Republican lawmakers met Thursday to discuss changing the 2021 Legislature’s rules for operating amid the coronavirus pandemic. Democrats boycotted the meeting, saying it was illegitimate, and threatened legal action.
State Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, a Republican from Stevensville, called the abnormal meeting of the committee that puts forth the rules that govern how the Legislature operates. The Joint House and Senate Rules Committee usually meets after the election in early January. State Democrats are calling Thomas’ action illegal. But Thomas said the state of emergency amid the COVID-19 pandemic allows the rules committee to meet.
"We are clearly within our constitutional authority to meet today."
Thomas said lawmakers needed to discuss how to hold a legislative session during the pandemic. One proposed amendment would allow legislators to vote on bills remotely during a regular session. Another would give the Senate President and Speaker of the House tiebreaking votes in interim committees if they are gridlocked on a policy. Republicans currently hold both positions.
Only Republicans attended the meeting. The majority leader said he plans to reconvene the committee next Thursday.
Democratic members of the committee refused to participate in this week’s meeting in protest, and retained Helena lawyer Mike Meloy to argue it was illegal.
Rep. Casey Schreiner, a Democrat from Great Falls and House Minority Leader, explained their opposition during a call with reporters.
“A handful of power hungry Republican leadership members are here out to exploit the pandemic in a brazen partisan power grab with major implications for the integrity of the legislative process for years to come."
Meloy sent a letter to Thomas arguing that the meeting was prohibited by a state law that says a standing committee can only meet during the regular session, not the interim. He wrote that any action taken by the committee during this time will be challenged in court.
Republican leaders asked legislative legal staff in an email whether they had the authority to hold a rules committee meeting.
Jaret Coles, a legislative staff attorney, responded in an email that he isn’t aware of any statute that would prevent the rules committee from meeting, but that there are ambiguities in state law as to what actions the committee can take.