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Montana Lawmakers Plan In-Person Session With Remote Option

The Capitol dome in Helena, MT.
William Marcus
Montana Public Radio
The Capitol dome in Helena, MT.

Montana lawmakers Wednesday advanced a proposal to hold the 2021 legislative session in a hybrid format, allowing for both remote and in-person participation. Republican lawmakers approved holding an in-person session, while Democrats pushed for full remote participation or a postponed session.

Lawmakers heard from a slew of citizens and lobbyists during Wednesday’s Joint House and Senate Rules Committee meeting, pleading them to reshape how they will meet amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Katy Wright, a teacher from Helena, said her elementary school students do well wearing masks and with online learning. 

"There’s really no reason why you can’t wear a mask either, or adapt to online."

Republican lawmakers resisted mask requirements for their work in the statehouse. Instead they approved, on a party line vote, a plan to hold an in-person session and to create a COVID-19 response panel to determine if public health precautions are needed. That panel is made up of a majority of Republicans. 

Lewis and Clark County public health officials have recommended the 2021 legislative session be held remotely amid growing concerns of COVID-19 spread this winter.

Republican Sen. Jason Ellsworth carried the amendment that created the rules for remote participation during the session. Lawmakers will be able to participate and vote via an online video platform and the public will be able to comment via electronic means. 

Republicans rejected proposals from Democrats that would have required a remote session, masks in the Capitol and COVID-19 testing for lawmakers.

Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick (R) - SD10
Credit Montana Legislature
Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick (R) - SD10

Republican Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick spoke for his caucus in opposing those measures, saying that the COVID-19 response panel would take care of virus-related procedures. 

"I think we’re all concerned about COVID and its possible impacts, and I think that’s why Sen. Ellsworth has worked so hard to put together his amendment."

Democratic Sen. Pat Flowers said that because the COVID-19 panel won’t meet or create procedures until the session begins, it’s a reactive solution. He said it will lead to people getting sick and possibly dying. 

"There are no safeguards with this. It’s inexcusable. It’s an irresponsible act," Flowers said.

The full Legislature will have to vote on whether to adopt the hybrid format when the session convenes Jan. 4.

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Shaylee is Montana Public Radio's Capitol reporter. She previously worked for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and covered the 2019 legislative session for the University of Montana's Legislative News Service.
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