HELENA — Montana lawmakers may have the ability to vote remotely during the upcoming legislative session, according to new rules proposed by the Joint House and Senate Rules Committee.
Republican members of the committee met Thursday to discuss proposed rule changes, including a new rule that would allow state House and Senate members to vote remotely during the upcoming legislative session due to the coronavirus pandemic. Another rule would authorize the majority leaders of the House and Senate to break ties in votes taken by legislative interim committees, which are often comprised of Democrats and Republicans in equal numbers. Republicans hold a majority in the House and Senate.
The committee’s Democratic members refused to attend the meeting and promised to challenge any rule changes in court, arguing the meeting was illegally held between regular legislative sessions. The Joint Rules Committee typically meets immediately prior to the legislative session in January, after new legislators have been elected in November.
House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, D-Great-Falls, contended that the legislative committee did not have authority to take action before the November elections, and that the meeting was meant to circumvent the legislative process.
Republican committee members decided to meet again next week to vote on sending a ballot to all lawmakers, asking them to vote on the proposed changes.
While one proposed change would allow lawmakers to vote remotely, some lawmakers voiced support for a requirement that legislators submit a doctor’s note if they wish to attend the legislative session remotely. The rule was not voted on Thursday, after a legislative attorney said it could violate privacy laws.
Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, said that lawmakers who cannot attend meetings in person should consider resigning.
“If you’re not here, developing the relationships, looking folks in the eye, and talking to your constituents directly in this building, you’re one-tenth the legislator you can be,” Skees said. “I would suggest that if you feel that the COVID situation is such that you can’t participate in this process the way that it’s designed, then perhaps you should do your constituents a favor and resign your seat so they can replace you with somebody who could.”
Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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