HELENA — Montana’s legislative leaders met Tuesday by video conference to debate the return of in-person committee meetings and how lawmakers might hold a remote legislative session next year — if the coronavirus makes that necessary.
The Legislature is scheduled to convene in January for its biennial session, but uncertainty about the spread of the coronavirus has forced the Legislative Council to consider the possibility of a remote session.
“I’m optimistic and I believe we will be able to do a session as normal, but as always you have to weigh all the options,” said Council Vice Chair Sen. Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell.
A provision in the state constitution that exempts Helena from being the seat of government in emergencies “resulting from disasters or enemy attack” could allow the Legislature to adopt new rules to accommodate a remote session, Code Commissioner Todd Everts told the panel.
A bipartisan committee of six legislators was appointed to a consider rules for a potential remote session.
State lawmakers have already gained some practice in remote meetings. Interim legislative committees that typically meet in person while the Legislature is not in session have held their meetings by video conference since mid-March.
Beginning this week, interim committees are permitted to choose between remote and in-person meetings. Lawmakers who prefer not to attend in-person meetings can continue attending meetings remotely, according to the new regulations.
Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, proposed requiring participants to wear masks during meetings held in the Capitol. The vote failed after a tie, with all six Democrats voting in favor of the motion, and all six Republicans opposed.
Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, said that mask wearing in public settings, which is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control to prevent transmission of the virus, is “a hoax to push government compliance.”
Sen. Margaret Macdonald, D-Billings, said she will stay away from the Capital unless a mandatory mask use rule is imposed.
“I would not want to have anything to do with a meeting in person if it allowed members to come without masks and then subjected our staff to a much higher exposure to the virus,” Macdonald said.
Committee Chair Casey Schreiner, a Democrat from Great Falls running for lieutenant governor, said he supports continuing online meetings.
“I would say we should be heavily encouraging committees to continue in this format, because I don’t understand why we would even put anybody at risk,” Schreiner said. “It doesn’t really make sense to me personally why we are even opening up the can of worms.”
Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said he will continue to attend committee meetings remotely even after in-person gatherings at the Capitol resume,
“I’m not going into the Capitol for a while,” he said. “I’ve been through too many sessions where the Capitol is a little bit of a transfer gateway for all kinds of things. I’m not comfortable yet.”
Legislative Executive Director Susan Fox said the Legislature has saved almost $75,000 since March by moving interim committee meetings online.
Fox said committee rooms will be stocked with extra masks and disinfectant materials. Capitol staff will measure the temperature of participants before meetings start.
Current guidelines urge members of the public not to attend in-person meetings, and instead tune into meeting by phone or watch them online.
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