HELENA – The 67th session of the Montana Legislature began Monday with dueling protests outside the Capitol over pandemic directives, as Republican leaders hinted they will ease restrictions put in place by the former Democratic governor to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The Legislature adopted rules that allow members to attend the session remotely if they so choose, but no measures were taken to limit the spread of the virus in the Capitol building, and many Republican lawmakers did not wear masks or observe social distancing. Only a handful of state senators participated in the swearing-in via teleconference.
Republican leaders, who hold majorities in the House and Senate, have indicated they intend to ease restrictions put in place by former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, including a statewide mask mandate and limits on the operating hours of restaurants, bars and casinos. They are bolstered by newly sworn-in Gov. Greg Gianforte, who has indicated he will support doing away with the mandates.
“The Republicans are concerned about the number of people that have been unemployed during the pandemic and the number of jobs that have been lost, and the number of families that are struggling, and the unfair mandates that have been put out that have picked winners and losers,” said Senate Majority Leader Cary Smith, eliciting cheers from unmasked members of the public seated in the Senate gallery.
“I believe that the virus is going to be with us for a long time. We can’t ignore it. We’re going to have to learn to live with it,” he said.
House Speaker Wylie Galt, a Republican, said he would lead with the traditional values of respect and civility and promised Democratic lawmakers, who are in the minority, that their voices would be heard.
“It is my priority to ensure a safe and healthy working environment for all in the Capitol building this session, that includes virtual participation from Legislators and constituents,” Galt said. “This will be the most accessible legislative session in history.”
Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, a Democrat, called on lawmakers to avoid playing “political games with the lives of Montanans.”
House Minority Leader Kim Abbott said her Democratic caucus “is ready to build on our investment in infrastructure, to protect our gains in access to healthcare and to make sure that we’re investing in public education.”
“Republicans have unilateral control of state government for the first time in two decades,” Abbott continued. “It’s an incredible responsibility to govern during very uncertain times and our job is to hold you guys accountable for that responsibility.”
Dozens of people gathered in front of the Capitol on the first day of the session to protest mask wearing, carrying Trump flags and signs that read “Stop the steal” and “Masks spread fear.”
On the opposite side of the building representatives of the Helena chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Montana Nurses Association held signs that read “Stop the spread” and “Real men wear masks.” Protestor Bonnie Lambert said their goal is to encourage legislators to follow existing local public health rules.
“They’re going to be in there, spreading it amongst themselves, and then coming into our community,” she said. “We are welcoming them to Helena, but they have to follow our rules while they’re here.”
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