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Lawmakers Plan Hybrid Approach Rather Than Fully Remote Legislative Session

Sen. Jason Ellsworth (R) SD43 during a Joint Rules Committee meeting, December 16, 2020.
Sen. Jason Ellsworth (R) SD43 during a Joint Rules Committee meeting, December 16, 2020.

It’s been clear that the 2021 legislative session at the Montana Capitol will look different amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but it wasn’t clear how different until Wednesday. Republican state lawmakers are planning an in-person session, rejecting mask requirements and allowing lawmakers the option to tune in remotely.

Lawmakers were offered four options by legislative staff this year: to hold the session all in-person; one of two hybrid models; or to hold it fully remote. The Joint House and Senate Rules Committee voted along party lines Wednesday for the hybrid option. 

Sen. Jason Ellsworth, a Republican from Hamilton, carried the amendment. It creates a COVID-19 response panel led by Republicans, with broad powers to deal with virus-related issues after the session begins. 

Ellsworth defended the decision to hold an in-person session. 

"I would imagine we are going to have members who are going to get sick. It’s possible [inaudible ] members that die. But that possibility is there irregardless even if we’re here or not. But the one thing we can do is come together and serve the great [state] of Montana."

During the joint rules committee meeting Wednesday, more than a dozen Montana citizens, businesses owners, health care professionals and lobbyists pressed for a full-remote session, or public health orders in the Capitol, like a mask mandate. One person spoke in support of an in-person session. 

Stacey Anderson is with the Montana Primary Care Association. 

“We witness the devastating impacts of this illness, including the deaths of our patients and family members, we believe an in-person session is a risk the leaders of our state should not take at this time,” Anderson said.

Katy Wright is an elementary school teacher in Helena.

“Our children watch what you do. You make the laws that the rest of us follow and you follow. Why do we have regulations? Why do we have mandates? Why do we have laws? For the common good.”

Jill Steely is the CEO of PureView Health Center in Helena.

“We are completely overwhelmed. And as the cases in our community increase, we become more overwhelmed, and will eventually be unable to provide medical, dental and behavioral health services to our patients.”

Lawmakers participate online during a joint House & Senate Rules Committee meeting, December 16, 2020.
Lawmakers participate online during a joint House & Senate Rules Committee meeting, December 16, 2020.

Lewis and Clark County public health officials have recommended the 2021 legislative session be held remotely due to concerns over COVID-19 spreading. 

The rules for a hybrid session approved by the committee this week allow lawmakers to vote and participate in hearings and bill debates via a video chat platform. The rules state that lawmakers cannot be required to get a COVID-19 test or vaccine. 

Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, a Democrat from Helena, said that lawmakers should be taking proactive measures to prevent the spread of the virus, and that it’s possible lawmakers will end up spreading COVID-19 to their home communities. 

"A plan should have been made for people engaging in this. And we should have protocols in our rules for how we will behave as legislators."

Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Great Falls, spoke for his caucus against the Democrat's proposals to have a mask mandate, or to postpone the session. 

“We’ve worked very hard, I think, to come up with protocols to enable us to have a safe session. I would also like to point out I don’t think it’s really possible to delay the session. We have to do things like pass a budget.”

Democrats also raised concerns about a change in the rule's language that would make it optional for committee chairs to take public testimony by electronic means. 

The public can still show up in person if they want to testify this session, but they’ll also have the option to call in, email or testify via video chat during a committee meeting. The original amendment said committee chairs must take testimony by electronic means. It now says “may.”

Again, Sen. Ellsworth. 

"We may have to limit testimony, depending on technology and how it’s able to function. So I didn’t want to put a "must" in there and get a committee tied up."

Democratic Rep. Robert Farris-Olsen objected to the amendment, saying it could limit public access to committee meetings, or force people to come testify in person.

"We keep talking about the ability of individuals to exercise choice and make their own decisions, yet this amendment you just mentioned seems to put all of that power in the hands of the chair."

The amendment was approved on a party line vote with Democrats voting against it. 

Ellsworth’s amendment creating the response panel and remote rules will have to go before the full Legislature for a final vote on Jan. 4.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

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