Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

The House chamber at the Montana Legislature.
Nick Mott
Montana Public Radio
The House chamber at the Montana Legislature.

Montana lawmakers debated Monday how they’ll hold the 2021 legislative session amid the coronavirus pandemic. The session is scheduled to begin on Jan. 4. Lawmakers did not make any final decisions, but were deeply divided on how best to proceed. 

With less than a month before the scheduled start of the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers have yet to decide if they want to hold the session in-person, virtually or a combination of the two.

A committee tasked with setting rules for the Legislature's work debated all day Monday and is scheduled to resume talks Tuesday morning. 

Sen. Jason Ellsworth, a Republican from Hamilton, offered up one of the GOP’s main proposals that would essentially hand over rulemaking related to COVID-19 policies during the session to a panel led by the majority party — in this case Republicans. 

"This allows us to be very fluid with our rules and what needs to be done and at which level it needs to be done at the right time," Ellsworth said.

Democrats objected to this, saying it would make the panel’s decisions partisan, and urged the committee to adopt public health measures now to head off any potential spread in the Capitol building. 

"I guess it’s concerning for us to plan for the inevitable of an outbreak here in the Legislature," said Democratic Sen. Jill Cohenour, the Senate Minority Leader. 

Democrats offered most of the rule changes Monday, proposing to hold the session virtually, or delaying it until a vaccine is widely available. In the event that the session is held in-person, Democrats also proposed requiring social-distancing and masks, and implementing a surveillance testing program at the Capitol.

Republicans pushed back against these ideas, saying the COVID-19 situation changes rapidly, and that related rules should, too. 

Republican Sen. Cary Smith of Billings is the chair of the rules committee. He said lawmakers won’t vote on amendments or new rules until next Wednesday Dec. 16. 

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Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.