The way Montanans can participate in their state legislature has changed amid the coronavirus pandemic. People have more virtual access, and in-person hearings in the Capitol look different than ever before.
During a recent state budget committee meeting, House Appropriations chair Rep. Llew Jones began taking the next round of public comment.
“That ends our physical proponents. We’re now going to go to Zoom for Zoom opponents.”
The 2021 legislative session amid the COVID-19 pandemic is the first time the public can give testimony in bill hearings via video. That means Montanans can share their thoughts about a policy without driving hours on winter roads to the state Capitol in Helena. But navigating that change isn’t always easy.
In a separate committee last week, Valeri McGarvey, a volunteer with advocacy group Moms Demand Action, planned to testify in opposition to a bill that would broaden Montana’s concealed carry laws.
McGarvey signed up, as required, to participate via video chat by noon the day before the bill hearing in the House Judiciary Committee. She has Type 2 Diabetes and thought a trip to the statehouse was too risky with some lawmakers not wearing masks or social distancing.
"I’m not willing to run around with people who aren’t taking COVID seriously.”
Video calls for public testimony on bills don’t look like normal Zoom meetings. A person isn’t able to mute or un-mute themselves, but they are able to raise their hands to testify.
When it came time for the meeting to start, McGarvey had trouble getting on the video call. She called legislative staff and said they were helpful, but she never did end up speaking to lawmakers directly.
McGarvey submitted written testimony, but doesn’t think it was as impactful.
"You just can’t have the inflection and the passion behind the words, so I don’t if anybody ever saw it. I really don’t."
People can also share their thoughts with lawmakers via phone call or email.
Rules for the Legislature supported by the Republican majority make clear that committee chairs are not required to take virtual testimony in the event of a technical difficulty. Supporters of the rule say committee’s could be overwhelmed and stall out if they’re flooded with online comments, but opponents say allowing chairs to limit virtual testimony could limit public input.
If people do want to participate in a committee meeting remotely, here are the steps:
Open a tab and go to https://leg.mt.gov to get to the Legislature’s homepage. There, you’ll see a speech bubble that says, “Have your say, Montana.” That link will lead you to an online form to fill out for written testimony or to request access to video testimony.
If members of the public want to show up in person, Legislative staff are taking steps to make committee rooms a safer place to meet.
"Still trying to have a way for the public to have access in here, I’m completely challenged, just because of space. The rooms are small, says Brad Murfitt.
Murfitt is the Sergeant-At-Arms for the Montana House of Representatives, which means he provides security and other support services at the Capitol.
Murfitt gave me a tour of the building in advance of the 2021 legislative session and talked about the ways he and legislative staff have worked around the clock to prepare for a session amid a global pandemic.
Due to social-distancing concerns, people testifying will have to wait in the hall if there are too many people inside the committee room. This happens during a normal session, but there’s a lot less space in committee rooms now as lawmakers desks are further spread out.
Republican Sen. Jason Ellsworth introduced the rule that allows for hybrid in-person and virtual participation.
"If you don’t feel comfortable coming to the session, part of my joint rule is to allow for remote testimony if possible. And that’s an avenue that we’ve never had before. So you’ll be able to call in, hopefully, and be able to Zoom in and participate on that level."
For the time being, the public are required to wear masks in the building as the statewide mask mandate is still in place. Gov. Greg Gianforte has indicated he’ll repeal that mandate in the coming weeks, but will still encourage mask wearing.
Republican lawmakers declined to require legislators wear masks, and many in their caucus do not.
Lewis and Clark County public health officials and Democrats implored lawmakers to conduct the session entirely virtually or to postpone it until a vaccine is widely available. Republicans, who hold majorities in both chambers, voted down those proposals.
Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, a Democrat from Helena, voted against Ellsworth’s rule when it was approved by the full Senate, saying it doesn’t go far enough to protect people.
"And for those people that need to engage with us on their issues, are not going to have the ability to be safe and participate as fully as they could. So we’re just going to continue to make that point. It really is, for us, it’s about public participation, it’s about their voice being heard in this building."
It remains to be seen how well the public is able to access the session this year, and whether any of these new methods of engagement will stick around.
Find more details on how you can follow and participate in the 2021 Montana Legislature.